Few forget their first encounter with Fernet-Branca, the epitome of amaro's darkest side. This intensely bitter Italian herbal liqueur strikes the newcomer as something your mother might have administered either as medicine or punishment. Bartenders use Fernet to reanimate themselves after double shifts, and as a radical amaro initiation for customers who seem sufficiently hardcore.
Amari – Italian for "bitter" – are digestives made by macerating barks, roots and other botanicals in mainly grape-derived alcohol, sweetening a little (so it's officially a liqueur) and usually ageing in barrels. With a centuries-old history involving monks, mystery ingredients and cure-all claims, they seem appropriately apothecarial for these times.
If you're new to the bitter side, start gentler than Fernet: Sicily's cola-like Averna, orangey-nutmeg Montenegro or softly herbaceous Nonino Quintessentia are delicious amaro gateways.
Or explore a growing cornucopia of locally created amari, which echo the rich regionality of Italian originals with their own local flavours: Poor Toms Imbroglio (Sydney), Autonomy Native Australian Amaro (Melbourne) and Okar Island Bitter (Adelaide Hills) are standouts. In March, Michael Ryan of Provenance restaurant in Beechworth launches a range of amari, including one so profoundly bitter he's named it "11" after the Spinal Tap off-the-charts ranking.
Three to try
Never Never Distilling Co. Black Juniper Amaro
A collaboration with Melbourne cocktail temple Black Pearl, this alpine-style herbaceous amaro with three types of juniper is a bittersweet lip-smacker neat or in cocktails.
Santa Maria Novella Elisir di Rabarbaro
From a range of amari made in a Florence laboratory/cellar by one of the world's oldest pharmacies, this alcoholic infusion of Chinese rhubarb roots and various stomach-loving herbs is a fragrant and aromatic elixir.
Mr Black Coffee Amaro
Head distiller Philip Moore treats Arabica coffee as a botanical complement for the bittersweet floral and citrus notes of his 14 distilled and macerated homegrown botanicals. Great for long drinks; sings with soda or tonic.