The VinePair Podcast: Does American Amaro Have An Audience?

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On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe discuss the trend of American distilleries producing amaro. The three discuss how these products might intend to compete against the growing number of Italian bottlings here in the U.S., especially when the domestic versions are frequently more expensive than any of their European counterparts. Tune in for more.

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Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters. I’m Adam Teeter.

Joanna Sciarrino: I’m Joanna Sciarrino.

Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.

A: This is the Friday “VinePair Podcast.” What’s going on, guys? How’s everybody doing?

J: Doing well. Hanging in there.

A: Oh, that was a sigh there, Zach.

Z: No, I was thinking about this, and we’ll talk a little bit about — I think, each of our travels when we come back on Monday but I was on a train yesterday and today, and I f*cking love trains. I don’t think I would love them if it was a regular part of my travels. I respect that people who ride whatever, Amtrak in the Northeast or the various regional rails, it’s maybe more of a hassle than it-

J: Commuter rails? Yes.

Z: Yes, but as a rare occurrence for me, as a way to go as I did between Seattle and Portland, it’s so nice. I don’t have to deal with the airport. I don’t have to deal with driving. Just like I don’t have to be on a bus.

A: You can just show up and get on a few minutes before, too, which is great.

Z: Yes. You can walk around, there’s a dining car, they serve beer. It’s great.

J: How long is that train ride?

Z: From Seattle to Portland is about three and a half hours.

A: It’s not terrible.

J: No, No.

Z: It’s like a little longer than driving it. Yes does it make me depressed that the state of rail travel in this country is so bad that if we were on a similar-length trip in Europe, it would be less than half the time. That’s also nice. It was a perfect setup for me for this specific trip. I love trains. I don’t know. I like them as a rare delight in my relatively rare travels.

A: They’re easy. They are, they are just that easy. It’d be nice if they were nicer here, but we’ve got what we’ve got. Thanks. Joe Biden.

Z: Clearly, it’s all him.

A: No, he’s a huge Amtrak fan, though. I feel if anyone’s going to make Amtrak better, it could be Joe. Come on, Joe.

Z: It could be.

J: It’s a priority for sure.

A: He took Amtrak twice a week. That was the whole thing.

Z: He commuted to and from Scranton to-

A: Yes, he’s the first president we’ve ever had. He’s a massive Amtrak fan. Let’s get it done, bro. Make it better. I like trains, too.

Z: Speaking of things we should make better-

A: Amaro?

Z: Now.

A: Speaking of things that no one may be asked for, we thought we’d talk about not the rise of amaro, but the rise of American amaro. I’ve had this question for a while now, sort of what the ultimate goal is for a lot of these manufacturers and what it looks like as a thing. We had a really interesting piece on the site this week from Brad Thomas Parsons where he dips his toe into this. I thought we could dig a little bit deeper just as a conversation about sort of not only what’s the deal with American amaro, but who do we think the audience is for it, and where are we going? For those of you that are listeners who are not super familiar with just amaro in general, It seems to sort of taken the world by storm over the last six or seven years, where it’s on so many lists as the digestif to order. A lot of people now make it part of their normal going out routine where they have one at the end of a meal. It’s also being used in lots of different cocktails, people, with modern classics. The Paper Plane is probably the most famous of those but the Black Manhattan, things like that. amaro is an Italian product. It comes from Italy. It is the digestif of Italy in terms of what it is. Now, there are other herbal liqueurs around Europe that are similar. I’ve always made this joke. I feel if I blinded a bunch of beverage professionals on Jäegermeister and told them it was like an amaro from somewhere in northern Italy. Oh, Yes, totally it’s so great. This is so great. It’s Italian and every province in Italy has one and some of them are much more famous than others. The most famous ones probably now in the U.S. are like Montenegro, Nonino-

Z: Averna.

A: Averna, yes. Then you have sort of the sleeper famous ones, like the people in the know, like Bràulio, the one from Campagna that I just — Amaro del Cabo. They’re Italian.

J: We don’t consider Campari an amaro?

Z: It’s more of an apéritif, I think you would say-

J: It’s a bitter. A bitter liqueur.

Z: It’s another herbal liqueur. Yes.

A: It’s a bitter, but I don’t think that you would drink it but they do make — I think you could consider some of their others, their artichoke one. You could consider-

J: Cynar.

*A: Cynar. Yes. You could consider Cynar or things like that, but it’s an Italian product, but what you saw over the last half a decade or more, is the launch of American-made amari. I’ve always been so curious, like, who were they for? What’s the goal of them? There are entrepreneurs out there that launch tons of different products all the time in the world of spirits, and they take money. They raise funds. Often someone invests in you for one of two reasons. Either to take a distribution down the road, which is not that common, but people are okay with it, especially when they invest in restaurants. It’s like, “Okay, well yes, I’m cool with my check every month or every two months.” Or they invest in you and say like, let you go do your thing with the idea that you will sell someday. They don’t want to be paid back. They want to make a return on their investment. I’ve always wondered who out there in the world of spirits or wine buys an American amaro company. Is that something that anyone would want to own that’s a larger conglomerate?

J: We haven’t seen this yet.

A: The other question I wanted to have to chat about was, does America need America — do we as a beverage community need American amaro? Look, I’m playing devil’s advocate here. There’s a lot of American amaro producers that I like. If you think about it, a lot of them are somewhat replicating classic Italian amari. What Brad’s article does discuss is someone like Toby Cecchini, who’s a very famous bartender. Invented the Cosmo, thinks they’re horrible, the American versions. It’s just almost impossible to do it. Why would you try to replicate what is being done very well in the country where it’s actually from? Then most of them are very expensive because they are craft products. They are $50, $60 a bottle in the U.S. when you can get some of the best amaro from Italy still in the $20 range. I think all of that is sort of what I wanted to chat about on this Friday of just where are we in this and is this a thing that is maybe also only super-hyper local? I think, Zach, you’ve talked about. There’s amari producers in Seattle because you’ve talked about some of the brands. Are they just for, then, the local community? Are they just supposed to be lifestyle brands for Seattle? Is that brand trying to grow to be in New York? Or are they trying to be a bigger thing that gets bought? Then if one of these were to get bought, who would buy them? I could, and I’ll take off my, at least one thing is I could never see Campari doing it because-

J: Why would they?

A: Yes. They’re an Italian company at their core. They’ll buy other products I think that are true to what they are. They bought Wilderness Trail, which is a very good Kentucky bourbon, but I don’t see them buying an American amaro and that’s what they do really well in the country where they’re based. Then who else? They’re the only one that actually has an amaro portfolio. I don’t know. Anyways, what do you guys think?

Z: Well, I want to say something here first, which is that one of the challenges about the American amaro movement is that it’s this very strange whipsaw effect when you have the initial rise of amaro as a category being in a lot of cases predicated on bartenders and spirits pros being like, here are all these great underappreciated Italian mostly, and as you put it out, Adam, there are sort of things that are equivalent to amaro produced in other countries in that general part of Europe. We’ll limit it to mostly talking about Italy just for the sake of this. The selling point on a lot of them was, yes, their flavor, but also like they’re history. They’re complex recipes that reflect the local random, cool, weird herbs and roots and flowers and that are only found in those provinces, et cetera. Then to come back a couple of years later and be like, okay, but now we’re going to try and sell you a product that has none of that history, whose recipe is maybe an attempt to recreate an existing Italian amaro but here are in the U.S. Alternatively and perhaps more interestingly, an attempt to be an expression of what is found and grown in our area in the same way that that’s what many of the existing Italian amari are about in a way. Even if it was never even if expressing a sense of place was not really at the core of the creation of those recipes, it is what they have come to represent over time. To say to consumers, “Okay. Well, we just got you interested in amaro by talking in part about the history and legacy, and complexity of these recipes. Now we’re going to come in with a product that has none of that history, none of that legacy, and is also potentially as expensive if not more so.” That’s just really tough.

It’s one thing to say we’re doing American gin. Gin is a category that is really well established. People have a lot of familiarity with it and can be intrigued by a potential for a different or new style of gin or single- malt whiskey potentially. With something like amaro, which has just started to find a market, it just seems — I get why people are doing this. I think some of them are just enthusiastic about the category and want to make their own and have convinced themselves that that makes a viable business and maybe for a limited amount of time it is. I do think that fundamentally if we’re talking about it as a part of the market in any meaningful way, it’s just really hard to make the argument that this category that itself is small especially if you’re talking about proper amari, not including other bitter liqueurs like the aforementioned Campari or things that have a bigger audience and are not necessarily often lumped together. When you look at that as an already small category and a small category that’s growing, yes, growing mostly with these both well-known and less well-known traditional Italian amari and to say, okay, but then we’re going to piggyback off of that and try and create a product that has any more than incredible niche appeal. It’s like who? It’s a flight of fancy too far for me.

J: Yes, I agree with that, Zach. I think a lot of these producers who Brad interviewed mentioned that there needs to be more education around the category in general. I think so many consumers just don’t know about amari. Maybe they know them through a cocktail if they know those particular cocktails but I think just even for Italian amari, there’s still so much for people to know and learn about that I truly just think that these American-made amaro are for nerds, just people like Adam who like amari, who-

A: You calling me a nerd now?

Z: Thanks, Joanna.

J: No. You’re curious enough about them to check them out and try them. I just don’t think that’s for the everyday consumer at this point. Quite frankly, I don’t think the producers of these amari have that expectation either.

Z: I guess that what I’m assuming is that there can’t be that expectation. I feel like there can’t be this belief that you’re going to be all of a sudden like this 30,000-case brand that gets purchased. I just can’t see that. The other thing for me is that with the American amari, I do have this issue where there’s so much to still explore. In Italy, we only have some of the most well-known brands here that, if you are a geek, if you are a nerd, you want to explore those first because those have so much history behind them. These are like, oh, this is the third generation of the family. All these American ones are a few years old I think for a normal consumer, that also — I don’t know what is super appealing about that. I think that it’s appealing if you know who the people are. I think a lot of why most of these we see everywhere is because the people who make them are really nice people and they’re part of usually the beverage community and so people want to support them. It’s really great to pour them in — a lot of liquids are good, don’t get me wrong. They are good, but they’re not as good as some of the OG stuff and they’re very expensive. That I think is where I really struggle the most. Just the expense of them because their crafts is very high. Oftentimes they are just replicas of styles that are actually made in Italy. Do you know what I mean? There’s an alpine. It’s an alpine-style amaro, but why? We’re not in an alpine place.

A: There’s a surprising lack of mountains in New York State as it is, and certainly near New York City.

Z: I get it’s because you like those flavors because they are delicious from the people that are making them in those places. I don’t think I’ve really yet to have, and if you’re someone who listens to to us and you make it amaro or you know someone that makes one, I would love to try it like an amaro that’s like truly this is the amaro that is of New York State.

J: Right. Local ingredients.

Z: Yes. This, states like it. Like the area. The thing about the amaros that people love in southern Italy is that they are all so amazingly citrus-forward because that’s what they have. That is at a botanical that goes into the mix. Again, it’s very hard to do like a citrus-forward amaro and make that in New York or Seattle, and we don’t have citrus. We buy it from — yes I really do struggle with it a lot. I do wonder if there is a desire for any of these brands to sell because I think the only way that that works is if they’re able to create a secondary product off of the amaro as the base. If it’s some sort of RTD or RTS or something that actually becomes all the rage like if someone’s using their amaro as the base to make a bottled Paper Plane or something. Then that’s what they’re selling, then maybe I could see that that starts to boom. Otherwise, that’s hard. Then it becomes hard in terms of the investments like, okay, well then who’s investing in it, and why are they investing? Maybe it is just for distribution but that to me is what’s always been very challenging for me to think about when I look at this category.

A: I think it comes back to the conversation we had a while back about craft spirits in this country in general, which is that it’s really hard with the exception of I think bourbon and maybe to some extent other forms of whiskey because there’s such a long storied tradition of production of those spirits in this country. There is in a lot of cases more legacy whether it’s totally unbroken or not. That’s the one general category where you see craft brands like Wilderness Trail pop up and be really appealing to potential investors and purchasers. Everything outside of that I think you’re just kind of, you can have a lot of local and regional success potentially, but it’s really hard to imagine creating — amaro seems like a particularly difficult category because of low brand or low category awareness in the first place. In general, it’s like if your goal is to be a big brand, it just seems like you have to be deluding yourself.

J: Yes. I don’t think these producers are deluding themselves. I feel like maybe the question was asked of them and they just don’t know what the goal is. Is that like so stupid to say I think they do this because like you said, Adam, they’re enthusiastic about it and they’re interested in doing it? Maybe we didn’t get that answer out of them, like what the 10-year goal is or whatever because they’re just not thinking that far ahead. Maybe as a business person that’s really foolish.

A: I would say I think that is probably true for 70 percent to 75 percent of them. This is a lifestyle business. It allows them to stay in the industry they love but be a creator not the person behind the bar anymore or to lean on the relationships they already have to be this cool product. Yes, I do think in a lot of them that is not the goal. I do think there’s a few brands and two of them are mentioned in the article that I do think have larger aspirations.

J: Yes and I think you see that in the product line expansions. Right, like you said.

A: I’m sure there are others from around the country that also have those aspirations and that is where I struggle. I have those aspirations too. Everyone does. If you want to become this huge brand that then is so successful you sell, I just don’t know how realistic that is. That’s what we’re all saying. That’s what I’ve always been so curious about. Look, maybe this is the really beautiful thing about this category, and this category that is almost like more wine, if that makes sense, is that most people maybe don’t have that desire. Whereas in almost every other category in spirits, if you become a spirits entrepreneur it is to sell the brand because so much of spirits is about brand building which is very different than a lot of wine. Obviously, there are brands and wine but then there’s also boutique products that the person’s behind it because they really love doing it and they want to do it till they die, hopefully, like there was a quote in this article, pass it on to their next generation and they want to do it because they love it and it pays the bills and allows them have a really nice lifestyle. They’re not accepting any offers from larger wine companies who come to try to buy their winery and their vineyards. I think that’s what maybe is so puzzling, but also interesting about this one category that is like this wine category, and actually a lot of the people who make amaro, at least anecdotally, right, the ones that that we’ve covered before, a lot of them actually have come from the world of wine. A lot of them were like former somms and stuff, or they’re chefs. You don’t have a lot of former bartenders that I know of. There are some, but that’s also like the amaro bug seems to hit wine people first, which I think is really interesting.

J: That is interesting.

A: I was into amaro before I was really into cocktails. I was into amaro because of wine and because people I knew in the wine world, that’s what they were ordering at the end of a meal. They got really into it, and it’s because you can — they are terroir-focused, right? In terms of where they’re from, and what’s available in the area and stuff. I wonder if maybe the take from all this is, amaro is actually the spirit that acts the most like wine.

J: Yes. I think the longer these brands stay like boutiques, they can continue to command those higher prices.

A: Yes. Right? Because the second they get bigger, you can’t, it’s like, well now you’re huge and-

J: Mass produced.

A: You put that economy as a scale here. I think that’s true. I think that’s very true.

Z: I think the last thing that I wanted to mention is that I don’t know that exactly — again, is obliquely referenced in this piece, but I think it is important to note here, too, and maybe where the comparison to wine makes a certain sense is that, I think because of just the sheer number of ingredients that go into producing any given amaro batch, it’s difficult to maintain a flavor profile and consistency. Certainly without a lot of experience, in a way, even with something that has an infused component like gin, certainly with other kinds of distillates, it’s easier to have more consistency in your flavor profile. It does mean that identifying what exactly any one of these amari, whether they’re Italian or American, tastes like, it’s always a bit of a moving target. Where it’s scaling up is also potentially challenging because there’s — I don’t know this specifically from talking to producers of amaro, but I know that talking to producers of almost any beverage that tries to grow dramatically in scale, you can’t just, it’s not a linear process. If you want to make 10 times as much, you don’t just use 10 times as much of each ingredient. It’s a very difficult balancing act. In the same way that’s like batching cocktails versus making an individual cocktail, you often have to tweak the recipe a little bit, for various reasons, the ratios that work in one, two-and-a-half, or three-ounce drinks don’t hold if you’re making a hundred of them at once. I do wonder, too, if one of the barriers to growth, in addition to the potential lack of a market or potential lack of capital, is also just like a reality that the process of making the spirit in a much larger quantity might be beyond the actual technical capabilities of wherever people are making these things, and also might introduce so many more variables, that product consistency and quality might be difficult to ensure, at least for a while. Saying roughly the size they’re at, or growing more slowly, might not just be mandated by the market, but also might be prudent in terms of retaining quality where it exists.

J: Yes, I think that’s something that Toby was critical of in the piece as well.

Z: He was critical of just people passing off.

J: In general, but yes.

Z: Not great. It was critical, in general, but also — I do share this sentiment of people bottling and selling their mistakes, as he gets that, which you know, as we talked about with craft spirits more broadly in this country, is a problem that goes far beyond amaro. It is a problem throughout the industry, and to some extent, I have sympathy. Like it sucks to make a thing and then you just have to flush that money down the toilet one way or another, but at the same time, it’s really hard to grow as a brand, or as a category when you’re not able to make that difficult decision to be like, “This isn’t good enough to sell.” It just isn’t.

A: Right. They are then trying to charge that premium for it, too. These aren’t closeouts. Then that becomes really hard to say, “Yes, I would pay this again because this wasn’t great,” and I started to pay you 60 bucks for it. It’s really interesting. Let us know what you think about American amaro. If you are-

Z: Send us your favorites.

A: Yes. Send us your favorites if you’re a maker of them or just a consumer of them, or let’s know some of your favorite models. I always like discovering ones I might not know about. Hit us up at [email protected], and we will talk to you all on Monday.

J: Have a great weekend.

Z: Sounds great.

Thanks so much for listening to the VinePair Podcast, the flagship podcast of the VinePair Podcast Network. If you love listening to this show or even if you don’t, but I really hope that you do, as much as we really do love making it, then please drop us a review or a rating wherever it is that you get your podcast. Whether that be iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, anywhere.

If you are listening to this on a device right now through an app, however you got this audio, please drop a review. It really helps everyone else discover the show. And now for some totally awesome credits. So the VinePair Podcast is recorded in our New York City headquarters and in Seattle, Washington, in Zach Geballe’s basement. It is recorded by Zach, mastered, and produced by Zach.

He loves all the credit. Keep giving it to him. Drop his name in the reviews. He’s going to love hearing how much you love him. It is also recorded in New York City by our tastings director, Keith Beavers, who is the managing director of the entire VinePair Podcast Network. I’d also love to give a shout-out to our editor-in-chief, Joanna Sciarrino, who joins us on every single podcast as our third and most important host.

Thank you as well to the entire VinePair staff and everyone who’s been involved in making VinePair as special as it’s become. Thanks again for listening and we’ll see you next week.