Amaretto is one of those words that makes you want to learn Italian.
If you did learn, you would soon discover (assuming that you are only learning the Italian translation for cocktail ingredient names) that it means “a little bitter’. Amaretto derives from the Italian word Amaro, which literally means ‘bitter’.
Yet if you have ever tasted Amaretto, you would know that it’s not bitter at all. In fact, this liqueur would be best described as sweet and quite almond-y in taste.
It seems the connection to the word “bitter” comes from the bitterness of the original fruit used to make the liqueur, the almond nut. Sicilian almonds come in two basic varieties, sweet and bitter; some are more edible than others.
Now if we were in the middle of an English drawing room farce-style murder mystery, you would know what the smell of bitter almonds signifies death by cyanide, my dear Watson. And that’s because some plants, including apples and bitter almonds, have cyanide in them to discourage herbivores from devouring them.
When bitter almonds are boiled or baked, it drains out most of the hydrocyanic acid. Usually the oil is extracted from the bitter almond and used to make almond butter, almond extracts and of course liqueurs like Amaretto … or is it …?
What is Amaretto made from?
While Amaretto is a liqueur with an almond flavour it, surprisingly, may or may not actually contain almonds. These days, the standard base of the liqueur is primarily made from either apricot pits or almonds or both. Additionally, the drink like many other alcohols may contain any number of added spices and flavouring.
The truth is that many almond-flavoured products, including soaps and perfumes, derive their scent from the humble apricot pit. Peach and apricot trees are closely related to the almond tree. The real difference, as far as people are concerned, is the part of the fruit which is consumed. Hardly anybody finds the idea of eating apricot pits very appealing, but in the case of almonds, it’s the pit, not the flesh or husk (skin), that we eat.
Although amaretto seems to have been invented in Sicily late in the Middle Ages, several firms in northern Italy have been producing their own versions of it since the sixteenth century, and each has its own history –or legend– explaining the liqueur’s creation and popularity.
The Lazzaroni family of Saronno, Italy, claims the title as the inventors of Amaretto. They invented the Lazzaroni amaretto cookies around 1786 for the King of the region. Then in 1851, they created the Amaretto Liqueur, which consisted of an infusion of their cookies with a little caramel for colour.
Another legend from the Reina family (who formerly worked for the Lazzaroni family) tells of amaretto being created by a widow who posed for Renaissance painter Bernardino Luini in 1525. The widow fell in love with the painter and made her amaretto potion for him. Her original recipe has purportedly been handed down from generation to generation without change and is currently marketed as Disaronno® Originale Liqueur.
Amaretto in Cocktails
However, Amaretto remained a niche product for a few decades before meeting with global success, due to its American popularity.
Amaretto was first imported to the US in 1968 and it wasn’t long after that it started to be used in cocktails. First came the Godfather cocktail, with Amaretto and scotch, then the Godmother with Amaretto and Vodka. Soon after that was the age of the Amaretto Sour, a cocktail with Amaretto and Lemon Juice.
On of the most famous Amaretto cocktails, the Amaretto Sour hit its heyday in the 1970s and ‘80s. Unfortunately, it was often made with poor ingredients (the Americans use sour mix – a neon yellow, sweetened liquid flavoured with lemon or lime). The result was a slightly nutty, but mainly tangy and sickly sweet concoction that quickly gained a bad reputation and fell out of circulation.
But in the fine tradition of bad drinks that are made good, bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler revamped the recipe by stiffening the drink with whiskey and adding egg white for a frothy texture.
So maybe it’s time to pull the Amaretto out of the cupboard and give it another try. You might find that the reimagined Amaretto Sour or any of the other Amaretto drinks we list, might just become your new favourites.