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Editor’s note: TPG’s Gene Sloan accepted a free trip from Carnival Cruise Line to get an early look at its new ship, Carnival Venezia. The opinions expressed below are entirely his and weren’t subject to review by the line.

Tired of the same-old cruise ship bar menu loaded with rum-based umbrella drinks and martinis?

Cruise giant Carnival has a new drinking establishment that ditches all that for a drinks theme you’ve probably never seen at a cruise ship bar — or a land-based bar, for that matter: the Italian herbal liqueurs known as amari and cocktails made with them.

Just unveiled on Carnival’s newest ship, the Italy-themed Carnival Venezia, the Amari bar (as it’s called) serves up nearly a dozen amari that can be ordered one at a time or in three-shot samplers. It also offers half a dozen amari-infused cocktails with names like Bitter Guiseppe and Negroni Sbagliato.

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For those who aren’t up to speed on the intricacies of European liqueurs, an amaro (the singular for amari) is a traditional Italian liqueur made by macerating a secret recipe of botanical ingredients such as herbs, flowers, fruits, roots and even tree bark into alcohol, which is then sweetened and aged.

The word amaro means “bitter” in Italian, and the typical amaro has a bittersweet flavor. It’ll typically have an alcohol content of around 20% to 30%, sometimes a bit higher or lower.

Two amari already are well known to North Americans, in part because both are used in spritzes that have become trendy in recent years: Aperol and Campari. However, there are dozens of other amari on the market, some of which are only widely available in Italy.

You’ll find both Aperol and Campari on the menu at Amari (both as stand-alone drinks and, in the case of Campari, mixed into cocktails), as well as lesser-known-to-North Americans amari like Zucca, Averna, Cynar, Ramazzotti, Braulio, Montenegro and Nonino.

Cruise ship cocktails, Italian style

As I experienced during a visit to Amari on Wednesday evening during Carnival Venezia’s maiden voyage, the new bar venue offers several wonderful — if oddball — creations made with amari.

Being a whiskey drink lover, I ordered a Bitter Guiseppe, a Manhattan-like drink made with whiskey, vermouth, bitters and — here’s the amari twist — an infusion of Cynar, an amaro that has artichoke among its main ingredients, along with 12 other herbs and plants.

To be honest, a cocktail made with macerated artichoke-infused alcohol wasn’t really something I was expecting to like, but I was pleasantly surprised. The Cynar added a certain je ne sais quoi to the traditional Manhattan flavor that was intriguing.

In the name of research, I also ordered a Negroni Sbagliato, a variation on a classic negroni that’s made with Campari, vermouth and prosecco, plus an Amalfi Martini made with Stoli Citros vodka, limoncello, Bottega limoncino and lemon juice. (Don’t worry, I didn’t drink all of them. This was just for testing purposes.)

On the latter drink, it’s important to note that limoncello isn’t technically an amaro, as it’s not made with herbs. However, it’s an Italian liqueur, so it fits the theme.

While I found the Negroni Sbagliato refreshing, the Amalfi Martini was just too sweet for my taste. If you’re a limoncello lover, though, you won’t go wrong ordering one.

Both the Bitter Giuseppe and the Amalfi Martini are priced at $13 for Carnival passengers who don’t have a Cheers! beverage package, while the Negroni Sbagliato is $9.50. Passengers with the beverage package can order any of the drinks for free.

All the above were fun to try, but my biggest drinking adventure came when I decided to sample some of the many amari on the menu straight out of the bottle. You can order them one at a time for $7.50 to $9.50 a glass or as a sampler of three for $19.95. The drinks in the sampler come in small shot glasses placed over a mat with an explainer on each, similar to a beer or wine tasting.

I started off with Zucca, an amaro made with rhubarb as its base ingredient, along with zest, cardamom seeds and other herbs. Often mixed with soda water, it’s billed as having a delicate and pleasant bittersweet taste, but I wasn’t buying it. If I want an amaro mixed into soda, I’ll stick with the classic Campari (which, for the record, is made with a type of sour orange called chinotto and the bark of a cascarilla tree, among other things).

What I did love was a subsequent taste of Nonino, which is an unusual kind of amaro that’s made with Italian grappa and infused with Alpine herbs, fruits and botanicals. As promised in online descriptions, it was less sweet and syrupy than some of the other amari on offer, which is more my style. Sipping it straight, you get citrus and caramel notes.

I also was a fan of Montenegro, which is made with a secret blend of 40 botanicals, including vanilla, orange peels and eucalyptus. That said, by the time I got to it, I was at that point in any tasting where everything starts to blend together.

None of it was like anything I would normally order at a bar at home. And that, in a nutshell, is the point of the bar — and what makes it so great. When you’re on vacation, almost by definition, you’re out to see and experience new things, and there’s no reason that shouldn’t include what you tipple before and after dinner. Even your taste buds need to be pushed out of their comfort zone from time to time.

In that sense, the Amari bar was one of the coolest new bars that I’ve seen in several years — both at sea and on land. Particularly for Carnival cruisers who are sailing with a Cheers! beverage package, it offers the chance to try new drinks with little risk. Just order something new.

Related: My strange night out at Norwegian Cruise Line’s new ‘zero-waste’ cruise ship bar

Note that the Amari menu also includes a handful of classic cocktails from the popular pharmacy-themed Alchemy Bar found on most Carnival cruise ships. The Amari bar takes the place of the Alchemy Bar on Carnival Venezia.

Currently on its first sailing for Carnival, Carnival Venezia is the newest ship in the Carnival fleet. But it’s new with an asterisk. The 4,090-passenger vessel was originally launched in 2019 for a different line — Italy-based Costa Cruises — and was built with a Venice theme that included a main restaurant with a real gondola “sailing” down a faux canal at its center and a pool deck built to look like a Venetian boulevard.

Carnival added quite a few signature Carnival venues to the ship in an overhaul in recent months but kept the Italian theming and even added to it with new venues such as the Amari bar.

Carnival Corporation, which is the parent company of both Costa and Carnival, transferred the ship between the two brands this year due to shifting demand for cruises in the markets where the two lines operate.

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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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