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What exactly is amaretto? Traditionally, amaretto is an Italian almond-flavored liqueur, and legend has it the nutty spirit was Leonardo da Vinci’s drink of choice. But few know the spirit can be made with anything from apricot kernels and peach pits to almond extract and crumbled up cookies steeped in booze.
While there are a few particularly well-known brands on the market today, there’s a rainbow of other great options, some of which are nut-free and non-alcoholic. For a true taste of history, you can even find small-batch varieties that feature centuries-old recipes.
Amaretto can often get a bad rap as overly sweet, but the lovely nutty notes shine when sipped on its own as a digestif or paired in a cocktail with spicy, bold flavors for balance. Try it instead of simple syrup in an old-fashioned or add a shot to a coffee, latte, or espresso martini.
Here are the best amarettos.
Knight Gabriello Santoni Amaretto
Knight Gabriello Santoni Amaretto balances honeyed sweetness with slight nuttiness. The brand uses real almond oil for an authentic taste and further flavors the bottle with 27 carefully selected herbs and spices found in the Tuscan area. Each batch of this liqueur is made high up in the Tuscan hillside using traditional recipes.
“This amaretto actually tastes rich with almond flavor,” says Juan Fernandez, the beverage director at The Ballantyne, A Luxury Collection Hotel, Charlotte. He says there's no "fake almond extract" taste at all—a true testament to the quality of real almond oil.
Locals supposedly prefer sipping this amaretto on the rocks, but Fernandez says it's also great to mix or use in baking. Because it's slightly bitter, it's a great option for both sweet and savory cocktails and confections.
Gozio Amaretto is made with almonds, peach stones, and apricot pits, and comes in a gorgeous curving glass bottle. There are no artificial ingredients used whatsoever, and Piero Procida, the food and beverage director of The London West Hollywood at Beverly Hills, claims it's the best amaretto out there.
“For the best tasting amaretto, I always stick with Italian premium amarettos,” Procida says. “Though brands like Disaronno offer great value for money and are the best-selling, real gems often come from small lesser-known boutique distilleries that focus on quality rather than quantity production. Gozio Amaretto is one of those brands that truly stand out."
Gozio Amaretto is produced by Distillerie Franciacorta, a 120-year-old company based in Gussago, Italy, that Procida says uses an "incredibly laborious process of production" and "a secret formula" that results in a high-quality (and majorly delicious) final product.
Lazzaroni’s recipe is a standout because instead of infusing the spirit with nuts or fruit pits, it uses the famed Lazzaroni Amaretto di Saronno cookie. The recipe dates back to the early 1850s, and the addition of the cookies creates a more delicate almond profile to the drink. The resulting liqueur is bright copper in color with subtle flavors of roasted almond, marzipan, and spice.
“The Amaretti Chiostro Saronno biscuits are first baked, then crushed, getting soaked into the alcohol. The concentrate is then added to the secret ingredients,” says Alex Pendergrass, the assistant director of food and beverage at Rhode Island’s Hotel Viking. “I am a big fan of Lazzaroni Amaretto for its ability to be enjoyed on the rocks or in a sour. I also love this in the afternoon with a tea service.”
Luxardo Amaretto uses the pits of cherries, peaches, and apricots to replicate the flavors of toasted almond and marzipan. This is a particularly excellent option for making amaretto sour, as the depth and sweetness pair perfectly with the lemon juice and egg white.
“Ironically the first alcoholic thing I drank in my life was amaretto,” says Randall Restiano, the beverage director of New York City's Eataly Flatiron. “I remember my dad ordering it at a restaurant after dinner and smelling that addictive, sweet almond bouquet and becoming extremely interested until I finally got to taste it.”
“Recently, I've felt a gravitational pull towards Luxardo Amaretto, but this time instead of sipping it, I enjoy mixing it and watching this almond-like flavor influence cocktails and drinks to no end," he continues. "I truly think it's one of Italy's greatest beverages."
“Amaretto is one of those spirits that generally don't live up to the hype if you get them at the store. That said, it's easier than you think to make your own at home. It's not a super quick process, but the end result is absolutely worth the time and effort. Getting apricot and cherry pits can be tricky, but you can find them online or often in a well-supplied market.” — Gavin Humes, Director of Food and Beverage at Scratch Restaurants Group
Lyre’s Amaretti is an excellent spirit for making cocktails for all ages or entertaining friends who don’t drink. For cautious drinkers, it's also nut-free, gluten-free, vegan, and dairy-free. Try pouring an ounce over a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Since it's alcohol-free, it’s a fun dessert for the whole family.
“Lyre's Amaretti is my absolute favorite almond liqueur," says Anthony Baker, a former bartender at RedFarm and current bartender at Momentum Mixology in New York City. "The current ones on the market, which obviously contain alcohol, are all too thick and too sweet. This non-alcoholic liqueur isn't too sweet—making it perfect for a base spirit in a refreshing cocktail.”
The Caffo family has been distilling since the end of the 19th century, when Giuseppe Caffo started making spirits at the foot of Sicily’s Mount Etna. His original recipes—primarily wine-based spirits, amaro, limoncino, sambuca, and of course, amaretto—have been passed on from generation to generation.
“I really recommend Caffo Amaretto,” says Rob Vogel, the bar manager at Monarque in Baltimore. “Many amaretti are made with a blend of almonds and apricot pits, but Caffo uses 100 percent Sicilian almonds. This bottle is much less expensive than some of the more popular name brands, and best of all, does not taste artificial.”
Vogel’s preferred use for Caffo Amaretto is in an amaretto sour, to which he adds a bit of dry sherry.
Disaronno Originale Amaretto
Disaronno is one of the world’s best-known amarettos. The recipe dates back to 1525 and is a closely guarded secret, combining apricot pits, burnt sugar, and the essence of 17 secret herbs and fruits.
“Disaronno is a great product that is always consistent,” says Jules Gomez, the beverage manager at Zuma Miami. “It’s the industry standard and readily available in most, if not all markets, thus making it great when sharing recipes or trying to recreate cocktails at home.”
“Disaronno is also super versatile and can be used to add depth to cocktails or as a sweetener substitute," Gomez continues. "An easy example is swapping out simple syrup and using Disaronno instead in an old-fashioned."
It’s also particularly excellent in hot coffees or espresso martinis.
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Kate Dingwall is a sommelier and spirits writer. She has been writing about the bar and spirits world for five years and has her BarSmarts and WSET certification.