Everything about Amaro Montenegro is a closely guarded secret.
As one of the most popular amari in the world, Amaro Montenegro operates with a level of secrecy that feels more like black ops than brown liqueur. At the undisclosed location of the corporate warehouse in southern Italy, they store all forty botanicals in their secret recipe. Employees at the warehouse are not allowed to talk with any employees at any other amaro company—let alone any of the other 300+ Montenegro employee at any other of their locations in Italy. Most employees have security clearance (“It’s all very FBI”, they joke). Everyone takes a loyalty oath to the company, not that they need to. Most employees work at Amaro Montenegro for twenty-to-thirty years.
The level of cloak-and-dagger is unusual for a liqueur that boasts world-wide distribution. Yet, the company is surprisingly open when allowing Matteo Bonoli, their master distiller, to give interviews. Matteo recently took over for the previous master of distillation. “He was a hero of mine,” says Matteo. I ask what his name was. “I can’t tell you that.” Sensing my incredulity, he tells me it’s not only for his privacy, but to protect him from (what is essentially) corporate espionage. Other than the Montenegro family, there are only two people in the word that know the recipe for their amaro. “He is one. The other is me”. I ask him where his hero is enjoying his golden years. “I can’t tell you that.”
To be clear: the former head distiller of Amaro Montenegro is in retirement. His location is a secret. His name is a secret. “Can you at least tell me the country he retired to?” “No. I can’t,” he says with a grin.
Matteo assures me, however, that he must be in Italy, because “it is the greatest country in the world”. I am also made aware that the previous master distiller is with his two dogs. I considered asking for their breeds, but thought better of it.
Amaro Montenegro uses the same forty herbs and botanicals that were part of the original 1885 recipe and it still uses the same extraction process. Made with a molasses base, Montenegro has a bittersweet quality that makes it as versatile as it is delicious.
During a recent event in New Orleans, Jason Littrell, one of New York’s top bartenders, was brought into a hotel room in the Hotel Monteleone to make a few cocktails for Matteo and myself. First, a Moscow Mule variation that’s pretty delightful, which is quickly followed by a left-turn and sampling a Manhattan. Amaro Montenegro’s versatility is too tempting not to display. Matteo tells me it mixes well with vermouth because Montenegro has four separate strains of wormwood. It goes well in the Moscow Mule because there is fresh ginger in their recipe as well. By my powers of deduction, five of the forty-plus secret ingredients have been divulged, but we’ll keep that under our hat.
Matteo has been working for Amaro Montenegro since 2010, and in only six years has risen to the title of Master Distiller. His long salt-and-pepper hair, thin beard, and designer clothes give him the appearance of an Italian jet-setter, which I suppose he is. However, he spends most of the interview hunched over, elbows rested on his knees with an easy smile and the demeanor of a graduate student.
Which, in a way, he is. Matteo has a doctorate degree in food science technology and studied at the Universities of Bologna, Seattle, and Helsinki. He had planned for most of his life to become a professor after university, explaining his academic demeanor. His sharp intelligence is made approachable by his humility and charm. Despite an already solid product, the company hopes he might be the secret weapon of Amaro Montenegro in the future. He jokes, “You ask how I became top-guy after only 6 months, but maybe it’s because I’m a smart guy?”
Growing up in the countryside, in high school he studied botanicals for fun. “For fun?”, I ask. “Yeah. For fun. My mom and dad had a farm. If you mix the botanics with a scientific background you can become a master herbalist.” After a brief flirtation with university, Matteo went to work for a wine company in Italy. Then he was recruited by the Amaro Montenegro group. “I started in R&D… After 5 years, I became the master herbalist. I say that I’m a lucky man because I never work a day in the Montenegro group because I have so much fun doing what I’m doing. I’m a very lucky man.”
Not content to just look the part of a modern Italian count, even his hobbies add to his impossible cool. Matteor restores classic scooters in his free time, “especially Lambrettas, a classic scooter from the 60’s. I drove a scooter from the UK to Wales [6000km in 10 days]”. He shows us a picture of the ‘63 side-car he restored. The awe and envy in the room was so thick it could have condensed into a solid.
The original creator of the Amaro Montenegro, Stanislao Cobianchi, was a young man destined for the priesthood, who instead was seduced by alchemy and alcohol. After traveling the Balkans, he distilled forty herbs and botanicals from the surrounding farmlands of his home in Bologna, Italy, and named it for the Princess Elena of Montenegro. With four million liters produced annually, their supply has turned more global these days. “We buy our herbs from traders all over the world. We visit the farmers, we look over the botanicals and choose the best ones for our product”.
With so many ingredients, one can’t help but wonder if any particular botanicals can be difficult to get a regular supply. Matteo generously (and with a slight conspiratorial air) offers a singular one—the genepi. “It is only found between France and Italy in the Alps. You can grow it naturally only in the Alps. It needs a low temperature to grow. It’s a fascinating world working with botanicals.”
In Italy, Montenegro is carried in nearly every bar. It is ubiquitous. Montenegro is an aperitif and digestif in Italy, taken before and after meals. In the United States, it adapts to a cocktail culture, and is more typically stocked at cocktail bars. While it’s not yet in every bar in America, Matteo assures me some day that it will be. His confidence is infectious.
But of all the markets in the world, the hardest one for them to break into seems to be Spain. The main reason might be cultural. Spain is known for brandy, port, and sangria, but they actually drink tons of gin & tonics (“They’re the gin and tonic capital of the world”, Jason Littrell assures us). There might be a lingering cultural rivalry between the two countries that prevents the amaro from being picked up there. “It’s the same reason that no one drinks French wine in Italy”, Matteo says. “It’s a rivalry between France and Italy, they trade the #1 spot in wine from year to year”.
That previous master distiller is enjoying an anonymous retirement in a different undisclosed location. He worked for Amaro Montenegro for forty years, and is now in his mid seventies. Asked that long productive life was can be attributed to Amaro Montenegro, Matteo says only with a grin: “Absolutely!”
- Add ingredients and ice to a mixing glass. Stir.
- Strain into an Old Fashioned glass. Add rocks.
- Garnish with orange twist. (Optional)
- Combine Amaro, vodka, and lime with ice in a tin. Shake.
- Double strain into an ample and novel glass or mug. Add Ice.
- Top with ginger beer.
- Garnish with mint.
Photo by Flickr user hot_logic