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Beyond the simple highball. [Photographs: Elana Lepkowski]

When someone says amaro, they're usually referring to a bitter Italian aperitif. But it turns out that there are scores of Italian amaro brands, as well as French, German, and other European cousins traveling under different names. And now, suddenly, amari that have been known for centuries in Europe are hitting American shelves in great numbers. The differences between bottles can be significant, and any newcomer could be excused for feeling overwhelmed by the sudden flood. Don't worry, though: this isn't a test. The best approach to amaro mastery is to explore the bounty and discover your personal favorites.

That's right: your homework is drinking.

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Let's start today with Zucca (or Rabarbaro Zucca, if you're feeling formal). It's a good looking bottle (yes, I occasionally buy booze based solely on looks) with a typeface evoking Italian sidewalk cafes and oversized sunglasses; a life in which each day ends with an aperitif in the piazza at dusk.

Zucca leans toward the sweeter end of amaro spectrum, without quite evoking the flavor of its namesake rhubarb. I find it to be a perfect sipping amaro because its slightly smoky flavor complements a syrupy bitterness.

For me, the slightly smoky side of this bittersweet liqueur makes it a perfect companion to Scotch, so I've put them together in a cocktail that's something of a play on a Scotch and soda. The Scotch plays a supporting role here, highlighting the earthy flavors and hint of vanilla in the amaro. Use a bottle you like to drink, preferably a blended Scotch that's not very peaty. Too much peat will mask the subtler flavor of the amaro. To keep this light for before-dinner drinking, the cocktail gets a fizzy pour of bitter lemon soda and a crisp dash of grapefruit bitters.

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