Inside the gorgeous, complicated world of Italian spirits

Inside the gorgeous, complicated world of Italian spirits

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If you’ve spent any amount of time browsing in a liquor store you’re probably acquainted with Italian spirits. Even in a kaleidoscopic sea of bottles they stand out like gems, adorned with some of the most iconic labels on the market. And, even if you’ve had some of them before, you’ve likely only scratched the surface of what’s available.

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Italian spirits are sometimes categorized by when they’re supposed to be consumed in relation to a meal. Spirits intended for before you eat—to whet the appetite or wake up your palate—are described as aperitivos. Those meant for after a meal—to aid in digestion, or cleanse the palate—are digestivos. But there really aren’t many hard and fast rules for when different spirits actually should be drunk, and people don’t always agree about which spirits are aperitivos or digestivos. Brad Thomas Parsons, author of the book Amaro, writes that the brand Fernet-Branca labels itself as both an aperitivo and a digestivo. Things grow more confusing when you consider that Fernet-Branca is a brand, while fernet is a subcategory of amaro, a type of bitter Italian liqueur which itself does not have a firm definition.

Furthermore, Parsons writes, “even though amaro is Italian for ‘bitter,’ Italians will use the English word bitter to describe the categories of both aperitivo bitters and cocktails bitters like Angostura and Peychaud’s.” Amari (the plural of amaro) just by themselves form a hugely broad category.

Because of the sheer breadth of what’s available and the complexity of accurately describing spirits that sometimes defy categorization, it seems most useful to recommend specific bottles and brands. The following recommendations are wide in scope, and are not meant to represent the “best” of what’s available. But they are delicious, widely available in the United States, and relatively affordable, with most bottles priced at around $30 or less. (All of the prices listed here are estimates based on search results from Wine Searcher.)


Amaro Meletti

  • Origin: Ascoli Piceno
  • ABV: 32%
  • Approximate Cost: $18

Amaro Meletti sits on the sweeter end of the amari spectrum and is made from sweet orange peel, gentian root, anise, clove, saffron, and violets, among other undisclosed ingredients. The anise lends a prominent licorice flavor, making this a great after-dinner digestif. Amaro author Brad Parsons also notes that fifth-generation co-owner Matteo Meletti has said that the spirit is very likely underpriced, so if you’re looking for a great deal, this is it.


Aperol 

  • Origin: Milan
  • ABV: 11%
  • Approximate Cost: $20

Aperol is one of the most recognizable aperitivos on the market, with its striking sunset color and ABV low enough for day drinking. Aperol is only mildly bitter; its botanicals include sweet and bitter oranges, gentian root, and rhubarb. Though the spirit first debuted in 1919, it’s only been imported into the U.S. since 2006—a shockingly brief time, given its rampant popularity here. These days the most common (if not best?) way to consume it is in an Aperol Spritz, the drink that has inspired a thousand clickbait-y thought pieces.


Campari 

  • Origin: Milan
  • ABV: 24%
  • Approximate Cost: $24

Few Italian spirits are as revered as the blood-red aperitivo Campari. First created in 1860, Campari is now said to be sold in 180 of the 195 countries in the world, and even after 160 years the list of fruits and botanicals used to make the spirit remains an undisclosed trade secret. What is known is that the taste is both sweet and bracingly bitter, and that Campari is remarkably easy to serve, either as an ingredient in a cocktail such as an Americano or Negroni, or just on the rocks with a glug of soda water.


Pallini Limoncello 

  • Origin: Rome
  • ABV: 26%
  • Approximate Cost: $20

Limoncello is a sweet digestivo made from lemon zest infused in high-proof alcohol, which is then cut with water and sugar syrup. Hailing primarily from southern Italy, where it’s made with sweet, aromatic Amalfi lemons, limoncello is a great choice for hot summer weather. Multiple distilleries make this spirit, but one of the easiest brands to find is Pallini, which has been making limoncello since 1875. Store the bottle in the freezer and pour yourself a finger at the end of a meal.


Luxardo Maraschino Originale 

  • Origin: Padova
  • ABV: 32%
  • Approximate Cost: $23

Made from the branches, leaves, stems, pits, and skins of the sour Marasca cherry, Maraschino is a sweet liqueur that tastes of fruit, almonds, and flower petals. The Luxardo family says their own iteration dates back to 1821 and its straw-wrapped green bottle is distinctive and often a component of many back bars. Use this spirit to make the easy to execute Hemingway Daiquiri, or the more finicky Aviation.


Nardini Acqua di Cedro 

  • Origin: Venice
  • ABV: 29%
  • Approximate Cost: $45 (for 1 liter)

Think of Acqua di Cedro as the refined northern cousin of limoncello. Made from the Cedro citron—a fruit with a thick, knobbly rind that grows nearly as large as a melon—this liqueur’s flavor is distinctly lemony, but delicate. Nardini claims to have been making this digestivo since 1779 and recommends using it in a variety of different cocktails, but no one’s going to complain if you serve it chilled and straight up.


Select Aperitivo 

  • Origin: Venice
  • ABV: 17.5%
  • Approximate Cost: $28

Invented in 1920, Select Aperitivo is made from 30 different botanicals; rhubarb and juniper are the two ingredients the distillery is willing to disclose. Ruby red, bitter, and sweet with a consistency of thin syrup, this is essentially the Venetian version of aperol and is used in much the same way. To make a Venetian Spritz simply fill a glass with ice and pour in three parts prosecco, two parts Select Aperitivo, a splash of soda water, and garnish with a green olive.


Ramazzotti Aperitivo Rosato 

  • Origin: Milan
  • ABV: 15%
  • Approximate Cost: $20

Rosato is a curious liqueur. Made from hibiscus and orange flowers blended with an orange peel distillate, this aperitivo is floral and cloyingly sweet when you drink it straight. Mix it with tonic water or prosecco, though, and those flavors mellow out, providing a pleasant, refreshing pick-me-up perfect for afternoon or early evening drinking.


Strega

  • Origin: Benevento
  • ABV: 40%
  • Approximate Cost: $35

One of the more visually iconic bottles you’re likely to run across, Strega’s eye-popping yellow color comes from a tincture of saffron blended with sugar syrup and more than 70 botanicals, including wild mint, cinnamon, cloves, and star anise. Taken straight, the sweet, bitter liqueur tastes warm and almost mentholated, and it’s a good fit for both warm- and cold-weather mixed drinks. Alternatively, just pour it over ice and top with club soda or sparkling wine.

Jacob Dean is a food and travel writer and psychologist based in New York. He likes beer, less traveled airports, and is allergic to grasshoppers (the insect, not the mixed drink.)

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DISCUSSION

martyfunkhouser1
Marty Funkhouser

Mrs. F. and I were in France last fall and fell in love with Picon Birre. Sadly, Picon is not exported to the US. Some of these sound like potential substitutes. thoughts?