If the world of Italian wine seems vast, consider the broad spectrum of spirits produced within its borders. From amaros to sambucas, grappas and more, Italy is a prolific producer of excellent spirits.
It’s a jumble of alcohols and ingredients, but here’s how to put Italy’s boozy bounty into perspective: Consider where each originates. Just like wines, spirits have their own sense of terroir.
Often, liquor traditions start with the local raw materials, like the roots and herbs grown at high elevations that are steeped into bracing, herbal Alpine amaros.
Naturally, the major grape-producing regions yield grappas, brandies and vermouths. And for centuries, southern Italy’s abundant citrus has inspired distillers to capture those sunny fruits in luscious liqueurs.
“You cannot truly know a place in Italy if you don’t sit down at a table and taste the typical products from that area,” says Matteo Meletti, proprietor of Meletti liqueurs.
“The various preparations of pasta, meat and seafood, the traditional wines and sweets, can vary greatly from one area to another,” he says.
“It is the same for spirits.”
Here are some of the country’s best spirits, and how they’re often enjoyed.
Of all the anisettes in Italy, Meletti lays claim to being the oldest, dating back five generations to 1870, when Silvio Meletti meticulously experimented with anise plants from various provinces.
Ultimately, Silvio determined that the best anise grew in the clay soils of Ascoli Piceno, on the Adriatic Coast directly east of Rome. The result is a liqueur with a pungent aroma hinting at anise and fennel, and a mellow, sippable flavor that slowly unfurls fiery cinnamon, Dutch licorice and sweet herbal hints of sarsaparilla.
Recipe courtesy Dallas Taylor, bartender, Oddfellows, Seattle
3-4 mint sprigs, plus 1 sprig for garnish
2 ounces Meletti Anisette
¾ ounce lime juice
½ ounce simple syrup
1 egg white
Crush the mint sprigs in your hand and place in bottom of mixing glass. Add remaining ingredients, except garnish, and ice. Shake vigorously and strain into a Collins glass filled with fresh ice. Garnish with the mint sprig.
90 Meletti Anisette (Italy; Opici Wines, Glen Rock, NJ).
abv: 34% Price: $19
This bracing amaro is made in the Valtellina mountains, in the Lombardy region near the border of Switzerland, an area noted for its pristine ski resorts.
Created in 1875 by pharmacist Francesco Peloni, this brawny, bitter beauty does have a medicinal touch to it.
Befitting its Alpine roots, it’s made using a blend of 20 mountain herbs and spices, resulting in a complex, forest flavor. Relatively new to the U.S., mixologists love it, as it adds a clean pine flavor to cocktails.
Recipe courtesy Barley & Grain, New York City
1 teaspoon Bénédictine
½ ounce Braulio Amaro
½ ounce Heitz ruby port
2 ounces Domaine du Tariquet VS Armagnac
2 dashes orange bitters
Orange peel, for garnish
Add the Bénédictine to a coupe glass. Gently turn the glass to coat the inside of it with the liqueur. Spill out the excess.
In a cocktail shaker filled with ice, add the remaining ingredients and shake well. Strain the drink into the prepared glass and garnish with a thick piece of orange peel.
89 Bràulio Amaro Alpino (Italy; Domaine Select Wine Estates, New York, NY).
abv: 21% Price: $34
Turin, site of the 2006 Winter Olympics, is also the capital of Piedmont, home to many of Italy’s great red wines. So it makes perfect sense for one of country’s best sweet vermouths to hail from here.
As the story goes, in the late 1700s, wine merchant Antonio Benedetto Carpano took locally produced Muscatel and flavored it with herbs, spices and fruit peels. Today, this richly fruity sweet vermouth is a staple in Americanos and other aperitivos.
An equally delectable dry version, Carpano Bianco, recently debuted in the U.S. It may actually be closer to Antonio’s original creation.
Recipe courtesy Paul McGee, associate partner, RPM Italian, Chicago
1½ ounces Carpano Antica sweet vermouth
¾ ounce Campari
4½ ounces Prosecco
Orange peel, to garnish
In a Champagne flute, combine the vermouth and Campari, and stir. Top up with the Prosecco and garnish with the orange peel.
95 Carpano Antica Formula (Italy; Wilson Daniels, St. Helena, CA).
abv: 16.5% Price: $35/1 L
Bergamot orange groves grow along a stretch of the Calabrian coastline, wrapping around the toe of southern Italy’s boot. While the fruit is too tart to eat, the peel is steeped to make orange liqueur, as in Caffo Solara. (Essential oils extracted from the peel are also used to flavor teas, like Earl Grey.)
This luscious, brandy-based orange liqueur is rich with orange blossom aromas and flavors and has a long, vanilla-tinged finish.
Recipe courtesy Ron Boyd, bar manager, Plum Bar, Oakland, CA
2 ounces Breaking & Entering Bourbon
¾ ounce Caffo Solara
¼ ounce Nocino
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Orange peel, for garnish
In a mixing glass filled with ice, combine all ingredients, except the garnish, and stir. Strain into an Old Fashioned glass and serve with an orange twist.
95 Caffo Solara (Italy; Caffo Beverages, Carlstadt, NJ).
abv: 40% Price: $27
Sunny Sicily provides the sweet, fragrant lemons that are macerated into limoncello (further north, it’s sometimes called limoncino).
Many versions of limoncello are pale and cloudy, but Pellegrino’s version (spelled with an e instead of an i) is transparent yellow and, thanks in part to a pinch of saffron, lollipop-bright.
While limoncello is often the perfect refreshing punctuation to a warm-weather meal, it can be frappéed with ice into a wonderful granita as well.
Recipe courtesy Tim Master, director of specialty spirits and trade education, Frederick Wildman and Sons, New York City
1½ ounces Pellegrino Lemoncello
½ ounce Green Chartreuse
3 ounces club soda
Lemon wheel, for garnish
Combine all ingredients in an Old Fashioned glass filled with ice and stir. Garnish with a lemon wheel.
89 Lemoncello Pellegrino (Italy; Frederick Wildman & Sons, New York, NY).
abv: 32% Price: $25
Friuli, a province in northeastern Italy, is a grape-growing region famed for its white wines. It also yields a number of grape brandies and their unaged counterparts, grappa.
Grappa Nonino Antica Cuvée Riserva, aged 18 months, is almost a hybrid between brandy and grappa. Its bright topaz hue and butterscotch flavor makes it a perfect pairing with rich, fruity desserts.
Although Nonino is best known for its grappas, it also makes Amaro Nonino from the roots and herbs that grow in the high mountains surrounding Friuli. It’s well worth seeking out.
Recipe courtesy Antonio Di Franco, bartender, Hotel de la Poste, Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy
¾ ounce Grappa Nonino
1 ounce grapefruit juice
⅓ ounce raspberry puree
⅓ ounce simple syrup
Raspberry, for garnish
In cocktail shaker filled with ice, combine all ingredients. Shake well and strain into a martini glass. Garnish with a raspberry.
91 Grappa Nonino AnticaCuvée Riserva (Italy; Terlato Wines International, Hoboken, NJ).
abv: 43% Price: $114
In 1814, Giuseppe Casoni began distilling liqueurs in the small town of Finale Emilia, within the celebrated culinary region of Emilia-Romagna.
Aperitivo fans may note this product’s similarities to Aperol—the rosy-bright hue and the mild, bittersweet flavor. Made using local herbs, fruits and seeds, this delicate liqueur also features a floral note on the light, elegant finish.
Serve spritz-style—topped with Prosecco and a splash of soda water.
Dizzy Blonde Negroni
Recipe courtesy Abigail Gullo, bar chef, SoBou, New Orleans
1 ounce gin
1 ounce Casoni 1814
1 ounce Dolin dry vermouth
½ ounce Cointreau
Splash of soda water
Grapefruit peel, for garnish
In a rocks glass filled with ice, combine all ingredients and garnish with a twist of grapefruit peel.
92 Casoni 1814 Aperitivo Liqueur (Italy; Domaine Select Wine Estates, New York, NY).
abv: 15% Price: $18
- 2Meletti Anisette
- 3Bràulio Amaro Alpino
- 4Carpano Antica Formula
- 5Caffo Solara
- 6Lemoncello Pellegrino
- 7Grappa Nonino
- 8Casoni 1814