On the Trail

The Renaissance of the Italian Spirit

David Driscoll

When we think of the world's great spirits, we commonly think of Scotch whisky, French Cognac, American Bourbon, and London gin. One could go a bit further and include Mexican tequila and Canadian rye to the mix, but one thing's for sure: few people—if any—think of Italy when they think of distilled spirits. We hear "Italia" and immediately we dream of wine, pasta, fine leather goods, and Mediterranean living. A few of us have smuggled a bottle or two of limoncello back in our suitcase, but beyond that we typically look elsewhere for our hard liquor. That perception has begun to change drastically over the last few years, however, as American cocktail enthusiasts continue to dig deep into Italy's past in order to improve their creative libations. The result has been an interest in Italian heritage not seen in the United States since Coppola and Scorcese captivated a generation of film fanatics. Sweet cocktails went out of fashion domestically almost a decade ago, replaced by a pre-Prohibition fascination with more bitter, herbaceous, and spirit-heavy libations. Italy's vast selection of traditional herbal liqueurs—normally associated with older generations—began to interest a new generation of drinkers. As Negronis and Black Manhattans began appearing on drink menus between San Francisco and New York, a hunger began to spread for more cocktail-friendly Italian spirits—one that has yet to be satiated. 

If you need proof of the booming Italian spirits business, look no further than Campari and Aperol—two products that continue to post double-digit sales growth numbers year after year in the States. Beyond the two red giants, however, lies an entire world of historical and traditional Italian liqueurs and amari (amaro is the Italian word for "bitter" and is also the name for a type of bitter Italian liqueurs) that is slowly evolving into the mainstream. I spoke with my friend Orietta Varnelli this week, head of the Varnelli spirits company her family has run since 1868. She said to me:

What American trade and media are doing about Italian traditional spirits is amazing and all producers have to be sincerely grateful. It is crazy to say, but only thanks to the wind which comes from the U.S. there is an evident revival of Amaro also in Italy and more generally in Europe.

There's a long history of American stars reviving their careers overseas. Jerry Lewis in France. David Hasselhoff in Germany. Nicholas Cage in China. Sometimes what is considered stale, antiquated, and passé at home is considered rustic, traditional, and romantic abroad and that foreign interest can often spark a new renaissance of appreciation. In the case of traditional Italian spirits, it seems the American thirst is now rekindling an interest back across the pond. Given the spirits spotlight, however, don't expect Italy to give in to simple stereotypes or generalizations. There's a lot more happening in Italy right now besides amaro. We've been been keeping our eye on the region for a few years now and have discovered some wonderful gems that transcended our expectations and pleased our palates.

Nestled into the hills of Emilia Romagna is the Villa Zarri distillery, a small production run by Guido Zarri with a stunning portfolio of traditional Italian recipes and impeccable aged brandies. The Cognac-style brandies are distilled on an alembic pot still from trebbiano (the Italian version of ugni blanc, same as Cognac) and aged in French Limousin oak for at least ten years. They are unadulterated, have no added caramel or sugar, and are like fuller, richer, more interesting versions of their French cousins. I was absolutely smitten with the ten and twenty-one year old brandies the first time I tasted them; so much so that I immediately requested barrel samples to hopefully purchase older, higher proof selections directly for K&L in the future. Guido was excited about working with us on a project and provided us with an incredible 1991 vintage 24 year old brandy at cask strength, combining the richness and the finesse of great Cognac with the power and depth of a fine single malt Scotch. It's not only one of the best brandies I've ever tasted, it's one of the most reasonably-priced spirits I've ever tasted for the quality involved. Guido also makes walnut and cherry-macerated brandies in addition to a fantastic amaro. He's one of the most exciting small distillers we've ever worked with and we would never have found him were it not for the new focus on Italian distillates. 

Our pal Oliver McCrum, long one of our most trusted names in Italian wine imports, has also helped bring more boutique, off-the-beaten-path producers to K&L over the past year—scouring the Italian countrysides in search of unique and interesting spirits. One of the most popular additions to our selection has been Sicily's Amara: one the most incredible and delicious orange liqueurs you've never tasted. Located on the east coast of the island, just miles from the active volcano of Mount Etna, are the blood orange orchards that Rossa Sicily harvests its incredible citrus from. The zest of those volcanic-grown oranges is macerated with base spirit and sugar to create a simultaneously sweet, bitter, and spice-laden elixir of incredible depth that can be sipped on its own, mixed into a cocktail, or poured over ice with a splash of soda. 

But it doesn't stop there. We've recently received in new products from Marche producer Meletti, Piedmonte distiller Bordiga, and Romana aperitif legend Mancino. We're convinced this is just the tip of the iceberg. Italy has a long tradition of distillation and, like Guido Zarri, there are a number of small producers with incredible stocks of delicious spirits. The renaissance is in full swing, but it's just getting started. Stay tuned.

-David Driscoll