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Bitter, Complex, and a Little Sweet: Exploring Amaros

That's amaro!

Bittersweet amari are jumping from after-dinner drink to crucial cocktail component here in the Carolinas
Bittersweet amari are jumping from after-dinner drink to crucial cocktail component here in the Carolinas (Robert F. Moss)

By Matthew Lardie

Bitter but a little sweet at the same time. Complex, with a lot going on underneath the surface, but also approachable and sometimes even fun! As at home in a quiet, contemplative moment as in a funky, party situation. If the universe were to distill me into a spirit, I’d definitely be an amaro.

Amari have long been a staple in European drinking culture, and over the past few years they have begun to eke out a toehold in the United States, including right here in the Carolinas. The word literally means “bitter” in Italian, and Italian brands like Amaro Montenegro, Amaro Lucano, and Amaro San Simone have led the charge to popularize the liqueur here in America. But Campari, Cynar, and even (depending on who you ask) Jagermeister can all be considered types of amari, too.

Each amaro is unique, a macerated blend of various roots, herbs, flowers, barks, and such in a neutral liquor. Nocino is an Italian amaro made from walnuts, while Pelinkovac is based on wormwood and is thought to be the first Croatian drink enjoyed in the court of Napoleon III. Virtually all amari were traditionally thought to have medicinal properties, and they were usually enjoyed neat or on the rocks as a post-meal digestif.

A Monte and Tonic is a perfect warm weather sipper
A Monte and Tonic is a perfect warm weather sipper

Today though, much to my delight, amari have jumped from after-dinner drink to crucial cocktail component. Take, for example, the Monte and Tonic, which for the past few months has been my preferred warm weather sipper. That’s 2 ounces of Amaro Montenegro on ice, topped with good tonic water and garnished with an orange slice. Simple, refreshing, and just the right amount of bitter: it really brings me back to my senses.

The Blind Barbour in Raleigh incorporates Montenegro in a cocktail they call the “Sin Nombre”, serving it with gin, fig, and lime juice. It’s sort of an England-meets-Mexico-meets-Mediterranean concoction, which just happen to be three of my favorite places on earth.

Asheville's Eda Rhyne distills North Carolina mountain herbs to create its Appalachian Fernet
Asheville's Eda Rhyne distills North Carolina mountain herbs to create its Appalachian Fernet (Robert F. Moss)

Over in Durham you can spot a number of popular Italian amari on the shelves of Alley Twenty Six, but trust me when I tell you to ask the bartenders about Eda Rhyne Distilling Company. Located in Asheville, Eda Rhyne is distilling absolutely delicious amari right here in the Carolinas using herbs from the Appalachian mountains, putting a unique local twist on a global spirit. They make what they call an Appalachian Fernet, a more floral Amaro Flora, and a Rustic Nocino using Western North Carolina black walnuts. Try them neat first, and then ask the bartender to create a custom cocktail with your favorite.

Just up the road is Pizzeria Toro, where former employee Chris Riddle and his wife Sarah partnered with chef/owner Gray Brooks and current Osteria Georgi bar manager Brett Lyszak to create Amaro Toro, made in the Italian style with inspiration from the pizzeria itself. Amaro Toro is distilled with some of the very ingredients that go into the restaurant’s pizzas, like black pepper, oregano, and the Calabrian chilies that Toro has become known for. Who can say no to pizza AND amaro?

At the Charlotte outpost of The Crunkleton (the original Chapel Hill location remains closed due to the pandemic), settle in for a Paper Plane, which uses both Aperol and Amaro Nonino in addition to high proof bourbon in a modern, boozy and bitter take on the classic cocktail known as The Last Word. The Crunkleton also has an extensive list of antique spirits, so if you find yourself truly taken with the world of amari, why not opt for an Amaro Ramazotti from the 1960s, or perhaps a Fernat Milano from 1973?

Down in Charleston, High Wire Distilling makes what they call a “Southern Amaro” using ingredients like yaupon holly, Dancy tangerine, mint, and locally-grown Charleston black tea. You can visit the tasting room to give it a try or head out into the city and sample it in one of the many cocktails into which local bartenders have incorporated it. At Lenoir, Chef Vivian Howard’s new restaurant inside the Renaissance Charleston District Historic Hotel, it’s blended with bourbon and Aperol to create “The Short Rows,” a smooth concoction with lots of dark, spicy notes.

The Short Rows at Lenoir in Charleston gets a local bitter touch from High Wire Southern Amaro
The Short Rows at Lenoir in Charleston gets a local bitter touch from High Wire Southern Amaro (Robert Donovan)

In my mind there can be no sweet in life with a touch of bitterness. You need that balance—in life, in food, and in cocktails. I have long turned to amari to settle my stomach after a rich meal or to sip on during a cold winter’s night, but the more I see them being used as ingredients in delicious cocktails at bars throughout the Carolinas, the more I’m convinced that the amaro is here to stay.

I raise you a glass and offer up a hearty cin cin and invite you to join me on the bitter side of things.

About the Author

Matthew Lardie

Matt Lardie is a food, beverage, and lifestyle writer. Born and raised in New England, he has been exploring and eating his way through the Carolinas since 2008. He has been published in Our State Magazine, Wine Enthusiast, Apartment Therapy, Eater Carolinas, The Kitchn, Durham Magazine, and more. His first book, Unique Eats and Eateries: North Carolina, is due to be published in the fall of 2022. He lives in Durham, NC.