The Bitter Beginnings: The Rise of Amaros Made in the USA

Max Heinemann, Client Manager at Nielsen CGA, dives into the untapped market of American amaros

Max Heinemann, Client Manager at Nielsen CGA, dives into the untapped market of American amaros

For the longest time, amaro – ‘bitter’ in Italian – has been an “old world” spirit, made for hundreds of years with a recipe passed down generations of Italian families, or kept guard by monks living deep in the mountains. With hundreds of options, each blend of amaro has its own story – a bespoke combination of herbs and spices giving it its unique character.

But small European amaro producers never really made it over en masse to the United States. While you can find a selection of obscure spirits in speciality shops or bars, in the grand scheme of things, amaro have kept a relatively low profile. Historically, the type of experimentation with spirits found in the corner cafes of Europe was not quite so prevalent in the United States, nor was the enjoyment for strong bitter flavours that were flowing out of European distilleries.

That is until recently, when bartenders started looking for inspiration in dusty old tomes and experimenting with cocktails they found hidden in the pages of history. Classic cocktails that had slipped out of popularity (such as the Boulevardier, Americano, and Milano Torino) eventually joined the everlasting Negroni on cocktail menus, and it wasn’t long before patrons could enjoy a selection of bitter and astringent Italian spirits like Aperol, Campari and Fernet Branca.

Naturally, these brands soon became synonymous with Italian bitters. You no longer had a spritz – you had an Aperol Spritz. Similarly, Campari found itself in all sorts of cocktails, from the Tiki Jungle Bird to the post dinner Boulevardier, adding a bit of bitter whenever the bartender thought it was required. Fernet also played a significant role, with cocktails like the Toronto and the Hanky Panky resurfacing. The growing popularity of these spirits drove sales across the country.

The new buzz and popularity around bitters has led some distillers back to the drawing board, asking “what’s stopping me from making that?” After all, many of the ingredients that were being used in Italian amaros also exist in the United States. Additionally, distillers could use their local knowledge to produce a spirit more in touch with the palates of the local community – a spirit that was truly unique and homegrown.

As you might have guessed, that’s exactly what they did. These new pioneers of the American amaro market have now created an industry with spirits coming out of Oregon, Colorado, California, Texas, Illinois, Louisiana and more. Using locally sourced ingredients and the knowledge of distilling a variety of spirits, experimentation has propelled many of the new flavours coming out of the stills.

The sales data around amaros is a true testament to its popularity. The only area where there has been a decrease in sales any of Aperol, Campari or Fernet Branca is in Denver, where Breckenridge, Leopold Bros, and The Golden Moon Distillery are located (Campari suffered a -0.6% decrease in sales from the previous year).

The big three – Aperol, Campari and Fernet Branca – are still the market leaders. Their popularity will continue to increase as more people discover the beautiful world of amaros. But through that trend, American amaros will also grow into large untapped market. It’s only a matter of time before the American amaro is commonplace in the local and home bar.

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