I've been seeing something on bar menus recently that I rarely saw a few years ago. Amaro is showing up more frequently on it own instead of as a cocktail ingredient. Amaro is a category of liqueur, not a specific brand. The word means bitter in Italian, and bitter is the defining characteristic of this spirit.

This spirit's origins are in Italy, where the bittersweet liqueur has looser rules and regulations surrounding its production than the country's wine production has so the end product varies greatly. Many start with a neutral grain spirit or brandy as a base and add a bittering agent such as gentian root along with various herbs, fruits, spices and something to add a little sweetness for balance. No two amari (the Italian plural for the amaro) taste alike — some are mildly bitter with some fruitiness, some are spicy and super bitter. Their ABV can range from 11% to 30%, so it takes some tasting to find out what you like and what you don't.

Aperol Spritz If you've had an Aperol Spritz, you've had amaro even if you didn't know that's what it was. (Photo: Dulin/Shutterstock)
Campari and Aperol are amari. They are traditionally consumed as an aperitif or digestif, although until the recent amaro resurgence most people in the U.S. were aware of them as cocktail ingredients. Campari is the amaro used in the classic Negroni, a drink made with equal parts Campari, gin and sweet vermouth. Aperol is the star of the refreshing Aperol Spritz, a combination of the amaro, Prosecco and a splash of soda water.

For many, amaro is an acquired taste because it's so bitter. It was for me. I've had a bottle of Campari in my liquor cabinet for a long time. Being a gin lover, I thought I would enjoy Negronis, but I don't. It wasn't until I found another cocktail recipe for the amaro, the Jasmine Cocktail, that I started to appreciate how the liqueur's bitterness could add complexity to drink. Last year when I spent some time in Tuscany, I found myself drinking an Aperol Spritz each afternoon — because that's what you do in Tuscany in the warm weather — and decided to give amaro more of a chance.

I'm finding that the best way to learn about amaro is to try new bottles whenever I have the opportunity. I still have much to learn, but I now have several bottles in my liquor cabinet, including some from American distillers who are putting their own spin on this Italian liqueur. As in Italy, there are no strict regulations in the U.S. about what can be called amaro, so one distillery's version can differ greatly from another distillery's version.

Lo-Fi Aperitifis Gentian Amaro

lo-fi gentian amaro Lo-Fi Gentian Amaro has bright flavors and is a perfect choice for a spritz. (Photo: Lo-Fi)

The base of Lo-Fi Aperitifs Gentian Amaro is wine from California. Although it has the requisite bitterness of an amaro, this is one of the sweeter amari I've had. It has a vibrant deep pink hue to it with cherry and hibiscus flavors along with a bite from the ginger. The bitterness from the gentian root and cinchona bark balances it all out.

I find that my friends who scrunch up their noses at an Aperol Spritz because of its bitterness are happy with this fruitier amaro as a replacement. It also pairs well with ginger beer or with rosé wine over ice.

Philadelphia Distilling Vigo Amaro

philadelphia distilling vigo amaro Philadelphia Distilling's Vigo Amaro can work in a Negroni, but it's also wonderful to sip all on its own. (Photo: Robin Shreeves)

My grandmother used to make a spiced applesauce cake that I loved, and the aromas in Philadelphia Distilling's Vigo Amaro sent me right back to her kitchen. This is an amaro that I love as is, raising a small cordial glass full of the chestnut brown liqueur up to my nose and breathing in the cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla and molasses aromas before sipping it slowly as a digestif after dinner or later in the evening.

Gentian root, dried plums, nutmeg, rose, elderflower, cinnamon, cinchona bark, kola nut and muscavado sugar are a few of the botanicals that go into creating the amaro. The kola stands out for me, giving it a little something I haven't experienced in amaro before. It's a fine cocktail ingredient, too. Philadelphia Distilling serves it in their tasting room in place of vermouth in a Negroni (and they keep the Campari component). They also mix it with sparkling cider instead of Prosecco, and I love that twist on a spritz.

If you're able to get your hands on either of these bottles, I highly suggest you give them a try. If you can't find these amari near you, I encourage you to discover the amari that your distilleries in your region are producing.

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

What is amaro?
Amaro, the key ingredient in the classic Negroni, is an Italian spirit that's seeing a resurgence on bar menus through the U.S.