Drink Like an Italian: From Amaro to Limoncello, Here's What You'll Want to Sip
To drink like an Italian is to slip into an appreciative way of life. The opening gesture to an evening and what is to follow means that the aperitivo—the relaxed appetite-awakener—plays a major role in a culture renowned for their food and drink. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of variations on the theme of relatively low alcohol-by-volume aperitivi, many of them involving stimulating and bitter flavors to be savored slowly. Post-dinner, there are the digestivi, drunk small and neat. They may be searing, mellow, or sweet. They are often liqueurs intended to aid in digestion, but they can also be spirits intended to be sipped to warm or relax. We have chosen nine Italian drinks to give you a taste of what it might be like to visit Italy, no passport required.
Amari (amaro is singular) are a class of bittersweet, herbaceous liqueurs. Think Campari, Aperol, and Fernet. But almost every region of Italy has its own amaro, each reflecting the distinct profiles of local and imported botanicals. They can be silky, more or less bitter or sweet, and play very well with other flavors. Pair Prosecco and Aperol for that vivid Venetian spritz, or enjoy something like the Negroni, the Americano, the Boulevardier. Many amari are also appealing poured over ice or cut with good tonic water and a twist of your favorite citrus.
Unlike an amaro, which opens an evening, an amaretto is a digestivo, created to be sipped at the close of a meal. There are hundreds of brands of amaretti. All sweet liqueurs, they rely on the almond-shaped kernels of apricots to give them a distinctive, marzipan-like fragrance and flavor (and yes, Amaretto cookies do taste just the same, in crunchy form!). In cocktails, combine judicious amounts of amaretto with sharp flavors like lime or passionfruit juices, or pair them with spirits like bourbon and mezcal.
To be named a brandy in Italy, the spirit—made from white wine—must be aged for at least twelve months in large barrels or a minimum of six months in smaller 100-litre casks. Vecchia Romagna is to Italy what Cognac is to France, albeit less well-known (and harder to source) here in the United States. It is produced in Bologna, using a two-part distillation process. The brandy is then aged in two different types of barrels before being blended, rested, and bottled. While the younger brandies are a versatile cocktail component, longer-aged Vecchia Romagna should be appreciated more solemnly, solo.
Grappa is the clear fire that is sipped neat after a happy dinner or upon receipt of big news, both good and bad. It is a pomace-brandy; pomace refers to the solid, fruity stuff left over after any fermentation process. Grappa is made from grape pomace (like French Marc)—skins, seeds, stems. It is not aged in oak, and retains a fierce clarity, taking on no soothing caramel from wood. Departing from tradition, we think it's pretty good, nipped neat from a hipflask after a cold hike in winter mountains (just be sure you've reached your destination, first!).
Closely associated with southern Italy, limoncello tends to invite a smile: Packed with the sunny flavor of local lemons it is considered a necessary finale to a meal in Sicily and is served very, very cold. Lemon zest is macerated in high-proof spirit to extract its oils, before being mixed with sugar syrup. It is a digestivo that is often made at home. While limoncello is very sweet its bracingly refreshing citrus backbone keeps it from being cloying.
Be transported to Sardinia with your first sip of the myrtle-flavored liqueur whose fragrance is (almost) like a stroll through the fragrant maquis, the indigenous scrub-vegetation of the Mediterranean. Exhale. The ripe fruit of varieties of Myrtus communis is harvested in midwinter, yielding either mirto rosso (red), or bianco (white), depending on the variety of myrtle, as well as one based on an infusion of the leaves. The fruits are infused in high-proof alcohol before sugar is added.
In the early Italian summer, fragrant green walnuts are harvested, still in their unripe husks, and destined for somber brown liqueur. While green, and well before their shells have hardened, they are wildly aromatic. Steeped for months in high-proof liquor, the liquid turns gradually sepia, then dark brown. Spices and sugar are added, varying according to regional traditions. The potent digestivo is sipped traditionally in midwinter, around Christmas.
Rosolio, whose heritage is said to be centuries-old, is hard to pin down in terms of origins, definitions, and even etymology. Does it have to contain rose petals? Is it really named after an arcane name—Rosa solis—of a species of sundew? Regardless, it is on our list due essentially to a triumph of creative marketing: In 2016 bartender and champion of Italian booze Giuseppe Gallo launched Italicus, based on the spirit of royal rosolios of the past, and referencing an 1894 recipe he sourced for a Rosolio di Torino. Tinkering with overly floral ingredients he decided to inflect his blend with piercing bergamot (the perfumed citrus that famously flavors Earl Grey tea). The mixology world turned giddy for this complex, fortified white wine.
Like their French counterparts, Italian vermouths are fortified and aromatized red and white wines. The requisite addition of bitter wormwood (Artemisia species) sets them apart from other fortified wines. Italy is still associated with sweeter and red vermouths that employ warmer spices than drier, more herbaceous white vermouth, but this generalization now has many exceptions. The botanicals used to flavor vermouths are closely guarded secrets, but most share the trait of a bittersweet backbone, valued for its appetite-stimulating properties. The best way to sip this classy aperitivo is simply: over a couple of ice cubes, allowing you taste the wine without any distraction.