From humble Italian digestif, to world domination, this bitter liqueur has continued to rise in popularity in recent years. Led by brands such as Campari and Aperol, that’s not least because of its role as a bartender favourite and key ingredients in trending serves from the spritz to the negroni. But as other countries begin to produce styles of their own – especially the US in recent years – we thought it was high time we tried some. So, who does it best?
When the drink hits your throat and wrinkles up your nose, that’s amaro. Big, bitter and botanical, this no-hold barred flavour bomb has become perhaps an unlikely staple, as consumer demand for serves using its most popular – and some would dare say palatable – iterations continue to boom. But while brands such as Campari and Aperol, which sit towards the fruiter end of the amaro spectrum, are mainstream, many others are not.
What technically is an amaro? The category of traditionally Italian bitter liqueurs comes in a wide variety of strengths, flavours and styles. Making use of herbs, spices, fruit and veg, they can range from light, bright and citrussy, to dark, bitter, menthol and almost savoury in taste profile. Developed as a digestive health tonic, their role as a liquid to sip at the end of a meal has markedly evolved, with many of the newest brands to hit the market aiming for new moments and new markets, entirely.
Pitched to a younger, curious demographic who want to sip their way across the globe, new regional takes on the liqueur are using local ingredients and local flavours. But… how approachable are they? Could they be poised for global success? Are there new serves that may catch on among consumers? Do they truly represent their regions? And when it really comes down to it, can anyone pip the Italians? After all, does an amaro from any other country taste as bitter?
In the world championship no-one asked for, The Cabinet team bravely lent their tastebuds to put the new school of amaro from across the world through their paces.
Stambecco Maraschino Cherry Amaro – Italy
First up, let’s try the new wave of Italian amaro. Renewed interest in the category has seen a raft of new brands launch in recent years, breathing new life into it. And Biggar & Leith, creators of Malfy Gin, are behind perhaps one of the most prominent. Stambecco was designed to have a unique and approachable flavour, due to its inclusion of maraschino cherries, which is described as a “world first”.
Founder, Elwyn Gladstone says: “Every home bar should have a bottle of Stambecco. This approachable Amaro has a complexity to the spirit which makes it perfectly suited for cocktails such as a Stamhattan - a twist on the Manhattan and it can also be enjoyed neat on the rocks or as an ice-cold shot.” At an approachable 15% ABV, it’s on the lighter side.
Verdict: Judging books by their covers, is an underrated art for us. Or to be blunt, we love good design. And apart from a few who seem to have trypophobia and didn’t like the bottle’s bubbly design, most agreed that its clean and distinctive branding was a winner in making the category seem approachable for a younger consumer.
Liquid wise, it reminded a lot of us of an amaretto, while its bold but mostly one-note taste profile made it an easy one to drink neat. And while bitter, its fruitiness and sweetness helped make it something most would drink again.
Overall score: 77/ 100
Sipello Bittersweet Aperitif – England
At a slightly heftier 22% ABV, Sipello leans into its English roots with gooseberry as a top note, alongside rhubarb, chuckleberry and “wild harvested” botanicals from around the world, including sandalwood, gentian and wormwood. From its ‘cocktail hour’ bottle, to its deep berry hue, it’s clear this one is geared towards providing an option for the big hitter serves, of a spritz and negroni.
Verdict: Another fruity option, our panel liked the sweet berry and almost blood orange tang. In short, they felt right for the kind of amari we like to sip on the regular already. Was the taste particularly memorable? No. Did it stand out over others we regularly sip? Not really. But was the branding and the overall concept pretty solid? Certainly was.
Overall score: 69/ 100
Sweetdram Whisky Amaro – Scotland
Scotland + amaro = whisky? I mean, if you’re trying to make a uniquely Scottish expression, Scotch probably is the most Scottish thing you could put in there. In fact, there’s three different single malts and grains in this bad boy. It’s a practical choice. According to the brand: “They’re commonly wine-based, but we can’t grow grapes in Scotland – so we figured, why not combine two of our all-time favourite things (whisky and amaro) and try to create a completely new, completely unique drink”. The bitterness comes from lovage, kola nut, lingonberry, fresh lemon peel, rhubarb root and quassia. Add to that, there’s a little bit of natural sweetness from blossom and honey.
Verdict: Ouch. No. Sorry. This one was a little too hefty and challenging for our group. The powerful smoke upfront was a little bit of a cognitive barrier for us, though what could be more Scottish? It’s a fair interpretation of the style with a national twist. However, the packaging design was pretty neutral and didn’t scream amaro to us. So, would Scotch lovers like it? We don’t know. More on the Fernet style of the scale, this might be one for the bartenders.
Overall score: 39/ 100
Marka – Norway
From Oslo’s Handverks distillery, Marka uses 16 botanicals found in a forest local to the distillery, including dandelion roots, meadowsweet, juniper, chamomile, elderberry and angelica, with added honey for a bit of sweetness and finished with a bit of cask maturation. Check out that hygge bottle too. Weighing in at 35% ABV, it’s not to be messed with.
Verdict: Overpowering. Harsh. Lots going on. This tipple was at once overpowering and a little syrupy and sweet. Some felt it tasted a little festive. Some thought it might work in a hot serve. But none could quite place the moment or consumer it would be right for. And while the bottle was cute and everything and played into current trends for all things Scandi, it lacks standout.
Overall score: 51 / 100
Mr Black Coffee Amaro – Australia
Australia does coffee very well. And so does Mr Black. The brand has made a name for itself as the upmarket, barista-orientated coffee liqueur of choice. And with this product it aims to combine Australia’s coffee culture with Italy’s after-dinner drink tradition. Using botanical distillates including local grapefruit, orange peel and gentian, the brand says the bittersweet flavour of Arabica coffee is a perfect base for a modern amaro. And at 28.5%, it’s no shrinking violet.
Verdict: Coffee is no shrinking violet either. It’s not a flavour note that sits in the background. And as such, this was a little more coffee liqueur than amaro to our group, who didn’t quite know what to make of it.
Overall score: 57/ 100
So, what did we learn?
So, Italy won.
First up, we want to acknowledge that this is a confusing category. Consumers that are not overly into the nitty gritty of what makes their drinks may never link the varied products in our list together. And that’s an obstacle. From liquids to packaging cues, there’s no cohesion that helps consumers easily identity and navigate it.
And overall, we also learned that yes, you can make an amaro that represents the ingredients, produce or flavour trends particular to another nation. But what you get when you do that, becomes something a little different to what consumers know and expect from an amaro. Changing its flavour profile, also changes when and how consumers can use it.
Is the amaro trend an interesting exploration of local flavours and tastes? Sure. But is this sub-category of divergent spin-offs likely to achieve mainstream success? Of that, we’re not so sure. While brands such as Campari, Aperol and Fernet have achieved global renown, some of these drams may be destined to be kings in the local markets they represent.
Interested in finding out more about what this might mean for you and your business?
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