It’s important to distinguish between bitters and amari here. In simple terms, bitters are alcohol infused with various herbs, spices, and other botanicals, and which are typically high in alcohol content and unsweetened. (Angostura is the bitter that even the most non-wonky of cocktail drinkers is familiar with.) Bitters pack a flavor punch in just a few drops, but are so strong and pungent that they’re undrinkable in any quantity. Imagine trying to sip an ounce or two of Angostura bitters neat–I pucker up just thinking about it. Amari, on the other hand, start out as bitters, but then sugar syrup (or some other sweetener) is added to balance out the bitter flavor as well as temper the alcohol content.
Terms commonly seen in the same context as amaro are aperitif and digestif. Apertifs are traditionally lighter, with lower alcoholic content, and served before dinner to stimulate the appetite; digestifs are typically more robust and higher in alcohol, served after dinner to calm the stomach. A number of herbs commonly found in amari like gentian are considered to have medicinal effects on the digestive system. Although typically associated with Italy, other “old world” countries such as France and Switzerland also create well regarded herbal liqueurs like Gran Classico, a personal favorite.
Worldwide, the most well-known amaro is Campari. With its distinctive red hue and bracing flavor, Campari is an outlier compared to more typical Italian amari like Amaro Lucano, Averna, and Meletti, which are less jarring upon initial tasting and have a more natural brownish hue when compared to Campari’s electric red.
Although amari were originally consumed neat or over ice, bartenders have long utilized them as an ingredient in cocktails to add depth and complexity; the best-known example being the Negroni (equal parts gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth), with a history stretching back nearly a hundred years. More recently, bartenders have gone crazy pairing up various amari with brown spirits such as bourbon and rum, giving rise to the “brown, bitter, and stirred” category of cocktails.
Let’s take a closer look at Amaro Lucano. a traditional Italian amaro. (Full disclosure: I was recently provided a bottle for review. The bottle retails for approximately $25 US.) The Lucano name refers to Lucania, an ancient district of Southern Italy. The spirit’s story starts in 1894 in the town of Pisticci. A local baker named Pasquale experimented with different herbal infusions in his shop’s back room, eventually settling on recipe including more than thirty ingredients for his house-made amaro. By 1900, the Vena family had become an official supplier to the House of Savoy, the ruling house of Italy. When Pasquale passed away in 1937, his sons took over the business and began scaling up production capacity for broader distribution.
Although the exact recipe for Amaro Lucano is a secret (no surprise there, as every amari’s recipe is a closely guarded, apparently) the company does offer that it includes “wormwood, absinthe gentile, clary sage, achillea moscata, cardo santo, sweet orange, angelica, gentian, elder, rue, and aloe.” The official literature describes a seven step creation process that I’ve paraphrased for brevity:
- Herb selection, natural drying, and “fragmentation,” which I assume means grinding.
- Infusing the herbs in a solution of ethanol and water at approximately 140 degrees Fahrenheit overnight.
- Squeezing the infusions to separate the liquid from the remaining solids.
- Mixing the infusions with essential oils, ethanol, and water to create an “extract.” The extract then settles in tanks for three to four months. Stratification occurs such that the heavier elements settle at the bottom, lighter parts on the top. Only the “heart” of the extract is retained.
- Combine the extract with more water and ethanol, along with sugar and caramel to create the liqueur.
- Filtration and ISO 9001 compliance checks.
The Amaro Lucano bottle holds a lot of information if you study it. On the label, in addition to the Italian woman with a basket of herbs (presumably) you’ll also find the coat of arms for the House of Savoy, as well as shout-outs to Pasquale Vena, the town of Pisticci, and the 1894 founding date. The bottle’s clear glass has raised lettering referencing 1894, Lucano, and Pasquale Vena.
Pour a bit from the bottle and notice the color–a dark reddish brown. The nose is what I’d expect from a classic Italian amaro–no one aroma jumps out, but there’s a lot going on. The taste is full and round, a pleasing balance between bitter and sweet. The large amount of sugar needed to balance the bitterness gives a viscous mouth feel common to all amari. It’s difficult to extract single flavor compounds giving what’s going on, but caramel and cola come to mind. At 28 percent alcohol by volume, there’s no burn to speak of. It’s smooth and interesting enough that I keep refilling my tasting glass.
Pulling other amari from my spirits library, I tasted it side-by-side with Ramazzotti, Gran Classico, Amaro Meletti, and Averna. Ramazzotti is a bit more harsh and medicinal. Gran Classico is a little bit lighter with an interesting berry flavor. The Amaro Meletti tastes sweeter with a touch more burn – not surprising as it’s another four percent higher in alcohol content. The Averna is closest to the Amaro Lucano, but with even more cola essence. All things considered, I found the Amaro Lucano to be solidly within the core flavor profile you’d expect from an Italian amaro, and that’s A-Okay in my book.
The Amaro Lucano begged to be used in a brown, bitter, and stirred cocktail, and I obliged. Being a rum nut, I instinctively headed toward my Strategic Rum Reserve for a base spirit. Brown spirits and amaro, when combined, cry out for sweet vermouth to complete the trinity. When selecting a rum, I focused on the drier, woodier rums in my collection, as the Amaro Lucano and vermouth already pack a sugar punch. I eventually selected Flor de Caña seven-year. In its absence, almost anything from Barbados would do, as would a Jamaican rum like Appleton V/X. I’ve named it the Pisticchi, in honor of the city where Amaro Lucano was created.
- 1 oz Amaro Lucano
- 1 oz aged, dry rum (Flor de Caña seven-year, or equivalent)
- 0.5 oz Carpano Antica Formula (or other sweet Italian vermouth)
Stir over ice, strain into chilled coupe. Express a lemon peel over glass, then drop in.
If you’re intrigued by amari, be sure to check out Inu A Kena, which has several greats post about them, starting with this one. But beware—the amari explorer’s road is long and winding. Be prepared for an intriguing ride.