If you’ve ever had a great tiramisu, or even an average tiramisu, you’ve experienced the pleasures of the Italian liqueur, amaretto. But I have read enough murder mystery novels to make a conspiracy-like connection between the smell of both amaretto and cyanide. Have I been slowly poisoning myself with my weekly tiramisu addiction? (I have a problem.) It’s high time I broke out my magnifying glass to look for clues.
What flavor is amaretto?
The word “amaretto” comes from the Italian word for bitter—amaro—and the liqueur certainly has some bitterness in it. But it also tastes quite sweet and strongly of almonds. And that’s because, depending on the brand, amaretto contains almonds, apricot pits, or peach stones.
Almonds, apricots, and peaches all fall into a category called drupes. Think of a peach: You have the flesh that you eat and the stone in the center. Inside that stone is a seed; the whole shebang is called a drupe. While we often classify almonds as nuts, they are actually seeds from the center of a drupe.
These drupes all contain a compound called benzaldehyde, which is the source of an almond-like flavor. Ergo, all amaretto liqueurs, regardless if they are made from actual almonds or the seed of some other drupe, tastes like almonds. Or they could taste like the seed of a peach stone but I have never cracked one open to try one. If you’re biting one of those open, I know some people you should talk to.
The creation of amaretto is usually attributed to the Saronno region of Italy—suddenly, the brand name DiSaronno is making a lot more sense.
How is amaretto made?
Liqueurs are traditionally made with a base liquor—brandy, rum, gin, for example—that is infused with sugars, fruits, and other additives. In the case of amaretto, we are using brandy.
Added to the brandy is sugar that has been caramelized. The liquid is then percolated over the almonds or apricot pits. This is a slow process, so many modern amaretto brands will use fruit essences and oil extracted from apricot pits instead.
Non-alcoholic amaretto flavoring is also available. Since the flavor comes from natural sources, it’s easy enough to infuse into other liquids.
What are some uses for amaretto flavor?
Besides the aforementioned tiramisu, amaretto finds its way into a lot of desserts. It also is a great companion to coffee. If you need a little hair of the dog, a splash of the liqueur in your morning joe will seriously take the edge off and taste delicious. It’s such a great combination that there are widely available (non-alcoholic) amaretto-flavored coffee creamers in most grocery stores.
Does amaretto contain cyanide?
If you’ve ever read an Agatha Christie novel, you may have come across a murder by poison. Inevitably, the detective on the case takes a whiff of a drinking glass and remarks, “Almonds… must be cyanide.” Let me be clear, I have no experience with cyanide or poisoning my enemies, despite my burning desire to do so. So I never understood the association.
Turns out almonds, apricot pits, and peach stones are all sources of substantial amounts of naturally-occurring cyanide. Does that mean every Amaretto Sour is dosing you with cyanide? Thankfully, no. When drupes are used to create amaretto, the cyanide is processed out of the seeds. The only thing you have to worry about with amaretto consumption is the hangover.
“But I eat almonds all day long at my desk! Am I going to die!?” Also no. There is a small but significant difference between sweet almonds—the kind you can buy in the grocery store—and bitter almonds, which aren’t even sold in the United States. Sweet almonds have negligible amounts of cyanide, while eating just 50 bitter almonds could kill you.