Guide to Italian Spirits

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…

We’ll start with highly popular group of drinks we can call ‘bitters’. 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.

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 neat 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.

Thirsting yet? I do hope I’ve whet your appetite for Italian drinks, and that you’ll be ordering with confidence next time you’re at the bar. Do check out my other Italian drinks article on this website, which guides you through the country’s lush, sugary liqueurs. Mmmmm. Cin-cin! Cheers!