5 Great Liquors of Italy
It’s easy to connect Italy with churches, fashion, and its excellent food and drink; in recent years, Italian wines such as barolo, chianti and amarone have received praises from international critics and seasoned drinkers alike, eclipsing many other Italian beverages. But within Italy, sustaining the country’s love of alcohol is a strong base of Italia-made liquors that have been, for hundreds of years, appreciated by connoisseurs. Below we’ve highlighted five of the most popular liquors from Italy that we, and the world, have come to love. Read on to indulge.
Man tends to have a thing for conquering powerful drinks. Belonging to the large spirit family of amaro (Italian for “bitter”), Fernet Branca is young in liquor terms – only created some 165 years ago, but its sophisticatedly layered – or foul, depending on your outlook – flavour, which drinkers often have difficulty describing, has surprisingly attracted a considerable fan base not only in Italy, but also in Argentina and Germany where they are usually fixed with cola and Red Bull, respectively. It is served in a much more primitive style in California, US – straight up.
First created as a medicine in Milan with a secret recipe and often served as a digestif after lavish meals, Fernet Branca is a dark syrupy drink with a bitter and sharp taste, which supposedly tricks our body into thinking that it was taking poison, and in turn forces it to accelerate the production of saliva and digestive juices – or so the tale goes. But the liquorice and herbal flavours do have the effect of a palate refresher after a long session of eating and drinking.
According to its label, 27 different herbs and spices are used and aged in oak casks in making the liquor, ingredients include aloe, gentian root, rhubarb, gum myrrh, red cinchona bark, which perhaps explains the overwhelming bitterness.
Where: Created in 1845 in Milan by Bernardino Branca
Flavour: Bitter and sharp, with a herbal hint at first, and sweet and spicy on the finish
Alcohol content: Around 40% (varies from country to country)
Ingredients: 27 different herbs and spices from around the world
Grappa is to Italy as whisky is to Scotland. “Strong like Grappa” is a common saying in Friuli, alluding to the high alcohol content of this colourless grape spirit that comes with an aggressive aroma; it is potent enough to get the farmers through the cold winter months during the Middle Ages.
Grappa is a distilled beverage mainly made from pomace, which consists of the discarded grape skins, seeds and stalks from the winemaking process. When tasted carefully, aged grappa carries a hint of caramel in the overpowering herbaceous flavour with characters of grapes. To drink it like the Italians, try adding a shot of grappa to espresso after dinner to make a ‘caffe corretto’ – a popular concoction to aid digestion.
Where: Bassano del Grappa, Italy
Flavour: Strong, with herbaceous flavours and a hint of caramel, if aged
Alcohol content: 35%-60%
Ingredients: Grape skins, pulp, seeds and stems left over from the winemaking process
Not all Italian liquors share the same level of success overseas, but Amaretto is one of few that have found a place in almost every drinks list on the planet. The sweet, almond-flavoured liquor of Italy (amaretto means “a little bitter” in Italian, ironically) is frequently served on the rocks or in the form of the infamous amaretto sour.
Not only is the Amaretto a favourite ingredient in bars, but thanks to its nutty flavour (which often comes from apricot pits and spices instead of almonds) the liquor is also habitually used in Italian pastries such as tiramisu and panna cotta.
Where: One legend suggests that the amaretto was created in the 16th century by a widow as a gift for her new artist lover
Flavour: Sweet, almond flavour
Alcohol content: 28%
Ingredients: Apricot pits (sometimes almond), burnt sugar, flavoured with vanilla and spices
There are many ways to enjoy Campari, a jewel-red Italian liquor with a strong bittersweet flavour, including mixing it with condensed milk like seasoned drinkers in St. Lucia do. But if you ask any Italian and they’ll tell you it is best served as an ‘aperitivo’ with simply soda water; it just hits the spot for them with the refreshingly bitter, herbal sweetness – an acquired taste that could take some getting used to.
Invented in Novara by Gaspare Campari in 1860, before Italy was even unified, Campari has always been a popular drink in Italy. The method of steeping herbs, aromatic plants (bark included) and orange peel in alcohol and water has given the drink an herbal aroma with a touch of citrus and the slight medicinal note.
A much more complex cocktail called Spritz, made of Campari, cynar, white wine and soda water, is also very popular. Don’t forget that wedge of orange and olive.
Where: Created in Novara in 1860 by Gaspare Campari
Flavour: Bittersweet with an herbal, medicinal note
Alcohol content: Around 25% (varies from country to country)
Ingredients: An infusion of herbs, aromatic plants and fruit in alcohol and water
As potent as many popular spirits like the vodka and whisky, Sambuca is one of the few lethal, colourless types of liquor that is deceptively easy on the palate thanks to its sweetness. However, drinking it undiluted will sufficiently leave a warming and soothing sensation in the throat.
The anise-flavoured liquor, sits in the same family as pastis and raki, is produced by the infusion of essential oils and liquorice, sweetened with sugar and enhanced with a secret combination of herbs and spices.
The most common ways of serving sambuca are: on the rocks, with fresh water added, or in coffee as an alternative to sugar. ‘Sambuca con mosca’ (neat with often three coffee beans floated atop) is a common Italian way of serving the liquor.
Where: Unknown – its etymology disputed
Flavour: Anise, pungent, licorice and sweet
Alcohol content: 42%
Ingredients: Star anise, white elderflower, essential oils, licorice and spices