You’re a conscientious traveller. You always seek out ‘the real Italy’ and you love trying local specialities. But when you’re at the bar in the evening and you don’t feel like wine, faced with a glittering array of bottles, don’t you just play it safe and go for a whisky or a brandy? Who could blame you? Especially when there’s such a wide selection of both. Did you know that the Italians drink more whisky than the Scottish? They don’t produce a home-grown version, but they certainly make a stab at brandy – Stock and Vecchia Romagna are probably the biggest native brands. But why drink a traditionally British or French drink when you’re in Italy? After gruelling research, I’m going to make you as adventurous at the Italian bar as you are at the Italian table. Let’s open up some of those mysterious bottles…
Hippocrates sipped bitter tinctures to assist digestion, and so began a European fad which would thrive in Italy. Medieval monks all over the peninsula grew herbs, guarded recipes, and believed their bittersweet alcoholic drinks would do you good after eating. Big commercial brands got going in the 1800s, happy to have you think they might be medicinal. Since then, intense bittersweet drinks taken after dinner (called digestivi) and similarly bitter tipples enjoyed before a meal (aperitivi) have been firm fixtures in Italian life. Dark, ubiquitous amaro remains the king of the post-dinner bitters, while unique brand-named concoctions like Campari and Aperol are intended for pre-dinner (or purely recreational) drinking. Let's take a closer look.
amaro – The name means ‘bitter’, but that’s just one dimension of the whole taste. There are myriad brands and all reveal a slightly different balance, but every amaro will hit you in turn with flavours sweet, bitter, fruity, herbal, and vegetal. Crafted from esoteric roots, spices, barks, peels, flowers, berries and herbs, the exact recipe of each brand is a closely-guarded secret. Most Italians are as loyal to their favourite label as they are to their chosen football team. Four brands account for 2/3 of all amari sold: Montenegro, Averno, Lucano, and Ramazzotti; but you’ll also commonly see Zucca, Borsci, China Martin and Fernet-Branca alongside varieties local to wherever you happen to be. Smooth, strong (usually 40% alcohol), and complex, amaro is a venerable Italian institution. You can’t say you know the country until you’ve tried it at least once.
Cynar – Technically another amaro, Cynar (‘chee-NAR’) is a brightly-labelled curiosity which deserves special mention. It’s made from Tuscan artichokes (‘cynara’ is Latin for artichoke). And it’s allegedly very good for stomach trouble. Drunk either as an aperitivo or a digestivo, its mild medicinal aroma doesn’t prepare you for the extremely bitter, weirdly vegetal taste that follows.
Branca-Menta – This interesting and original drink is a menthol version of Fernet-Branca amaro. It’s a clever balancing act: peppermint neatly defuses the bitterness without overpowering it, leaving your mouth hot with alcohol but zinging with minty cool. Designed as a digestivo, I’d advise keeping to the rules with this one. On an empty stomach, it risks becoming sickly or making you queasy. At the end of a meal, however, it’s a drink and an after-dinner mint all rolled into one.
Campari – Even as you order it, this sophisticated stuff starts tricking you. Ask for a ‘Campari’ in Italy and you’ll get a Campari Soda; only the words ‘Bitter Campari’ will get you Campari. But having obtained your Campari, the trickery really begins. The seductive colour and delicious scent lure you irresistibly into taking a sip. For a second your mouth floods with pleasant bittersweetness, then an all-out assault of bitterness nearly makes you gag. You’re no masochist, yet you feel strangely compelled to take another sip. And another. Each one less bitter, and more interesting, than the last. Until in the end your glass is mysteriously empty.
You’ve got to admire a drink like this – more bitter than earwax yet a huge international hit for more than 150 years. It’s a beguiling and beautiful thing. But it needs taming. Campari Soda is a popular attempt at this. Synthetic cherry-red, it comes ready-mixed in small conical bottles of 1930s Futurist design. The taste’s less aggressively bitter, but also less complex and interesting. Orange juice makes an excellent dilution of Campari. But perhaps the best use for this bitter spirit is as part of a negroni – a cocktail created in 1920s Florence and now much-loved across Italy. Made with equal measures of Campari, Martini rosso, and gin, a negroni is ferociously strong but impressively well-balanced – the gin’s floral perfume and the Martini rosso’s sweetness acting as perfect foils to the Campari’s bitterness. Smooth and delicious, it’s more interesting than a simple amaro. Try one before or after a meal.
Aperol – Fruity, fun, but far from simplistic in flavour, Aperol is a sort of Campari-for-beginners. It’s wildly popular. One in five of all aperitivi downed in Italy is an Aperol. Flavoured with orange, rhubarb, gentian and various esoterics, it tastes first gaily of tangerines then dourly of grapefruit. A syrupy mouthfeel and bright red-orange colour only add to its sense of inconsequential fun. As does the low alcohol content (11% – less than many wines). The drink was created in Padua in 1919 to cash in on a growing trend for aperitif-consumption, and aimed cleverly at light-drinkers (i.e., the majority of Italians). The label still boasts that it’s only “poco alcolico” (‘lightly alcoholic’). Aperol offers a real insight to Italy. A product like this would never thrive in northern Europe – or at best it’d be relegated to a ‘woman’s drink’.
Bitter, of course, isn’t to everyone’s taste – even when upholstered with sweetness. Long ago, while early bitters were being concocted to aid digestion, other drinksmiths were busily brewing up light herbal tipples to stimulate appetite. One of the most successful of these aperitifs was vermouth, the sweet kind pioneered in northern Italy in the 1700s and the dry kind forged later in France. Wine infused with alpine herbs and spices, vermouth takes its name from a psychoactive poison. ‘Wermut’ is German for ‘wormwood’ – once (but no longer!) the main flavouring ingredient. (It’s the stuff in absinthe.)
Two Italian brands have conquered the world: Cinzano (going since 1757) and Martini & Rossi. While vermouth is often used as a flavoursome mixer (notably in a martini, which is mainly gin), it’s also commonly drunk neat. Three varieties taste exactly like what they are: wine nicely jazzed up with herbs. The rosso has an oregano overtone, the bianco speaks sweetly of vanilla blancmange, and the secco is simply a dry version of the bianco. With an alcohol content similar to wine rather than to spirits, a vermouth before dinner won’t see you disgrace yourself during dinner.
Another non-bitter apertif, and one with a kick like a horse, is...
grappa – a.k.a. aqua vitae (‘the water of life’). Fiery, near-flavourless grappa seems to have been around forever. Or almost forever. Some say it’s been made for at least nine centuries. Others insist it’s more like two and a half millennia. And no one agrees where the name comes from. Some assume it’s from Bassano del Grappa in the Veneto (not true). Some believe the word’s connected to ‘grape’, while others tut at such simple-mindedness. Others argue that ‘grappa’ is the word ‘schnapps’ buckled by time and language barriers. Perhaps the most credible theory is that the name springs from graspa, a dialect word meaning the detritus left at the bottom of the wine vat – reflecting grappa’s humble production from distilled vineyard leftovers: unused wine, grape skins, leaves, stalks… But you mustn’t think you’re ‘scraping the bottom of the barrel’ when you choose grappa! However much some might malign it as ‘tasteless paint-stripper’, it’s really a very smooth and subtle drink.
Ferociously strong (40% alcohol), and with only modest flavour, grappa is neither obviously sweet nor dry and it’s barely noticeable when slipped into coffee to create a caffè corretto. A neat measure after dinner is normal, although some Italians start their day with one. (Just one, mind. Italians couldn’t bear falling down in the morning and having to wear scuffed clothes for the rest of the day.) Countless varieties of grappa line the shelves of every bar, and much depends on the maker and the grape variety used.
You’ll spot two main types: the transparent bianco and the deep golden stuff that’s been aged in oak barrels. Dim memories of the vineyard dwell in each – a thin wraith of grape-scent rises from your glass, the taste whispers just for a moment of wine. Darker grappa is perhaps the more interesting of the two. Vanillin absorbed from the oak barrels gives it an alkaline taste, creating an impression of banana, vanilla, or other non-acid flavours. It can seem like a very, very smooth whisky – with none of that drink’s endearing rasp. Innumerable artificially-flavoured grappas also exist, a là schnapps, if you’re interested.
CANDY IS DANDY
The country of la dolce vita (literally 'the sweet life') could hardly fail to spawn lots of lovely after-dinner liqueurs, could it? Like the bitters discussed earlier, the concept of sweet liqueurs grew out of quasi-medicinal potions infused with herbs – many concocted by monks and holy men, kindly folk who knew that a spoonful (or more) of sugar would help their medicine go down. People eventually realized that the medicinal properties were bunkum, but candy-flavoured alcohol remained a thoroughly appealing idea. Today there’s a huge range of sweet digestivi to tempt Italians at the restaurant or bar, some recalling their herbal ancestors, others merely celebrating a particular fruit or flavour. Here are some of the most common…
Limoncello – Sweet, bright yellow, and served in dainty little glasses, this seems exactly the kind of drink big strong men wouldn’t be seen dead with. But macho rules don’t apply in Italy when it comes to food and drink. There’s nothing ‘unmanly’ in consuming something delicious! Once a speciality of the Italian south, limoncello is now common throughout most of the country. Restaurateurs often dole out complimentary glasses after a meal (a friend and I were once given complimentary bottles and assured that others would be forthcoming if we drained those!). A simple, cheerful drink, the quality varies considerably from maker to maker. A good limoncello has a lovely balance of sweetness and acidity and tastes intensely of lemons; a bad one is sickly sweet and tastes as synthetic as floor-cleaner.
Sambuca – Italy’s answer to Pernod and Ricard, this aniseed liqueur was born more than 100 years ago in Civitavecchia on Lazio’s coast. There are two types: the comparatively rare black Sambuca, tar-like and strongly liquorice, and the far more common white Sambuca, colourless and milder in taste. A notion persists that it’s ‘traditional’ to serve it set alight with coffee beans floating incongruously on top, but don’t expect such tourist-indulging shenanigans as a matter of course (except perhaps in Italian restaurants in Britain).
Strega – This limpid yellow concoction is probably Italy’s oldest enduring liqueur. It’s an enchanting drink with a lovely tale behind it. In the 1860s, the secret recipe was allegedly coaxed out of Benedictine monks in Benevento, Campania (a town with a rich tradition of witchy legends). Marketed as ‘Alberti’s Medicinal Elixir’, the drink failed dismally. Re-branded as ‘Witch’s Love Potion’ (strega is Italian for ‘witch’), it was a huge hit. And it is bewitching stuff – not just due to its very high alcohol content (40%). Delicate flavours of saffron, fennel, mint and other herbs mingle in a beautifully bright liquid that’s sweet but never sickly.
Galliano – This drink has nothing to do with the fashion designer, although the tall, attention-seeking bottles it comes in do vaguely resemble anorexic supermodels! Invented in 1896 and named after a war hero of the time, Galliano is, quite simply, a pretty drink – transparent gold in colour and deftly delicate in flavour. You’ll taste honey, star anise, cloves, melon, vanilla… It’s quite similar to Strega, but gentler in both flavour and alcohol content (30%).
Amaretto – The drink that launched a thousand biscuits. Think tawny-coloured, liquid marzipan. (Although, interestingly, the sweet almond flavour comes from the kernels of apricots.) The taste is like many a first love – completely uncomplicated and very, very sweet. Disaronno is Italy’s biggest brand.
Mirto – The darling of Sardinian drinks, properly called Mirto di Sardegna. There are two types: the more common purple or amber kind made from myrtle berries, and the rarer pale green stuff made from myrtle leaves. Both are elegant drinks which smell and taste like a sophisticated men’s cologne – floral and herbal. Several brands are available on Sardinia itself, while Zedda Piras dominates the nation-wide market.
Got your mouth watering? Given you a sugar-rush? Good. And I haven’t even told you yet about harder-to-find – or regional – treats like tangy Mandarinetto, floral Millefiori, hazlenutty Frangelica, herbal Centerbe, candied-cherry Maraschino, walnut Nocino…
I hope that the next time you come to the end of a meal in Italy you’ll remember that the epicurean delights – and the scope for experimentation – are far from over. Buon appetito, and buona digestione!