As we prepare to go into the holiday season, when huge meals, seasonal parties, and (if you're me) gorging on Halloween candy become the norm for a few months, those who are avoiding alcohol can rejoice that a wide selection of excellent non-alcoholic bitters are now available for after dinner digestives. Traditionally, bitter liqueurs called amari (amaro as the singular) are served as the balancing finale to rich meals, often alongside or in place of dessert. The unique flavor profiles and complexity in each of these zero-proof options hold their own against (and maybe even rival!) their alcoholic cousins. In the tradition of amari, most of which were marketed as "functional beverages" in the 19th and early 20th century, most of these non-alcoholic bitters also claim to have curative effects or to produce feelings of conviviality from adaptogens, nootropics, and vitamin boosts — minus the impairment of alcohol, of course.
Zero proof versions of the classics
In the market for a sweet, baking-spice-forward style like Amaro Lucano or Luxardo Amaro Abano? Sexy AF's Amar-Oh is a superb blend of sweet cinnamon and star anise, complimented by just enough tart rhubarb and bitter cinchona bark to keep it sophisticated. Amar-Oh has the rich, syrupy mouthfeel of a real amaro, which makes it perfect for sipping straight up or on the rocks, and works so well in so many cocktails, from a simple spritz to a complicated tiki drink that it deserves to be one of your dry bar staples.
If you like your amaro with the cough-drop-like bite of Fernet-Branca, Harmony Alpine Digestif is the only brand I know that is making a zero proof replacement in this style. Flavors of licorice, juniper, peppermint, wormwood and eucalyptus make for an invigorating (and sinus clearing) combination that aids digestion, and anyone who has longed for an alcohol-free Fernet and cola will be ecstatic for Harmony Alpine Digestif.
For after-dinner coffee drinkers
If you crave the flavor of after-dinner coffee but still want an exquisite bitter, Woodnose Sacré is a must try. Made in Vermont from local maple syrup and accurately described by the producer as "mysteriously flavored," Woodnose has managed to craft a beverage that unquestionably tastes and smells like maple syrup, yet not at all sweet, with roasty espresso and tart balsamic vinegar flavors.
The zesty tart and bitter citrus kick of Bonbuz's Alcohol-Free Alchemy Spirit, with around 50 milligrams of natural caffeine as well as a bright herbal bitterness from green tea, and an assortment of good-for-you ingredients such as folic acid and niacinamide not only cleanses the palate after a rich meal but, with a little seltzer water, makes an excellent spritz. It's perfect for a Saturday afternoon park hang, or if you have some work to finish post-dinner but want to avoid full-strength night coffee.
I am generally adaptogen-agnostic, but Three Spirit's line of three expressions, designed to take you from the beginning of the night to tucking you into bed, really did seem to do what they said on the bottle. For those nights when dinner is the prelude to a party, Three Spirit Livener, a tongue-tinglingly spicy watermelon and pomegranate spirit, will let you shake off that four course food coma; the ginseng, guayusa, and natural caffeine combo packs quite a punch.
Bittersweet and balanced
Prefer to close down the restaurant with an old friend to closing down the club at 4 a.m.? Three Spirit's The Social Elixir, with vitamin C and an assortment of low dose B vitamins, offers a less intense energy boost than Livener. Over ice, the earthy, balanced sweetness from damiana, molasses, and cacao bloom, taming the acid from coconut vinegar, followed by a beautiful tannic dryness courtesy of decaffeinated yerba mate and green tea.
Three Spirit's final expression, The Nightcap, has a subtle ginger warmth and the round, cozy sweetness of vanilla and maple syrup, which manage to fully disguise the added valerian root, a stinky but effective herbal sleep aid, perfect for when your after dinner plans are falling asleep with a good book.
In a similar vein to Three Spirit, Rasāsvāda offers three unique expressions, but with each "spirit restorative" focused on a distinct flavor profile crafted around a core bitterness, rather than physiological effect. My favorite, Ruby Artemesia, is a richly flavored and artfully balanced blend of full-bodied red grape and Japanese raisin, tart ume, vegetal artichoke, tingly chrysanthemum, all tied together with the five-flavor berry, schizandra around a bitter center of herbal wormwood and woody cinchona.
Fruity and floral
Citrus fruit is often central to amaro-making, and Rasāsvāda Rose Bergamot takes that tradition and runs with it into a field of flowers. Tart-and-bitter from a citrus peel bouquet of yuzu, grapefruit, lemon, lime, and, of course, bergamot, Rasasvada adds a blast of rose and bold, spicy geranium, an unusual and exquisite addition that will make you wonder what other flowers beverage makers should be borrowing from perfumers.
For a fruit-forward alternative to more traditional citrus peel, Melati, a rich, ruby red elixir, opens with the sweet but bitter flavor of fresh pomegranate seeds. Goji berries are prominent, and combine with softening damiana to produce a delightful flavor not unlike chewy Australian red licorice, while sencha tea and aronia berries lend a strong, dry finish, so Melati maintains its elegant amaro edge.
Herbal and aromatic
Gnista Floral Wormwood is positively redolent with the sweet scent of its namesake herb. The bitter flavor of wormwood is joined by intense orange peel, a green and floral oregano blossom, floating over a deep, raisiny sweetness. It's absolutely wonderful straight up, in a glass big enough to sink your nose into and inhale the wonderful wormwood aroma.
Rasāsvāda Black Ginger opens with a gorgeous saffron and sarsaparilla root on the nose, that leads to earthy burdock and turmeric, and a bracingly medicinal eucalyptus on the finish, and so notably settled my stomach I felt like I understood what digestif meant for the first time in my life.
With so many options available for every palate, there's certainly a non-alcoholic amaro or two that will appeal to every non-drinker, though with each having their own unique and complex flavor, bitter-lovers might just find themselves collecting all of these and more!