When it comes to my personal social media habits, I have never posted on TikTok and remain a lurker on the platform, where neverending clips of “Star Wars,” vintage Todd Rundgren performances, hoagie hacks, sneak previews of upcoming LEGO releases, unsolicited dating advice, and cat content (so many cats…) lay claim to my For Your Page (FYP) — revealing more about my proclivities than I should probably share here!
One constant is the familiar voice of TikTok’s Trader Joe’s Talia, with her cheerful greeting of “Hey Trader Joe’s shoppers, it’s me Talia, back with more new and returning Trader Joe’s products…” which seems to play in an endless loop on my FYP as she fills up her cart and calls out the Trader Joe’s products that catch her eye, such as new yogurt flavors, scented candles, decorative succulent plants, frozen pretzel bread pudding with salted caramel sauce, and limited-edition seasonal offerings like pink, heart-shaped, ricotta-stuffed ravioli for Valentine’s Day. (And it was through Talia that I became aware of the results of Trader Joe’s 14th Annual Customer Choice Awards, where the supermarket’s Sparkling Honeycrisp Apple Juice took home top honors in the Beverage category.)
My original motivation for signing up to TikTok was for research purposes. And while I still haven’t unearthed a vibrant AmaroTok community, an Instagram DM from amaro enthusiast Neal Hirtzel alerted me to the existence of Pronto!, a new $10.99 amaro exclusive to Trader Joe’s, qualifying his message with, “It’s a little thin on the mouth but not bad.” I was instantly intrigued.
Whether or not your neighborhood Trader Joe’s can sell alcohol is determined by state and local laws. When I lived in Seattle, the Trader Joe’s around the corner from my apartment carried beer and wine but my local Brooklyn Trader Joe’s can only sell beer (the popular Trader Joe’s wine store in Union Square opened in 2006 and was the only one in New York State, but unexpectedly closed in August 2022).
But taking a cue from my “suitcase bottle” habit of transporting back home favorite bottles of amaro from Italy, I was able to secure two bottles of Pronto! after enlisting my dear friend Ali Klooster to mule them to me in Brooklyn from her local Trader Joe’s in St. Louis. As the author of books on amaro, bitters, and a writer who frequently chronicles Italian drinking culture, I’ve had the chance to try countless bottles of amaro over the years and I’m always curious, and often skeptical, of a new release, especially one from Trader Joe’s. I twisted open the cap and tasted it neat, over ice, and in an Americano. The verdict: There’s no worry that it will ever replace Campari, but Pronto! is more than just a novelty, and surprisingly better than it needs to be.
Trader Joe’s has a proven history with wine, launching its portfolio of popular, bargain-priced Charles Shaw wines, produced by Bronco Wine Company, in 2002. Sold exclusively at Trader Joe’s, the $1.99 wine label soon became known as “Two Buck Chuck” — though a bottle will now run you the hefty sum of $3.99 — and has gone on to sell more than 800 million bottles. While some Trader Joe’s do sell spirits, in addition to branded private-label bottles of tequila, vodka, and whiskey, Pronto! marks the chain’s first foray into the amaro category.
Right out of the gate, I admire Trader Joe’s using Pronto! (and that exclamation point) for the name, and remain surprised that no Italian or domestic producer had scooped that up. Pronto is a versatile Italian word, primarily meaning “ready” and is how most Italians answer a phone call as a way to both say hello and let the caller know you’re prepared to talk (something I’ve also since adopted to the amusement and slight annoyance of my American friends). I’m also likely overreaching here, but the word pronto also has a connection to the Trader Joe’s origin story. Before Joe Coulombe opened the first Trader Joe’s store in Pasadena, Calif., in 1967, he was working at one of the convenience stores opened by Rexall Pharmacy to compete with 7-Eleven. After Rexall pulled out of that market, Coulombe took over, naming the store that would later become the first Trader Joe’s, Pronto Market.
One thing that concerned me when first inspecting the clear 750-milliliter bottle of Pronto! is that on the gold-colored label — designed with a small constellation of white starbursts beneath a blue ribbon emblazoned with the Pronto! logo — just above the Product of Italy declaration is a “let’s throw the spaghetti against the wall and see if it sticks” classification of amaro, aperitivo, and bitter. It’s true that some amari are quite versatile and can be served neat and in lighter, lower-ABV applications as well as more spirit-forward cocktails, but Pronto!’s garnet hue and 24 percent ABV is most comparable to Campari, a classic aperitivo bitter. But I do love the brand’s use of Ad Oltranza! (“to the bitter end!”) on the blue neckband label.
As with most amaro makers, Pronto! is cagey with the information on the back of the bottle beyond elliptical marketing copy such as “Made with an intriguing infusion of aromatic herbs and orange peel” and flavor notes of “delicately sweet, faintly floral, and classically bitter.” Eager to learn more about its origin, production, and public reception, I reached out to Trader Joe’s via its online media contact form and surprisingly did hear back from a public relations manager the next day. But, as is the case with many corporations, I wasn’t granted an interview and they wouldn’t comment on any Trader Joe’s products beyond what is featured on their website, Instagram, or podcast. She did acknowledge that Pronto! is made especially for Trader Joe’s by a distiller in Italy but beyond that the exchange was just a punched-up version of the back bottle copy.
“It definitely has a bitter essence to it and the nose is just delicious.”
Though not typically publicly promoted, it’s not uncommon for distilleries to use their facilities to produce custom products for other brands. The 57-year-old Durate, Calif.-based business D’Aquino Italian is listed as the importer on the back of the bottle, though there’s no mention of Pronto! on its website. As for the producer, beyond a proprietary account code, all that’s revealed is “Sn Donà di Piave (VE) Italy.” After tasting Pronto! with a prominent member of one of Italy’s best known legacy amaro brands, I asked him where he thought it might be produced. He glanced at the back of the label, punched in a search on his phone and said “here,” showing the results of Distilleria Turchetto, located on Via John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 3, 30027 in San Donà di Piave, a commune of Venice.
It turns out I’m no Columbo when it comes to detective work as his basic search query of “distilleries in San Donà di Piave” led him to his cased-closed conclusion. While there are other distillers in Venice that could possibly be behind Pronto!, my amaro-making friend went all in on the likelihood that it was made by Distilleria Turchetto. The Venice distillery naturally doesn’t have a website or contact information so it can’t be confirmed (and its staff very likely wouldn’t admit they produced it due to a non-disclosure agreement) but this medium-sized distillery does produce a number of spirits, liqueurs, vermouth, syrups, and cocktail mixers, including Frizzantino Spritz Aperitivo Happy Hour, a ready-to-drink spritz sold at supermarkets around Italy. (Vintage bottles of Distilleria Turchetto-branded Sambuca, cordials, rhum fantasia, and Pruma — a blend of grappa, spirits, and aromatic infusions — pop up on some vintage spirits sites.)
Without additional insights from the producer, importer, and exclusive retailer of this new amaro, I turned to social media to see if Pronto! was percolating with other amaro nerds or Trader Joe’s devotees, but this panning for gold mostly turned up pebbles from the river.
Typically, I steer clear of the r/amaro Subreddit but there was some online chatter I picked up mostly placing Pronto! at the crossroads of Aperol and Campari. In a tasting session on his YouTube channel, Los Angeles bartender Zach Zoschke describes the nose as “smells like Campari with training wheels” and notes that its price makes it a “somewhat compelling alternative.” And on a Trader Joe’s review site, Pronto! is rated “surprisingly good,” and “a steal of $11.99.” One commenter even cautions: “Stop spreading the news, let it be a secret or this will disappear fast from Trader Joe’s.”
Patrick Miller, the owner and distiller of Brooklyn’s Faccia Brutto Spirits, is always on the search for special bottles of amari to add to his extensive collection, so it didn’t surprise me when he was among the first people I personally knew who had tried Pronto! during a trip back home to Pasadena. He notes that the $10.99 price tag is a good value within the amaro category and would use it in a pinch to make a Negroni or an Americano but wouldn’t expect the same results you’d get from higher-quality, small-batch amaro. “The nose has a more subtle aroma compared to other products in the category and a notably lighter palate,” Miller says. “The classic bitter orange and herbal flavors typically associated with amaro or aperitivo exist but they’re not quite the same and less distinctive — like meeting someone you know well’s second cousin.”
“That’s a shredder. I need this in my house now.”
I’ve been ferrying a bottle of Pronto! in my bag on occasions when I know I’ll meet up with like-minded, amaro-loving industry friends to get their take. The first was at my Brooklyn local, The Long Island Bar, with Italian bartender Raffaele Bellomi, who is the co-creator of Volume Primo Vermouth and owner of the bars Archivo and Amaro in Verona. After L.I.B.’s co-owner Toby Cecchini poured out a round of Pronto! Bellomi picked up his glass to hold it to the light. “This color is strange,” he said, thrown off by the equally confusing designation. “An aperitivo would be brighter and an amaro would be more brown. I wouldn’t know where to begin to try to get this color naturally.”
Upon the first sip, my friend Cat Pickei, a cheese buyer who is more into Fernet, described the experience as, “It’s like I smoked a Marlboro Light then ate an amarena cherry.” Tasting it neat, Cecchini experienced a familiar cherry cough syrup sensation, balanced with a dry bitterness from gentian root. But he thought it held its own in a Pronto! and Volume Primo Americano. “It’s not terrible,” he said. “I’m sort of surprised.” Bellomi countered that he thought the gentian was a bit too overwhelming. “It could be worse,” Bellomi said. “As an amaro I would never drink this; I would rather drink this as a red bitter.”
The experience of coming in with low expectations and being pleasantly surprised continued at Caffe Dante, the award-winning Greenwich Village bar that takes inspiration from Italy’s aperitivo culture. “I’m definitely getting that cherry, but it’s a lot softer on the top than I thought it would be,” said my lunch date Benny Ogando, a bartender at Brooklyn’s Red Hook Tavern. “It definitely has a bitter essence to it and the nose is just delicious.” (Ogando was also thrown off by the multiple branding of amaro, aperitivo, and bitter.)
The consensus among most of the bartenders I talked to was that Pronto! lacked the body and character to bring the bitter backbone and herbaceousness needed in a classic Negroni. But Dante head bartender Eloy Pacheco was surprised at the quality of Pronto! compared to the price. “The taste and aroma reminds me of Contratto Bitter,” Pacheco said before giving Pronto! a spin in a bambino-sized Mezcal Negroni (there were no complaints from any of us). An off-duty neighborhood bartender hanging out at the bar was curious what we were up to and after offering him a pour of Pronto! he looked at me and smiled, exclaiming, “That’s a shredder. I need this in my house now.”
In a landscape where many newer brands of amaro can cost nearly $50 a bottle, the value of an affordable and surprisingly good “Eleven-Buck-Bitter” will do just fine.
The article Of Course Trader Joe’s Has an Affordable Amaro Brand — But Is It Actually Good? appeared first on VinePair.