Making Amaro: A “brief” overview
“I’m gonna make amaro!”
- Me, in like 2016
As soon as I first became aware of amaro, I was hooked. The flavors, the history, and the secrecy surrounding amaro was a like a puzzle to me. I had to know everything about it. Anyone who had the slightest idea what Campari was was instantly wrangled into an hour long conversation about my new favorite niche hobby.
My biggest obstacle: making amaro has no rulebook.
In the homebrewing and wine making community you have access to endless resources on ingredients and practices, but information on the production of herbal liqueurs is scarce. The articles that are out there usually go something like this:
1) infuse herbs and spices
2) filter with a coffee filter
3) mix with simple syrup
This is an adequate approach to amaro making, but these articles never discuss why they do the things they do.
I’ve been taking the hobby of liqueur making very seriously for the past few years and I’ve developed a template that works for me. I’ve borrowed a lot from my experience brewing beer, making wine, and mixing cocktails.
Alright, let’s dive in.
It all starts here, folks. You’re going to need alcohol, or specifically Grain Neutral Spirit (GNS). You want the best bang for your buck here so purchase the highest proof in the largest volume you can find.
When starting herbal maceration for my amaro, I generally find somewhere between 50-60 percent ABV to be the sweet spot. This way, you can gently and efficiently pull both alcohol and water soluble flavors from your ingredients without pulling excessive tannins and other harsh flavors. I will usually pre-dilute my GNS so whenever I get the urge to make a liqueur I don’t have to spend time messing with calculators and alcoholmeters. Which brings me to….
An alcoholmeter and a narrow flask are going to be the easiest way to test that your GNS is the proper ABV. Be aware that an alcoholmeter is only going to be accurate while your solution is water and alcohol. Any other compounds (sugars, oils, etc.) are going to throw off the accuracy of your readings. If you don’t have an alcoholmeter on hand, your next best option is to use this nifty alcohol dilution calculator.
The Humble Mason Jar
The mason jar, beloved by thrifty Pinterest influencers everywhere. A one quart mason jar can comfortably fit 700 grams of spirit and whatever herbs and spices you throw in. You can find mason jars at pretty muchany local big box store, which makes it a wonderful vessel for sharing liqueur recipes. Because of this, 700 grams and mason jars have become my standard for recipe creation. Any recipes I post on this blog will be written with these units in mind.
Herbs & Spices!
Ahhh, yes! This is the fun part.
Time to buy some ingredients—and good ingredients!
Hit up your local herbal supply shop or a wholesaler online. I’m spoiled as I live near herbal supply wholesaler Epic Spices, and have been more than happy with the quality of their products. You’re going to want a wide variety of ingredients so don’t be afraid to grab anything that piques your interest. I go more in depth on ingredients in this article. Make sure your spices are stored in a dark, dry space!
More important than what you put in your liqueur, is what you DON’T put in your liqueur. The wrong amount of an herb you’re experimenting with could make your liqueur lethal (or at the very least, make someone really sick). Make sure to triple check each ingredient before you decide to throw it in. A good resource for checking ingredients is CocktailSafe.org. There’s no such thing as too much research.
Mortar & Pestle
You’re going to need a mortar and pestle to break down your ingredients in order to maximize the surface area for maximum flavor extraction. Not every ingredient can be ground up easily, but the ones that can, you should.
More often than not, online liqueur recipes will use units like cups and teaspoons. If you want to take this hobby seriously, you’re going to need to get a few scales. (and I’m guessing you want to take this seriously since you’ve sought out an amaro blog).
With ingredients like peppermint and star anise having such a huge impact on flavor, you’re going to have to get at least two scales. One for grams, and another for milligrams. Another scale for pounds isn’t a bad idea either when it comes to blending batches as well as diluting bulk GNS.
Maceration is fun!
Alright, so we’ve gathered the supplies needed, bought some herbs and spices, and diluted some GNS. Let’s get started!
Maceration is what people imagine when it comes to making your own liqueurs. Throwing botanicals into jars and crafting your own recipe, watching your liqueur develop over the next couple weeks—It’s the most romantic and exciting stage of the process. It’s also fairly straight forward.
1) Choose your ingredients (article here for advice in choosing ingredients)
2) Weigh out your ingredients
3) Break down your ingredients with a mortar an pestle
4) Wait a week or two*
*Yes, only a week or two. A lot of guides for liqueur making will have you macerating your spices for a month or even more, but short of a few ingredients, this extra long time frame is bad practice. Alcohol is a wonderful extractor of flavor and after too long will start pulling less-than-desirable flavors out of your botanicals.
And that’s really it! This step is mostly just being patient and keeping good notes. You are keeping notes, right?
Keep good notes! Keep organized notes!
There is a lot you can and should be documenting during your amaro making process. Write it all down.
To make this a bit easier, I’ve made a logsheet for keeping track of your liqueur recipes. It’s free to use and open-source, so do with it as you wish.
So now that we have our maceration concentration finished, it’s time to turn it into a liqueur! The next tools we need to gather are…
Every liqueur has some amount of sugar in its recipe. Some liqueurs have a lot of sugar (Green Chartreuse has ~25% ) while dry liqueurs also benefit from a bit of sugar to round it out its flavors (Fernet Branca has ~8%).
Online liqueur recipes often recommend you cut your spirit with a simple syrup by volume to sweeten (and dilute) your liqueur. I do not advice this practice for a couple reasons.
I like to think of my recipes in ratios of Alcohol, Water, and Sugar (AWS ratios) and each one has its own set of rules. By making a syrup you:
1) add an extra step by making simple syrup
2) make keeping track of your AWS ratios more difficult
For beginners, I recommend you use a solid sugar (cane sugar, turbanado, etc.) because it’s 100% sugar. When adding solid sugar, you’re just adjusting one part of your ratio at a time. Keep it simple!
Using other sugar sources is going to throw other factors in the mix.
For example, if you use honey, you have to keep track of both its water and sugar content (honey is ~82% sugar and ~18% water).
Then there’s agave nectar. Agave is ~75% sugar by weight, but it’s also mostly fructose which is 1.8 times sweeter than sucrose (white sugar). So now you have to keep track of your water ratio, sugar ratio, and a sugar that doesn’t play by the rules.
tl;dr: Keep it simple. Use solid sugars (for now).
Moisture! The essence of wetness!
A liqueur is a balancing act between spirit, sugar, and water. Let’s take a look at some of the rules between them.
1) Sugar is not soluble in alcohol
Let's say I take 80% pure alcohol and 20% white sugar, shake ‘em up real good, and left it on the counter. Eventually the sugar is going to fall out of suspension and I’d be left with, well, alcohol and sugar.
Sugar is, however, very soluble in water so we need to add some water to the equation. The question is, how much?
2) Oils are not soluble in water
Anyone who has added water to ouzo or absinthe will be familiar with the cloudy reaction that happens. This reaction is called the ouzo effect, or louche.
To prevent this, there are two things we can do:
Use fewer ingredients in our maceration
By using fewer ingredients, we lower the amount of essentials oils in suspension, thus allowing us to add more water. Some ingredients such as star anise, citrus peels, and fennel are prone to causing the louche. On the other hand, you can’t get the flavors you want without the oils that come with your ingredients!
Add less water to our liqueur
By adding less water, there is less louching taking place. However with less water, you’ve got sugar falling out of suspension again.
See what I mean by a balancing act?
Mixing it all together
Blending it all together
Okay, so if you’re not making a simple syrup, how do you mix it all together?
Once you’ve found a ratio* that you’re satisfied with, It’s time you pop them into a blender!
If you’ve done a good job of keeping it simple like I’ve been preaching this whole time, all you have to do is:
1) throw your spirit, water, and sugar in the blender.
2) pulse the mixture for a minute
3) that’s it.
You have made liqueur.
And don’t forget to TAKE GOOD NOTES. It’s essential for recreating and improving your recipes.
*When it comes to finding a ratio, I HIGHLY recommend consulting the Alcohol and Sugar content chart within Dave Arnold’s Liquid Intelligence.
It’s a thing of beauty.
Go ahead, pour yourself some your very own house liqueur! You’ve earned it!
After working so hard to make it tasty, why not make it beautiful? It’s time to filter!
When it comes to the filtration of home liqueurs, there is The Right Way, and then there’s The Even More Right Way.
The Right Way
Looking at liqueur making tutorials online, coffee filters are king. Coffee filters are great because everyone has access to them, and they do, in fact, filter liqueurs.
That’s about the end of the pros list for coffee filters. On the con side, they’re very bad at being filters for liqueurs. They’re painfully slow, they’re messy, and they only filter at around 20 microns, which would leave a significant amount of sediment in your product.
They’re better than nothing, but if we’re taking this hobby seriously, there are better options.
The Even More Right Way
Buon Vino, I love you.
I find that the best filter for liqueurs is, uh… A filter!
This is the Buon Vino Mini Jet. It’s made for the home wine making industry, but it works perfectly for our applications:
1) they filter liqueurs in minutes instead of hours
2) their filter pads have a range of 5-.5 microns, so not only is that WAY better than coffee filters, you’re also able to choose how tightly you’re wanting to filter your product.
Beyond aesthetics, tight filtration has positive effects on flavor stabilization. Without such tight filtration, you’re going to get some sediment at the bottom of your bottles. This sediment is made up of all the botanicals you’ve used to create your liqueur. Your liqueur is still interacting with this sediment, so the flavor will continue to change over time, generally having a negative impact on flavor. Get it out of there!
At the end of the day, a properly filtered liqueur tastes more rounded and professional. It feels more professional.
A Few last words
Liqueur Making Resources
I’ve had to do a lot of research to come up with the methods I use for liqueur making. All of the information above comes from more knowledgeable and resourceful people than myself. Here’s a small list of books and websites that have taught me all I know about making amaro and other liqueurs.
Amaro - Brad Thomas Parsons
Liquid Intelligence - Dave Arnold
The Flavor Bible - Karen Page & Andrew Dornburg
The Homebrewer's Almanac -
Aaron Kleidon, Marika Josephson, and Ryan Tockstein
“Herbs, Spices & Other Botanical Ingredients in Today’s Beer Recipes “