Amaro & Vermouth: The Bitter and the Sweet

Art of the Cocktail, Beer & Cocktails, Bringing Home Rome, Drink

This post comes to us courtesy of writer and mixologist Warren Bobrow.


My first experience with the romantic taste of Amaro came in Rome, when I was traveling in Italy with my parents. They would pull my sister and me out of school for a month or more at a time to see many of the European countries. My parents liked the best things that life had to offer — and rather than stick us on an impersonal tour bus, they would immerse us in local food, wine and museums.


I first noticed people enjoying Amaro in a street-side café. We were staying at the Hassler Hotel at the top of the Spanish Steps. Tourists find this staircase irresistible for photography and for pausing to enjoy a relaxing cocktail from the multitudes of street-side, stand-up table cocktail bars. There were several tall tables set up beside the steps, and young men in sharply cut suits were sipping tiny glasses of a caramel colored liquor with shots of espresso on the side.


I also remember that there was a tall, red tinged cocktail in almost everyone’s hands. I direct tweeted world famous “Cocktalian” Gaz Regan for his Negroni cocktail recipe and am including it here for good luck.


Negroni (recipe courtesy of Gaz Regan, via Twitter)


“I prefer 2 gin, 1 each campari & sweet vermouth. Gin: Traditional. Beefeater or Tanqueray fit the bill. Vermouth: Noilly Prat always.”


Little did I know at the time that what they were drinking would pave the way to my future desire to whisper about cocktails. I wanted to taste what these stylish people were drinking, because I was very sophisticated for a 12-year-old! At the end of my usual dinner bowl of Tortellini in Brodo, I remember sipping at my tiny glass hesitantly. It smelled faintly of citrus, and the texture of the liquor was soft on my inexperienced palate. The finish (as I remember) went on and on, seemingly for years.


Italian Vermouth in many ways is similar to Amaro, but a bit less bitter on the tongue.  Some uniquely flavorful ones from Italy are Punt e Mes and the esoteric, salubrious Carpano Antica.  The Carpano is a rum raisin-filled mouthful of sweet vanilla cake, laced with Asian spices and caramelized dark stone fruits. Punt e Mes is lighter and nuttier, with caramelized pecans and hand-ground grits in the finish.


I’m sure the alcohol is low — all these products (Amaro included) are low in alcohol, making them perfect in a cocktail. Amaro can be enjoyed as a digestif, it acts to settle the stomach after a large meal because of the herbal ingredients.


But what does Amaro taste like? The flavors vary from sweet to bittersweet to herbal, featuring orange blossoms, caramel and nuts. Some taste like artichoke, others like mint, and still others like a sweetened root tea. They may be enjoyed in a cup of hot tea as an elixir, or dropped into a small cup of espresso to “correct” the sweet, thick coffee.


You can drink Amaro straight or on the rocks, or even as an adjunct to other alcoholic and non-alcoholic ingredients. I love Ramazzotti Amaro, Averna, Branca Menta and its twin (without the mint), Fernet Branca. There are dozens that I’ve tasted around Europe and at home in New Jersey.


But why is Amaro so fundamental to the Italian style of living? Perhaps the explanation will be: with everything sweet, there must also be a bitter side?


I’m not sure, since I’ve read that Amaro is more than just a drink; it’s a way of life. Whatever the explanation is, the use of the bitter herbs, roots and spices are pleasing to drink and stimulate conversation. Because of the low alcohol level, the drink is uniquely designed to extend your meal into further conversation, not end it immediately with a cup of coffee.


A dash of bitter and a dash of the sweet make life go round and round.


About the authorWarren Bobrow is the Food and Drink Editor of the 501c3 non profit Wild Table on Wild River Review located in Princeton, New Jersey. Warren was an Iron Mixology Judge at the Charleston Wine and Food Festival 2012. He attended Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans in 2011. Warren has published over three hundred articles in fewer than three years since his reinvention from executive assistant in private banking to author. Warren writes with a unique free-form style. He is a writer/mixologist on everything from cocktail flavoring and Biodynamic/organic wines to restaurant reviews. He writes for Edible Jersey, Voda Magazine, Foodista, Tasting Panel, Beverage News and Total Food Service Magazine. Warren is the “On Whiskey” columnist for OKRA Magazine in New Orleans part of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. He was born and raised in Morristown, NJ on a Biodynamic farm.

5 comments about “Amaro & Vermouth: The Bitter and the Sweet

  1. Nelly Rodriguez

    Enjoyed reading this, and the great Dr. Seuss said it perfectly ” Step with care and great tact and remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act. Just never forget to be dexterous and deft. And never mix up your right foot with your left.” Balance is everything! Thanks for sharing this Warren!

  2. julie

    A la recherche du temps perdu – I remember my first sip of Fernet Branca back in the day in NYC at Le Relais when we would sit and chat for hours after dinner with the dear departed Albert and the gang. The beautiful descriptions of the flavors and the juxtaposition of bitter and sweet is truly the definition of life!

  3. Jen Henderson

    I love the glimpse into your youth, and your parents were wise beyond measure to value “real-world education” vice the four-walled classroom. I can hardly wait to try Amaro, and look forward to future cocktail inspiration!

  4. Dan Chadwick

    Thanks for the great intro to amari. I’m impressed that the 12-year old you didn’t wrinkle your nose or flounder for water at the first taste of an amaro. I certainly would have.

    As nice as amari are for sipping, I find them indispensable for cocktails. A favorite (in addition to the famous and fabulous Negroni your provided) is the Paper Airplane: equal parts bourbon, Campari, Ramazzotti, and lemon juice. Simply delicious.

    I would also add Cynar to your short list of important (and widely-available) amari. I find the artichoke flavor goes well with many spirits — especially brown ones. I love the stuff.

    Your comment that Fernet Branca is like Menta without the mint made me chuckle. Perhaps I’m more mint-sensitive than some, but the even Fernet Branca overwhelms me with menthol. A good intro to Fernet Branca is the Golden Gate Swizzle from Anvil in Houston:

    Again, thanks for the great post.

  5. jellydonut

    Its twin without the mint? I distinctly remember my mouth tasting like it was freshly brushed with mint tooth paste after nursing a glass of Fernet Branca. It’s the one thing I dislike about that elixir.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *