Last fall, I fell down a bittersweet rabbit hole. Teaming up with bartender Robby Dow (formerly of Brooklyn’s Grand Army), I submitted 22 bottlings of amaro to the shakerato treatment. Our goal: to observe how temperature, a bit of dilution and a vigorous shake might transform an already-singular ingredient into something extraordinary.
Although many of the legacy brands of amaro fell flat, with washed-out shades of brown and disappointing, dissipating bubbles, there were certainly some standouts. When shaken, Braulio and other alpine-style amari resulted in a stout-like layer of foam that lingered long after being poured into a glass, often tasting like a one-ingredient composed cocktail. It was with these successes in mind that Dow (now the general manager at Dram & Draught in Wilmington, North Carolina) and I, along with Grand Army beverage director Ally Marrone, reconvened our shakerato experiment, this time focusing on aperitivo bitters and liqueurs to see whether any could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Campari Shakerato.
This time, the lineup included 25 bottles, including Italian and domestic brands in both red and bianco expressions, as well as a selection of French-born aperitifs and liqueurs, with a few three-packs of Underberg for good measure.
Our approach remained the same, with Dow and Marrone splitting the shaking duties. Two ounces of each sample was shaken vigorously with ice for 7 to 10 seconds. The contents were then shaken again, without ice, for 10 to 15 seconds before being poured directly into a chilled Nick & Nora glass.
Rather than the darker shades of amaro we saw in the first go-round, which evoked Coca-Cola, cold brew and perfectly pulled pints of Guinness, this time vibrant shades of red brought to mind Cheerwine and Sanbitter sodas. Once again, lower ABVs and higher sugar content played a pivotal role in the success of these liqueurs in the shakerato format, especially since, unlike amari, aperitivo bitters aren’t traditionally consumed neat. “That added water and aeration would often push something that was there the whole time to bloom, from a background player into a dominating role,” said Dow. A savory, herbal note meant to be more subtle, for instance, would instead dominate on the finish.
Red bitters topped our final picks, with only the golden-hued, jewel-toned gentian liqueurs Avèze and Suze making notable impressions from our selection of French entries. Served shakerato, the list that follows would feel right at home on any aperitivo cocktail menu.
To determine our shortlist of favorites, we rated each of the 25 shakeratos we sampled on taste, texture, color and visual appeal.