When Amor y Amargo opened in 2011 in New York's East Village, there was only one amaro produced in the U.S. on its shelves. Now there are more than 20, though Sother Teague, the bar's founder and New York City's resident amaro expert, says the American amaro scene is "still incubating," so more bottles are bound to come out of the woodwork.
The rise in domestically produced amaro is, at least in part, correlated to an increased interest among consumers in amaro (plural: amari), the category of bittersweet liqueur originally produced in Italy. And though the Italian giants like Campari and Aperol still dominate backbars across the country, a number of craft distilleries that were already making vodka, whiskey, and other spirits right here in the U.S. are adding an amaro to their portfolio. There are even some distillers that started out expressly producing amaro, even if they have since added other liqueurs to their range.
“Whatever was being produced was just being consumed by the maker or the neighborhood, which is how it starts all over the world,” says Teague, explaining why he’s got so many more domestic amari on his shelves now than he did in 2011. Now that they’re becoming more available, America is going through a bit of an amaro craze, and Teague is one of its most vocal champions. At Amor y Amargo, he pours the products that he likes best, and distillers send him their bottles with the hopes of getting them on his shelves.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about amaro is that each one is so unique that almost everybody can find a type that suits them. While American distillers are using some less traditional ingredients like coffee or hibiscus, Teague believes there’s no fundamental difference between Italian amari and American ones, since they’re so hard to define in the first place. “Overwhelmingly, even American amari try to stick to the traditional thinking and methodology,” he says, alluding to the rich history of sourcing local botanicals for amari, and creating a taste of place. “Each one of these is trying to do things with stuff from where they’re at.”
While the American amaro market continues to grow, there are already a few available that are the best of the best. Here are the 10 American amari Teague recommends seeking out right now.
This red bitter made by Washington D.C.-based Capitoline Vermouth tastes of grapefruit, ginger, and cinnamon. "It's one of the few that is still naturally colored," Teague says, referring to carmine, the traditional red coloring extracted from the cochineal beetle that many modern bitter liqueurs like Campari have foregone in recent years. He recommends Capitoline Tiber as a substitute for Campari, adding that it would be great in a Negroni or Americano, or on its own with seltzer.
Ibisco Bitter Liqueur gets its name from the Italian word for hibiscus, which is one of the botanicals that gives it a unique flavor. It "tastes to me of tea," Teague says, adding that it's soft, floral, and tannic. The amaro starts off sweet but then begins to dry your tongue out. Lockhouse Distillery is based in Buffalo, New York and also makes vodka, gin, barrel-aged gin, and a few other spirits.
Teague sees these as a great alternative to saccharine coffee liqueurs like Kahlúa and Tia Maria. Both amari are made using local coffee. Amaro Pazzo—which translates to "crazy bitter" in Italian—is produced by Long Road Distillers in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The base spirit is distilled on-site, where they also make vodka, gin, whiskey, and a few other spirits and cordials. It's infused with wormwood, gentian, chicory, orange peel, and several other botanicals, and then blended with coffee by Madcap Coffee Company.
Bartender and distiller Ryan Maybee revived Kansas City whiskey—a type of whiskey that died out during Prohibition—and named his distillery J. Rieger & Co. after the family that used to make it in the early 1900s. He recently teamed up with Kansas City coffee brewers Thou Mayest to create Caffè Amaro, which Maybee ages in his old whiskey barrels.
St. Agrestis has strong notes of menthol backed up with sarsaparilla, "so it tastes like minted root beer," according to Teague. It's made in Brooklyn by sommeliers Nicholas Finger and Fairlie McCollough, who fell in love with amaro on a wine-tasting trip to Italy and decided to make their own.
The Leopold Bros. distillery in Denver is run by Todd and Scott Leopold, who make vodka, gin, whiskey, absinthe, and a variety of other spirits and liqueurs. Their take on Fernet is intensely piney with hints of rose petals, elderflower, chamomile, and honeysuckle. Teague likens the flavor to "pulling the bark off and licking the inside of a tree." At 80 proof, it's the strongest amaro on this list.
Ferro-China—a variety of amaro fortified with iron salts—was originally developed in the 1800s by Dr. Ernesto Baliva as a medicine to combat the rising number of cases of anemia among Italians (ferro comes from the Latin ferrum, for "iron"). The "China" in the name comes not from the country, but from the addition of quinine-rich cinchona bark. Don Ciccio & Figli, a Washington D.C.-based distiller with roots in Italy's Amalfi Coast, makes a range of amari and cordials inspired by family recipes that date back to the 1880s. Amaro delle Sirene is their signature amaro, but Amaro Tonico Ferro-Kina, a rare iron-citrate-based amaro similar to an Italian Ferro-China, is their more unique offering. The liqueur's most predominant flavor note is iron, but it also has hints of lemon, cinchona, and gentian.
Philadelphia Distilling—the company behind Bluecoat Gin—makes Vigo Amaro, which has a flavor reminiscent of cinnamon buns or ginger snaps. It's rich, syrupy, and has strong notes of warming spices. Teague says the liqueur has a wintry appeal that could be nice in a Negroni variation with rum, blackstrap bitters, and Spanish vermouth.
Tattersall's Amaro has notes of cloves and caramel with subtle hints of licorice, star anise, fennel, honey, and citrus zest. The richly colored liqueur is sweet but not cloyingly so, with a soft finish. Tattersall Distilling was one of the first craft distilleries to open in Minnesota after 2011 legislation known as the "Surly Bill" changed some of the state's outdated liquor laws, making it much easier for small distilleries to operate. They now produce 22 spirits and liqueurs, including a Fernet and a vermouth.
Made in Breckenridge Colorado, this award-winning amaro has the alpine flavors you'd expect to find in the mountainous region, including hand-harvested local herbs, bitter roots, and dried fruit. "I liken this one to some other ones from Italy, like Alto Verde and Amaro dell'Erborista. I feel like this one is in the middle," Teague says, adding that it's one of his favorites.