Italy’s bitter herbal liqueur, amaro, has been making steady gains in recent years, and although the spirit has been consumed as an aperitif, a digestif or a tonic for centuries, many millennials are now discovering it for the first time. While bitter liqueurs are produced across Europe, with a few craft versions emerging stateside, Italy put these spirits on the map. Amaro is made by macerating herbs and aromatic botanicals in a spirit or wine, and offerings range from floral to minty to medicinal. Unlike non-potable bitters such as Angostura and Peychaud’s, amaro tastes mildly sweet and can be consumed on its own.
As with wine, Italy’s diverse landscape contributes to the regional differences in bitter liqueurs, with alpine aromas in the north, whiffs of orange peel in the south and everything in between. Consumers are increasingly well-versed in the amaro brands Nonino, Montenegro and Fernet-Branca. Although these spirits are traditionally enjoyed neat, importers and retailers attribute the renewed enthusiasm to mixologists, who blend them into drier, more complex cocktails.
Last year, Gruppo Campari acquired Italian distiller Fratelli Averna, adding Averna and Braulio to a lineup that already included Campari, Aperol and Cynar. The company, which took control of Averna and Braulio in the United States on January 1st, will incorporate all five bitter liqueurs into a broader Italian lifestyle promotion featuring mixed drinks that are suitable for brunch, as well as before and after meals.
“People in the United States are looking for authentic Italian experiences,” says Bill Terlato, president and CEO of Nonino importer Terlato Wine Group (TWG). “Restaurants now specialize in authentic regional Italian cuisine, for instance. When you see how many millions of cases of amaro are consumed in Italy annually, you see the unbelievable potential in this category.” The company promotes Nonino mainly on-premise, and the Nonino family visits accounts across the United States twice a year.
Bitter liqueurs from both Campari and TWG have advanced in recent years. “Nonino has had double-digit growth annually for the past eight or nine years, and it’s grown by 20 percent annually for the last four years,” Terlato says, adding that depletions increased 29 percent in the 12 months ended October 31st, 2014. In terms of volume, Terlato cautions against comparing bitter liqueurs to other spirits because mixologists often use them in small amounts. In 2014, TWG sold 11,000 cases of Nonino to 6,400 accounts, 64 percent of which were on-premise. “We previously had 3,200 accounts and sold 2,000 cases,” Terlato explains. “It doesn’t seem like a lot compared to vodka or Scotch, but it’s interesting to look at the trajectory. Each account is pouring more, and mixologists are behind this growth.”
Campari has increased every year since 2011, with a 13-percent jump in 2013, according to Dave Karraker, director of public relations and events for Campari America. Aperol and Cynar also saw double-digit growth in 2013, he adds. The brands also did well in control states in the 52-week period ended September 30th, 2014, with a 70-percent boost for Cynar, a 39-percent advance for Aperol, a 29-percent increase for Averna and a 15-percent bump for Campari. Karraker credits Starbucks, Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe’s for acclimating consumers to the bitter compounds in coffee and cruciferous vegetables like kale and cabbage. “Now we have this bitters vortex coinciding with the rise of mixology, and bartenders are experts at layering bitter flavors with sweet ones,” Karraker says.
At Pizzeria Locale in Boulder, Colorado, general manager Dan Bjugstad says driving consumer awareness is the key to selling amaro. He leads weekly staff training during which employees taste, discuss and diagram bitter liqueurs. “Our bar program is totally based on amaro, and we don’t have a full bar,” he says. When Pizzeria Locale opened four years ago, amaro accounted for less than 1 percent of the restaurant’s total food and beverage sales, and now it comprises 3.5 percent. Bjugstad offers customers a list of 20 bitter liqueurs, as well as three amaro flights that range from less to more bitter. These days, customers from neighboring restaurants file in late for an amaro nightcap. Montenegro ($5 a 1½-ounce pour) is the top-selling brand, while Braulio ($7) is gaining traction.
Wes Kirk, sales manager and craft spirits buyer at Amanti Vino in Montclair, New Jersey, says amaro serves as a conversation starter when customers walk into the store. “For us, bitter liqueurs are all about education,” Kirk says. “Amaro is like an entryway into a dialogue. Some of our customers are already very educated about bitter liqueurs, so when they see them on our shelves, our credibility goes way up.” Kirk promotes the spirits by sharing their stories, offering tastes and printing out cocktail recipes. Last year, he sold 30 tickets ($40 a person) to a tasting class dubbed the Bittersweet Truth that featured 10 samples. Braulio ($35 a 750-ml. bottle) is the most popular amaro brand at Amanti Vino.
General manager Diana Beltramo at Beltramo’s in Menlo Park, Calfornia, says amaro has always performed well at her family’s store, but that sales have recently surged. “I can confirm that bitter liqueurs are a growing category,” Beltramo notes. “Aperol, Campari, Fernet-Branca, Cynar and Nonino have all shown double-digit growth over the last year.” She stocks more than 25 Italian bitter liqueurs, and cocktails drive sales of her two top-selling brands, Aperol ($24 a 750-ml. bottle) and Campari ($25), as customers seek to recreate drinks like the Aperol Spritz and the Negroni at home. “The Negroni is huge here in Northern California,” Beltramo says. Her third most popular bitter liqueur is Fernet-Branca ($25), which customers prefer neat. She describes it as a family favorite and an acquired taste. “My grandfather used to drink Fernet-Branca at our bar,” Beltramo says. “He’d give a taste to customers, and they hated it. The trend began here in the Bay Area among local Italians and bartenders.”
Of all the amaro brands, Fernet-Branca seems to inspire the most celebrated service industry legends. Bartenders have long viewed the spirit as a cure-all after a tough night behind the bar. Mixologists call Fernet-Branca the “bartender’s handshake” because they pour visiting bartenders a shot as a sign of camaraderie.
Joshua James, bar director and co-owner of the Clever Koi in Phoenix, says Fernet-Branca caught on with mixologists in San Francisco a few years back. “Bartenders who relocated from San Francisco to Phoenix then became spokespeople for Fernet-Branca here,” James says. “You now hear a lot of calls for Fernet-Branca all over town. I carry Contratto instead, and people are surprised to learn there are other brands.”
James says dry, bitter cocktails complement the Clever Koi’s pan-Asian comfort food, particularly the spicy items. The venue’s top-selling drink, the Temperance Trap ($10), comprises the rhubarb-based Rabarbaro Zucca amaro, Boodles gin, grapefruit juice, vanilla-scented sugar and Bittermens Hopped Grapefruit bitters. The drink accounts for 20 percent of the Clever Koi’s craft cocktail sales, and James recommends that customers order it alongside the pig-face dumplings with kimchi, pickled peppers and house-made Sriracha. He encourages trial by pricing all the amaro offerings at $6 a 2-ounce pour. “When customers aren’t ordering based on price, they try more styles,” says James, who also creates flights based on customers’ interests. The top-selling amaro brands at the Clever Koi are Rabarbaro Zucca and Ramazzotti. James added Sibona amaro to the bar’s lineup last year and generated interest in the brand by pouring it during a cocktail demonstration at A.J.’s Fine Foods and posting it on Instagram. “After our customers saw Sibona on Instagram, they came in just to try it,” James says.
Jeff Faile, who serves as bar and spirits director at the Alexandria, Virginia–based Neighborhood Restaurant Group, mentions bitter liqueurs in email blasts for The Partisan in Washington, D.C. The venue’s customers are adventurous eaters who come for the distinctive charcuterie made from pork, wild boar and other meats. They’re foodies seeking new flavors, so they’re primed to try bitter spirits, Faile says. Nonino ($9 a 2-ounce pour) stands out as the most popular amaro, and it’s served chilled from a Cornelius keg. The No.-2 bitter offering is Fernet-Branca ($8). At staff tastings, Faile categorizes each amaro according to the region from which its botanicals are sourced, and his well-traveled guests understand those distinctions. Although Faile stocks more than 40 bitter liqueurs, his printed menu only features 10. “The shorter list is less overwhelming, so they sell better that way,” Faile says.
At Raven & Rose in Portland, Oregon, general manager and wine director Douglas Derrick lists only six of the 20 bitter liqueurs he keeps behind the bar for the same reason. Nonino ($10 a 1½-ounce pour) is the top-selling amaro sold neat, and servers recommend it as a pairing for the apple galette with apple ice cream. “Staff training helped take our bitters sales to the next level,” Derrick says, noting that Raven & Rose employees recently attended two training sessions on bitters. In terms of volume, Campari is the restaurant’s most popular bitter liqueur because it’s a key ingredient in several cocktails. The top-selling Souracher ($10) comprises Campari, Wild Turkey rye whiskey, Cinzano Rosso vermouth, ginger beer and lime juice.
In 2011, Derrick founded Portland’s Negroni Social, which evolved into Negroni Week two years later. The nationwide on-premise event has brought awareness to bitter spirits and raised money for charity. Campari is a sponsor, but many of the Negroni riffs feature other bitter brands. “People who’ve never tried bitter liqueurs are becoming attuned to cocktails like the Negroni,” Derrick says. “A well-mixed Campari cocktail is a gateway bitter drink that encourages people to try amaro neat.”
Campari is also the top-selling bitter spirit at Bar Urbo in New York City. Bar director Jan Warren attributes strong Campari sales to the popular Negroni ($16), made with Campari, Spring 44 gin and Cocchi Vermouth di Torino. The No.-2 bitter liqueur is Aperol, star of the Aperol Spritz ($16), which blends the spirit with Erath Pinot Gris and Trevisiol Valdobbiadene Prosecco. Warren is currently creating a list of bitter spirits, and he introduces receptive customers to amaro by serving Ramazzotti ($9 a 2-ounce pour) on the rocks with an orange twist.
“Amaro never caught on like vodka, and grandmas in Oklahoma City aren’t sipping Campari now,” Pizzeria Locale’s Bjugstad says. “However, that’s a good thing because there’s always a new on-premise trend followed by some backlash against it. Amaro has always been around, so in a way, we’re rediscovering our own history. People at the forefront of the cocktail revolution and innovative importers have driven the trend, but the category is going to remain small.”
Beverage alcohol professionals predict steady, modest growth for Italian bitter liqueurs in the coming years. More products are finding their way to U.S. shores, and retailers and restaurateurs report increased availability. Awareness of the category will slowly rise as a result of the mixologist-led trend toward more complex and less cloying drinks combined with millennials’ thirst for authenticity.