The depth and breadth of Italian made tipples is astounding.
Of course when you think about drinking in Italy, most people will think of wine. However, last month The Italian Trade Commission and the people from The Spirit Of Italy sent a delegation of Canadian and American bartenders and writers and one photographer to Rome as well as 5 different Italian distilleries to experience what goes into some of these spirits. We were fortunate enough to be invited on this trip.
What became apparent first and foremost was that there is no one way to produce an Italian spirit. And what is an Italian spirit? Maybe grappa, anisette or amaro are the first things that come to mind but even in those categories, there is a wide variance in how these things are made.
The first night of our trip was spent in Rome, getting to know the other delegates (sounds so official, right?) and our hosts from both of the above mentioned organizations and representatives from Lucano, Pallini, Strega, Varnelli and Meletti. Immediately I noticed the approach to creating drinks based on these Italian Spirits and Liqueurs was different from most that I have seen. For instance, using Limoncello as a base spirit in a cocktail with otherwise classic proportions.
After a quick flight to Bari and a day spent looking around Matera (which is an 8000 year old city that deserves it’s own travel blog/book written about it) we went to the brand new Lucano facilities. There we learned about how Pasquale Vena was a pastry chef, that became obsessed with herbal flavours. He started focussing on liqueurs instead of pastry (lucky for us) and for 125 years Lucano has been creating an authentic, family-owned recipe. Lucano, like the other distilleries we visited is still very family-focused. Each member of the Vena family is very heavily involved in the running of this company. Also, by visiting the distillery in person, you have access to certain things that they only sell to visitors, like their Menta Liqueur.
Have you ever visited somewhere that is supposed to be really impressive and then you get there and think “This is okay…I guess?”. The Amalfi Coast is NOT THAT. Every story you have heard and every photo you have seen do not do it justice. This series of villages in the side of a cliff facing the Gulf of Salerno is a must see if you like… well, anything. But especially lemons.
Nicola Pallini opened his first shop and distillery in Antrodoco in 1875. Pallini, like many Italian spirit houses specialized in Anisette. Over time the company would open spots in Rome and on the Amalfi Coast. We got to visit both the tiered cliff where the majority of the lemons used in their limoncello are grown, as well as the facility where (some of) their limoncello is made.
The lemons growing on this cliff are the biggest I had ever seen with my own eyes. They take almost a year to grow and mature before they are harvested, by hand, for production.
While at the Pallini distillery, we got to witness and participate in the production of a small run of limoncello for sale at duty free stores. They are packaged in ceramic bottles made in in a neighbouring village. This bottling is, literally, one of a kind limoncello and it is GOOD!
After making Limoncello in the morning, we drove to the Strega Distillery in Benevento. I have a passing interest in all things spooky and so Strega (which is Italian for Witch) holds a special place in my heart. Also, it’s delicious.
This was one of the most in-depth distillery tours I have ever been on. Without going into too much detail (every distiler has their secrets and I have already made this post too long) the way Strega is made goes something like this:
More than 70 herbs are all are ground individually to extract essential oils. Some are combined for maceration in neutral grain spirit, some are macerated alone. Then, each maceration is distilled to help extract more essential oils. There is a room with more than 28 stills, all the same size (about 200-300 litres, I didn’t ask because I was so overwhelmed by how many there were). Each of those stills have their cuts made (for anyone unfamiliar with distillation, this might not mean anything but know that it requires a lot of work and time) to suit each individual maceration and get the best essence from the herbs. Those distillates are then blended. They then add a kind of saffron tea for colour. After that the whole thing is left to mature in giant oak barrels for 6-7 months. Then it is bottled. This is how Strega is made. There is love in that bottle.
At the conclusion of our tour there was an opportunity to try some Strega cocktails. This varied from most distillery visit tastings in that instead of sitting down and analyzing Strega by itself, Alex from El Antiquario in Naples walked through his philosophy and some cocktails involving Strega in his own creative way.
The following paragraph has nothing to do with Italian Spirits.
Have you ever been to a truck stop in Italy? They are better than 80 percent of the supermarkets and grocery stores in North America. You want Burrata? How about a leg of Prosciutto? A 400 piece puzzle to keep the kids quiet in the back seat? What about a 3-pack of Lambrusco? No worries, truck stops in Italy have you covered. You can also get coffee and sandwiches and pizza.
After a 4 hour drive from Benevento to Muccia we arrived at the Varnelli Distillery. The majority of Varnelli’s business falls in the realm of their Anisette which is truly a balanced and brilliant spirit. However, their method for creating their amari is, again, totally unique to their operation. A decoction of herbs and spices is heated in water over a wood burning oven. Why wood and not something more consistent? Because at different temperatures, different essences of the herbs and roots will show themselves. The inconsistency in the heat has produced a consistent result for Varnelli. That liquid is then combined with spirit and honey to make their amaro.
The gentian used in this amaro used to come from nearby Monte Sibillini, which is now a national park, so they cannot harvest from there anymore. Instead, Varnelli has invested in teaching some local farmers how to grow the gentian they need, which helps stimulate the local economy after an earthquake in 2017.
After a walk up the side of Monte Sibillini, we boarded our bus to the last distillery tour of our trip. Visiting the Meletti distillery really drove home the importance of these businesses to the surrounding communities. In Ascoli Piceno, the name Meletti is everywhere, and has been since almost 150 years ago.
This distillery though, employs some truly Dr. Seussian reminiscent equipment to produce their anisette, amaro, apertivo and gentiane liqueur among others. There is a hydrosphere used to cool and condense the distillates. There is a basin with 6 smaller basins connected to it used for filtration. Mechanisms I could not have imagined had I not seen them in person. There is also a few century old books that have been used the Meletti family for recipes. There is a whole lot of family love put into Meletti and it’s a very impressive place to visit.
I feel so fortunate to be in a position where I was invited to be a part of such an in depth and educational trip to one of the most historically significant places on earth. The variety of flavours produced by all of these families that get grouped together has my mind reeling thinking about what other spirit categories I have been short sighted about. This thought after visiting only 5 distilleries in the country. What else am I missing about Italy?
All photos except for group shots by our own Jessica Blaine Smith.