Beloved far and wide for its bittersweet, herbaceous flavors and digestive aid properties, amaro has skyrocketed in popularity stateside in recent years. Production of the Italian liqueur, though, dates back much further, including one of the most famed products in the category. Created in Bologna, Italy, in 1885 by Stanislao Cobianchi, Amaro Montenegro is one of the world’s oldest commercially produced amaros and is still distilled in accordance with Cobianchi’s original recipe, which is kept under lock and key.
Cobianchi, who was destined to join the priesthood at the demand of his father, fled his religious education and boarded a cargo ship on which he sailed around the world and developed a passion for alchemy. While on his travels, he collected unique herbs and botanicals from all over the globe and returned home to Italy determined to produce a botanical elixir of his own. Once he had perfected the recipe, Cobianchi established the Cobianchi Stanislao Steam Distillery and formulated Amaro Montenegro for market release. The amaro was an instant success and remains one of the world’s most popular digestifs to this day. Now that you know the basics, here are seven more things you should know about the iconic Italian amaro.
Amaro has a long history of being enjoyed not just for pleasure, but for its reputation as a stomach soother. In the 1800s, the Italian spirit was sold in pharmacies as a health tonic or elixir, and Amaro Montenegro’s original name reflected that fact. Launched under the name Elisir Lungavita, the liqueur’s name was changed 11 years later to honor Princess Elena of Montenegro’s marriage to Crown Prince Vittotio Emanuele III, Italy’s future king.
While developing the liqueur itself, Cobianchi set out to develop a bottle that was as distinctive as the spirit it housed. To pay homage to the elixir’s complexities and history as a health tonic, he landed on a design that was reminiscent of the vials used by 1800s-era alchemists to store their concoctions. The small bottles were typically thin and only a few inches tall, equipped with a slightly elongated neck for a clean pour. The Amaro Montenegro bottle features a similar oblong shape, bulging out at the base of the bottle before narrowing at the neck. In 2018, the bottle was redesigned for the first time in decades, and now features a slimmer bottle design and a new label with the brand’s year of founding and its founder’s signature.
Montenegro sources a top-secret blend of 40 hand-selected botanicals from four different continents, each of which was inspired by Cobianchi’s travels around the globe. Of the botanicals, only nine are public knowledge: cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, sweet and bitter oranges, dried oranges, artemisia blend, marjoram, oregano, and coriander seeds. Once the botanicals arrive in Bologna for production, they’re stored in the distillery’s dark rooms, which are equipped with controlled temperature and humidity levels to prevent deterioration. Once the botanicals are ready for use, they’re divided into three categories — citrus, sweet, and bitter and herbaceous — before they’re boiled, macerated, and distilled into 12 distinct extracts. These 12 extracts are then blended together to produce Amaro Montenegro’s six foundational aromatic profiles: bitter and herbal, spice and floral, sweet and roasted, fresh and balsamic, fruity and sweet, and warm and tropical.
Beyond these base aromas, there’s a seventh note present, Il Premio, which the brand says perfectly brings together their symphony of flavors. Translating to “the prize” in English, Il Premio is a potent micro-distillate made from a blend of five top-secret botanicals. The distillate is so powerful that each bottle of Amaro Montenegro needs just one drop for its essence to be felt and tasted. On a larger scale, one single liter of Il Premio is necessary to complete 15,000 bottles of the Italian liqueur.
The amaro’s production process begins once its botanicals are received at the distillery. Once they’ve been sorted into their three categories, the ingredients are diced and added to water to boil. There is no specific time limit on how long they’re left to boil — instead, the brand’s distilling team watches the mixture carefully and removes the botanicals when they deem it’s time. After boiling, select botanicals are left to macerate in an aqueous-alcoholic solution in three containers varying in size. Depending on the plant, it can take up to 30 days for these botanicals to fully develop, at which point they are distilled in 1,000-liter batches through a copper system for further concentration of flavor. While blending, the distilling team selects the purest part of the distillates — known as the “cuore” or heart — before alcohol, sugar, and water are added. To complete the process, Il Premio is added as the final step, rounding out the bittersweet liqueur’s savory smack.
According to the brand, the final result is a soft and silky liquid that delivers an herbaceous and citrusy aroma of orange, lime, mandarin, balsamic blends, and incense. Its similar palate is softened by a layer of sweetness and a delicate mahogany finish.
Once the final recipe had been perfected by Cobianchi, he personally transcribed the exact ingredients, doses, and processes before locking it away in a safe to protect it from imitation. To this day, the recipe is only known in full by a select number of people involved in the distillation process. The recipe for Il Premio is even more highly guarded, and is distilled exclusively by Amaro Montenegro master herbalist Matteo Bonoli, who produces the distillate in a separate production facility.
If you’ve never worked in hospitality, you may be unfamiliar with handshake shots, or the off-menu shots bartenders share with fellow industry folks post-shift. Montenegro is now the star of what’s become one of the most widely known variations: the M&M. Short for Monte y Mezcal, the M&M pairs the bittersweet Italian liqueur with the smoky agave-based spirit in equal parts. It was first whipped up in 2012 when Marco Montefiori, Amaro Montenegro’s U.S. market manager, introduced it to his industry peers. The shot took off a few months later when it was popularized by bartender Robert Kruger at NYC cocktail institution Employees Only.