Happy Hour 101

Happy Hour 101: Amaretto

Are you really ready for Amaretto? There’s a rich history behind this complex liqueur, originating with a widow’s gift and ending with a craft cocktail craze. Read on to get the quick and dirty story behind this nutty cordial.

The Italian word for “a little bitter,” the Amaretto liqueur traces its roots back to the Renaissance. The name is slightly misleading as the flavor is more sweet than bitter, with the modern version of the spirit more commonly made from the pits of fruits such as peaches and apricots, not typically almonds (as most people believe). Amaretto, however, is not to be confused with amaro, an Italian liqueur more herbal in flavor.

Legend has it, the amaretto recipe originated in 1525 from a widowed inn-keeper in Saronno, Italy in 1525. A student of Leonardo da Vinci was commissioned to paint a dedication for the town’s church and part of the fresco included the Virgin Mary – in search of a model to paint, he recruited the innkeeper. They developed a bond and whether or not they fell in love is up to interpretation, but as a parting gift, the widow gave the young artist a liqueur that she made by soaking apricot pits in brandy – the original recipe of amaretto that was passed down through generations, eventually becoming what we now know as the modern version of the liqueur.

An early Disaronno Amaretto bottle circa 1947, photo by Disaronno

In the early 1900s the Reina family began producing the liqueur which they branded as a family recipe tracing back generations (perhaps going back so far as to the original innkeeper’s recipe). The family started selling the product under the name of Amaretto di Saronno and despite a few name changes, the company continues to be one of the leading producers of the liqueur today. True to fashion, no great recipe is without controversy and amaretto is no exception with another family claiming to have first produced it in 1851.

Photo of the Capri cocktail from Napoli Pasta Bar

Although amaretto has been around for some time, it did not arrive in the US until the mid 1950s. A versatile liqueur, you’ll find it many cocktails from Amaretto Sours to dessert martinis and it’s also used in cooking for desserts to flavor ice cream, cookies, whipped cream and more. You can sip on amaretto cocktails at plenty of DC bars. Some of our favorites include the Capri at newly-opened Napoli Pasta Bar – a delicious mix of house amaretto, amaro, caramel apple syrup, citrus and egg white; the Italian Surfer at Georgetown’s Il Canale comprised of vodka, rum, amaretto, pineapple and cranberry juice (bonus: get it for half off during happy hour); and The Waystone from Denson with bourbon, walnut liquor, amaretto, orange and whiskey barrel bitters. Whether you choose to sip or eat your amaretto in ice cream form, the liquor has become a popular ingredient stateside.

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