Italian Spirits (of the North!)

How many different expressions from different distilleries could you taste through in a week? What about in 5 days? What if you were in Northern Italy? On a recent trip there, we visited the home base for 7 different Italian spirit companies and the variety and quality of everything we tasted was impressive.

A few things crept up in all our conversations at the distilleries (besides production and history which you’ll see below). The big one was that the recently imposed tariffs on Italian products heading toward the USA are really cramping their style. Many of these companies are still totally family owned and operated and something as big as government imposed tariffs can really impede the passion with which these companies work. The other thing that was obvious when talking with most of the representatives at these companies is that there is a distinct lack of competition among them. Almost every person working for any of the companies you will see below had only great things to say about any of the other companies. This attitude might be a contributing factor to Italy’s ability to maintain such a strong and vibrant culture. We love it!

So with that, we wanted to share more about the Italian spirit companies that we visited in February. I tried to summarize our visits below by hitting on the points that stuck out in my head but if you have any questions about any of these companies, please don’t hesitate to comment below or send us a message and we’ll do our best.

Italian Spirits Toschi | Bartender Atlas

Toschi: This company was created just after World War II, this is pretty common amongst the distilleries that we visited on this trip. The idea that Giancarlo Toschi, the founder, had wanted to promote the fruits that populate the area in and around Modena. The company focused on cherries to start and has expanded considerably since. We were most interested in their liqueurs (duh!) but there is an entire division of Toschi dedicated to making high quality vinegars and another dedicated to syrups (they have a tobacco syrup!!) and gelato flavourings. The entire facility is really impressive. One liqueur that stood out from this visit was Toschi Nocello. This is a combination Hazelnut/Walnut liqueur that puts most after-dinner sippers like this to shame. There is a reason that it’s the official liqueur of Alitalia.

Italian Spirits Amaro Montenegro | Bartender Atlas

Amaro Montenegro: As expected, Amaro Montenegro is also an impressively-sized company. They have 5 plants around Italy. The one we visited was home to many of the storage and blending facilities. The founder of this company was in line to be a Priest but found science to be more intriguing so decided to make liquor instead. We’re happy about that! Amaro Montenegro isn’t the only thing made by this company though. They are also responsible for Vecchio Romagna Brandy (which is made from Trebbiano grapes) as well as Select Apertivo (which is the original apertivo used in the seriously popular Spritz). As mentioned this facility houses a lot of the liquor they make and to keep all of the booze unadulterated there is an armed tax officer on duty. No one and nothing gets in or out without that officer saying so. At the end of our tour here, we got to do a tasting of many of their aged and blended liqueurs and spirits. One that stood out (and may never see the light of day again) was a blend of 35 year old Brandy and Amaro Montenegro that was finished in Scotch Whisky barrels. The stuff dreams are made of.

Italian Spirits Luxardo | Bartender Atlas

Luxardo: I’m hard pressed (get it?) to think of a more iconic liqueur from Italy. That straw wrapped green bottle is something every bartender knows by sight. It finds its way into so many classic, vintage and modern cocktails. It is indispensable and seeing where and how it was made felt like a kind of pilgrimage. When making Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur, all the stems and pits and leaves are left in the maceration with the actual cherries. These cherries are so small and sour that any extra sugar helps. All of that is crushed together and then steeped in alcohol for two years. The the solids are then put into giant porous sacks that function like big tea bags during the re-distillation. The distillate is left to rest so that the flavours can really integrate in ash wood barrels which impart some flavour. Sugar isn’t added until the flavour is just right. And that’s just for the Maraschino Liqueur. Luxardo is responsible for many other liqueurs and they have even started getting into Gin. Everything here, again, is based on the fruit and herbs that grow locally and at the birth of the company, cherries were the focus.

Italian Spirits Nardini | Bartender Atlas

Nardini: The Nardini portion of this trip was a real feast for the eyes. Their stunning above/below ground facility was designed by Massimiliano and Doriana Fuksas and represents the bubbles that form during distillation. Walking around inside this otherworldly space truly prepares your mind for the the experience of tasting the gorgeous grappa made here. Like a mental palate cleanser. The grapes used to make Nardini Grappa are harvested only in the fall and the pumice is left to ferment until late winter when it is distilled. Steam is then forced through it which extracts the alcohol within and then that vapour is condensed and distilled. Once the heads and tails are cut out of the distillation the heart is re-distilled. And again, like at Amaro Montenegro, there is a representative of the state there to observe and make sure that nothing is adulterated. This distillate then has to rest for about 5 years. Besides all the nerdy production method stuff, Nardini and the town where it is located, Bassano del Grappa, have long and interesting histories concerning a few different wars and the building of other cities in Italy. I’ll let you Google all that. If you ever find yourself in Bassano del Grappa though, be sure to pop into the Grapperia di Nardini on the bridge, it’s a real piece of history.

Italian Spirits Ramazotti | Bartender Atlas

Ramazzotti: This part of the tour was a little different from the rest. While visiting distilleries is a great way to get know a product, where you get to see it from grape to glass (as is the parlance of the time), in Ramazzotti’s case, their super charming Brand Ambassador Alejandro decided to show us what bartenders in Milan were doing with the finished product. He really wanted us to experience Milanese drinking culture. Don’t worry though, we did have a presentation in the afternoon to explain the Ramazzotti line and let us know everything about their products (one of which is called Il Premio and is one of the best things I have ever had in my mouth). One bar that stuck out from bouncing around Milan was The Spirit where their menus change seasonally and follow a different theme each time. Currently they are on a Film Noir concept and the names of the drinks are outstanding (“Emasculation” for instance).

Cocchi: This part of the trip brought us to an area you might imagine when picturing Italy: lots of rolling hills full of vineyards. The Cocchi production facility is directly across the street from (and is owned) by the Bava Estate. Each Cocchi product has a wine base that is chosen specifically for it. The Americano, for instance, has a base of Moscato while the Rosa is made using Brachetto grapes. While making their vermouths, the herbs and botanicals are never added directly to the wine, they make extracts of the flavours they want included and add the flavours that way. On this trip and our previous one to Italy, I am never surprised at all the different processes that each family uses to get to their finished product. For all the cocktail nerds still reading (I know, this is a long one), Cocchi is also responsible for creating a vermouth that until recently was only used at The Savoy in London (it is now available for purchase!). Such a storied bar and such a storied vermouth producer working together is the kind of thing I wish happened more in this industry.

Italian Spirits Cardamaro | Bartender Atlas

Cardamaro: The folks at Cardamaro really went out of their way to make this visit impactful. They had Fulvio Piccinino walk us through the entire process of how Cardamaro came to be and is currently made. While there is Cardamom involved in the production and flavouring, the root (ha!) of the name is actually the Cardoon. This Celery/Artichoke hybrid is farmed in a peculiar way where once the leaves sprout, they are buried so that they grow on a curve and more importantly, stay out of the light, which is what keeps it so bitter. This bitter vegetable was the inspiration behind this wine based apertif. Besides the Cardoon and wine there are a lot of herbs and spices that go into Cardamaro and we were presented with vials of them to attempt recreations. It was fun but… unsuccessful.

 

In all, we cannot express enough how fortunate we feel to have been included on this trip. If ever offered the opportunity to visit any of these distilleries or to just bar hop around Milan with Alejandro, you should cancel all your other plans and do this instead. Big thanks to the Italian Trade Agency and Spirits of Italy for having us along.


Josh Lindley
Co-Creator at Bartender Atlas
Josh Lindley has been bartending in Toronto since 2007. Before working for Hendrick's Gin as a Brand Ambassador he was bar manager at Campagnolo and a hired gun at Bar Isabel. He has contributed to many magazines, tv shows and newspapers with his recipes and opinions. Currently pouring at Chantecler, he enjoys being an ambassador to Toronto and talking about horror movies, punk rock and basketball.
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