Italian Liqueurs: Tradition of Digestivo and Amari

What would Italy be without its liqueurs, digestivi and amari?

I’m sure all of you have heard about ‘limoncello’ that sweet lemon flavored alcoholic nectar that embodies the Amalfi Coast. I know it’s delicious when done properly, but honestly I’m not a fan of limoncello.

Lemons from the Amalfi Coast
Lemons from the Amalfi Coast

The best limoncello in my opinion comes from the Amalfi coast. A liqueur in Italy served after dinner or a heavy lunch is referred to as an ‘amaro’ or ‘digestivo’. Amaro means bitter while you can imagine the word digestivo has something to do with digestion. It is alleged that drinking these beverages helps or aids digestion. The properties come from the various plants or fruits used.
I can’t say whether this is true or not but hey when in Rome…

Not all digestivi are alcoholic apparently, but my experience is that all that have been offered to me contain some form of alcohol. You’re already familiar with limoncello so let me introduce you to some others which will bring a smile to Italian faces when you order them.

Culture

Amari or digestivi are usually served after lunch or dinner. Normally after dinner but if you’re having a relaxing slow lunch you can still indulge.
In some restaurants actually the majority I’ve been to, the restaurant usually offers them free of charge if they are the homemade varieties. You will only know they are free of charge if the waiter announces ‘sono offerte dalla casathey’re on the house‘ or when your bill comes you’ll see them crossed off and not charged. My advice just assume you have to pay for them.

In the very traditional restaurants they will usually have made their own digestivi so you may not have many choices. In larger restaurants they will also have commercial brands available. Some of the homemade digestivi are an entire vibe so try as many as possible. The results of these concoctions can be hilarious.

Digestivi are served in shot glasses or shorter slim glasses. Many of these elixirs bring with them centuries of history and actually quite a few were born thanks to monks and pharmacists.

Types

As you can imagine every region every little town in Italy has their own digestivi so there are a multitude of varieties.  I’m just highlighting the ones that have stood out to me over the years. I’ll try to state if they are commercially available or homemade.

Vecchio Amaro del Capo

My absolute favorite! Any one who knows me knows how much I love this amaro. I’m still trying to get a tour of the factory located in Vibo Valentia in the southern region of Calabria. This is a commercial brand and is simply ordered by saying ‘Amaro del Capo’.

Amaro del Capo
Amaro del Capo

Unfortunately it’s not found as easily as other commercial brands in most restaurants in Rome and in the North of Italy so if a restaurant does have it take note. I instantly fell in love with its balanced flavor. A harmony between sweet and bitter with hints of herbs which roll off your palate. Its rich, brown smooth consistency makes it the perfect way to end any dinner.

The presence of the alcohol is not easily detectable on the tongue but beware it is quite strong in its alcoholic content as compared with other amari. It contains 29 different herbs including juniper, orange, mandarin and chamomile. Many people like it with an ice cube but the best way to drink it, is straight from the freezer. The brand itself recommends -20°C.

Amaro Lucano

Amaro Lucano
Amaro Lucano

More than 30 different herbs are used in this elixir. This commercial brand is a lot sweeter than Amaro del Capo and has a lighter flavor and texture. Born at the end of 1800’s in Matera, Basilicata, this is found in most restaurants and bars across Italy. Can be served at room temperature or lightly chilled.

Fernet -Branca

Hailing from Milan this liqueur utilizes the medicinal properties of cinchona to convey sweet spicy bitter notes to this beloved amaro. Again widely available throughout Italy this can be used also during an aperitivo or after dinner.

Grappa

This describes an alcoholic beverage made from grape pomace distilled exclusively in Italy. Usually made in the North of Italy, grappa itself is not a commercial brand and can be distinguished based on the types of grape pomace used in distillation.

Grappa
Grappa

Grappa like wine therefore will have different flavors, colors and aromas. Categories are young, cask-conditioned, aromatic, and aromatized. In general grappa is of a clear hue sometimes faintly straw-colored indicating that it has not been aged. However my favorite grappas are of the barrel aged varieties which are gaining in popularity.
Depending on the type of barrel, cherry, oak etc the grappa takes on a darker hue and is infused with the aromas of its cask. The most notable grappas are made by Nardini and Jacopo Poli but if possible once you’re in Italy visit an ‘enoteca’ and allow them to suggest some grappas from smaller brands.

Mirtillo

Liqueur made from wild berries – blueberries, cranberries, blackberries. Previously associated with the mountains, it has found diffusion throughout Italy. This is one of my least favorite types of digestivo but it is enjoyed by many Italians. The flavor for me is sickly sweet without any of the acidic notes which usually categorize these fruits. This liqueur can be easily made at home and the types usually offered in restaurants are homemade.

Mirto

Myrtle used to make Mirto
Myrtle used to make Mirto

Not for the faint-hearted. I don’t even touch this one. I think my mother willingly accepted a glass from an over eager waiter and nearly ended up falling off her chair into a plant pot.

Flavor wise it’s quite bitter but smooth. It’s made from the myrtle fruit and sometimes the leaves. This elixir hails from the island of Sardinia and is quite often homemade or there are commercial versions available.

Amaro Formidabile

Amaro Formidabile
Amaro Formidabile

I must put in a plug for an amaro that you must absolutely try if you’re in Rome. It’s called Amaro Formidabile and it’s the perfect compliment to a starry night in a piazza listening to the faint sound of an accordion player. Smooth rich and aromatic this amaro is found only in select enoteche around the city like Enoteca del Frate, Enoteca al Parlamento Achilli. These enoteche are also some of the best restaurants in the city so why not stay for the food.

Italians make almost any fruit, nut or herb into liqueur. Other types include liqueurs made from chestnuts, walnuts, strawberries, mandarins etc. It’s quite fun to see all the creativity emerge and can be a lasting sensorial experience to taste some of them.

Which amaro or digestivo have you tried?

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