When holiday overindulgence is stretching your loungewear, try a little bitterness. Amaro – which translates to “bitter” in Italian – is a category of spirits with wide-ranging flavors and regional expressions. These bittersweet liqueurs are made by macerating upwards of 25 different botanicals in a neutral grain spirit. Everything from plant roots and tree barks to dried herbs and fresh flowers is steeped like a big batch of tea; then the elixir is sweetened with cane sugar or wild mountain honey. As with many aspects of Italian culture, the amaro ritual is based around food. Italians will drink amaro on ice with a little soda water as an aperitíf before a meal to stimulate the appetite, or on its own in a small shot glass at the end of a big meal. The bitter backbone in many amaros is said to aid with digestion and puts a pleasant cap on the end of a feast. Or, if you’re like me, maybe you’ve had just a little too much pizza.
Luckily for us, the spiced flavor profile of many amaros makes it perfect for holiday imbibing. It is especially tasty with hot chocolate. This is the perfect time of year for spiked hot beverages, and nothing is more comforting than the customizable pleasure of warm cocoa. It goes well with bourbon, rum, or even an aged tequila in a cinnamon-heavy Mexican hot chocolate. But I think you’ll find harmony in pairing together any of the crowd-pleasing amaros with your favorite hot cocoa (I’ve got a really easy version in the recipe below). Here are some that would be great with chocolate:
Branca Menta – Fernet Branca’s minty, chocolatey cousin tastes like a Thin Mint Girl Scout Cookie in booze form. It’s also great for peppermint lovers.
Averna – When I’ve done amaro tastings or classes, this is the one I trot out as the most crowd-pleasing introductory variety. Flavors of vanilla, spices, and fennel abound with a light, bittersweet, Coca Colaesque finish.
Nardini – Another elixir with a beautifully herbaceous, minty, and chocolate-forward profile that is incredible with hot chocolate and whiskey cocktails.
Amaro Nonino – An outlier in the bunch, Nonino entices the palate with citrusy complexities and a long, elegantly spiced finish. For your top-shelf amaro-hot chocolate.
Braulio – An “alpine amaro” from northern Italy, this complex kitchen-sink spirit touches on everything from dried herbs and fresh flowers to cinnamon and, you guessed it, loads of chocolate on the finish. This is my choice for the ultimate hot chocolate companion.
Whether you opt for a rich, creamy, ganache-based hot chocolate or a packet of swiss miss with the tiny marshmallows tumbling out of the package (no judgment here), any version of hot chocolate will make you warm and cozy this year. For this easy version, all you need is semisweet chocolate and milk. Don’t forget the amaro, or I’ll be bitter about it.
Amaro Hot Chocolate
Prep Time: 30 min
Makes: 4 servings
- 4 TABLESPOONS SEMISWEET CHOCOLATE, CHOPPED
- 6 OZ. MILK, WARMED UP
- 1.5 OZ. BRAULIO AMARO (OR ANY YOU PREFER)
- 2 TABLESPOONS OF WHIPPED CREAM (OPTIONAL)
- CINNAMON STICK, FOR GARNISH
About Mike Wolf
Writer and cocktail innovator Mike Wolf rose to fame building the bar program at Nashville’s award winning Husk alongside venerable chef Sean Brock. He’s authored two books on cocktails — Garden to Glass: Grow Your Drinks from the Ground Up and now a second book, Lost Spring: How We Cocktailed Through Crisis.