Learning About New-School Amaro
A Q&A with Faccia Brutto about Brooklyn-ifying an ancient, Italian liqueur.
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The night I fell in love with Amaro…
Was at June Wine Bar in Brooklyn. When we finished our supper, the maitre d' promptly walked up to our table with shots of St. Agrestis.
We all grabbed a glass, saluted, and threw it down.
Spice, herbal texture, bitterness. It was phenomenal. The amaro cut through the heaviness of the bread, meats, and pasta from our meal and balanced the palette.
But what I loved more than the taste was the ritual of drinking it together.
Since that night, sipping amaro has become a non-negotiable after dinner out.
What is amaro?
A quick primer. Amaro is an ancient, herbal liqueur that originated from Europe. Its ingredients help to balance the palette of food, settling the stomach after eating.
The Italian word for amaro is literally bitter.
Various types of amaro include:
Red-colored (Campari, Aperol)
Darker-colored (Amaro Montenegro, Cynar)
and so on…
The amari can be sipped alone or mixed with cocktails. If you’ve had the following cocktails, you’ve certainly tasted amaro:
Negroni (gin, vermouth, campari)
Boulevardier (whiskey/rye, vermouth, campari)
Aperol Spritz (aperol, prosecco)
Fernet (at a bar at midnight—surely we’ve all been there)
The new school of amaro
Amaro is a product of European (most notably Italian) café culture. Whether before or after eating, sipping amaro is ritualistic in nature. The Italians have been doing this for many, many decades (ever heard of aperitivo hour?).
Put simply: there’s some great amaro out there.
So, why fix what ain’t broken?
I recently had the opportunity to meet someone who’s doing just that.
Granted, he’s Italian, so that helps, but I was curious what’s driving his passion to create another amaro. Or, as I like to call it: the new school of amaro. Brooklyn style.
Here’s our Q&A with Patrick Miller, Master Distiller of Faccia Brutto Spirits, based in Brooklyn, New York.
Tell us about your background. Where you grew up… your Italian heritage… family rituals and traditions.
A few things about me… I grew up in California as the oldest of four kids. Living on the West Coast and having access to nature was something that always inspired me—it even inspired my decision to be an amaro maker.
I’m Italian. And as an Italian, food is the focus every day. Sunday dinner at my grandparents house was a beautiful ritual. We indulged in classic Northern-Italian fare, eating things like polenta, braised beef shanks, and fried arancini with artichokes.
Of course, I loved having before and after dinner drinks that help with digestion—but I never thought my love for it would later become the business I own today.
You've worked in restaurants for a while. How did working in the restaurant scene inform your idea to start Faccia Brutto?
First off, the restaurant industry shapes your idea of what acceptable drinking is. One night, me and my colleagues polished off a bottle of fernet (the three of us—not advisable). When I worked at Rucola in Brooklyn, it was the first time I was surrounded by a myriad of Italian amari. It was easy to try different kinds; it really opened my eyes to new spirits, and the possibility of a new career path.
I fell in love with the ritual of drinking amaro from working at restaurants.
What’s the story behind Faccia Brutto? What inspired you to make your own stuff and how'd it evolve?
I made a batch of orange bitters as a DIY Christmas gift one year and it developed from there. My mom later gifted me a 5-gallon barrel to play around with and it slowly blossomed. The first liqueur I made was fernet, which was *drinkable* (but not great). From there I messed around with other styles, and after tasting Varnelli Amaro Sibilla (which, in my mind, is an ideal amaro) I created my own style of amaro.
Next, I settled on the name: Faccia Brutto. It means ugly face in Italian. Honestly, I just thought it was hilarious and would stick in people's minds. It's also grammatically incorrect (on purpose)—ugly face, ugly grammar. I wanted my brand to be a reflection of leaning into the ugly side of things on the outside while making a beautiful thing on the inside.
How'd you settle on the flavors for each bottle? How important are ingredients to the actual flavor profiles?
I chose ingredients based on how each one complemented (bitter, floral, citrus, etc) the style of liqueur I had in mind (amaro, aperitivo, etc). Certain liqueurs have ingredients that are universal.
For example, in fernet there is: myrrh, aloe ferox, chamomile, and mint. Or with Sicilian-style amari, you taste notes of orange and caramel. So, I used those as my reference point and experimented with each liqueur style, adjusting as needed until I settled on a base recipe that felt right.
Fernet...apertivo...amaro. These liqeuers have rich histories. Why create a new-school version when there's so much already out there?
Frankly, I tried the other spirits made locally and believed mine well-balanced and delicious. Sure, there is no shortage of Italian spirits in the world, but there are very few American-based spirits brands that focus on making good amaro.
When you compare that number to the number of craft breweries that exist (even in Brooklyn alone), it’s easy to see that the mass market is underserved. In NYC alone, there's room for all of us, much less the rest of the states.
What's next for the brand? Where do you want to take it?
In May we will be available in nine more states (we’re already selling in NY, NJ, IL, and CA), so I have my work cut out for me. I'd love to eventually distribute internationally, since we’re getting loads of interest from Canada, England, France, and Italy.
People keep messaging me asking when we’ll sell in their state or country and I have to tell them, "ummm maybe next year?"
It's a good problem to have.