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Italians are renowned for enjoying the finer things in life and when it comes to their liqueurs they make no exceptions to this rule! Italy produces a wide range of delicious liqueurs which are often served in a small straight glass either before or after dinner.
These liqueurs have been a part of Italian culture for centuries and although they are usually still served in the traditional way many are also seeing something of a renaissance as they are incorporated into modern cocktail recipes. Tasting these liqueurs are one of my favorite things to do as an expat in Italy. Thankfully many of these liqueurs are also available in the wine and spirits stores in Philadelphia.
The Top Italian Liqueurs
The following are the most famous liqueurs:
Originating in Saronno, Disaronno is made using a standard base spirit, burnt sugar, more than a dozen different herbs, fruits, spices and apricot kernel oil. Disaronno is said to have been first invented in the 1500s by the Reina family who have maintained control of its production ever since.
Disaronno has an extremely unique taste which is a combination of apricot and almond flavors, as a result of the apricot kernel oil that is used in its production. Disaronno is usually served on the rocks or neat in a short glass although it is also used in quite a few popular cocktails including the Italian Margarita and a Disaronno Fizz.
Disaronno is very popular in the United States also.
This herbal liqueur is made using a mix of spices including saffron and juniper as well as aloe, mint, chamomile and rhubarb. Fernet has a complex flavor which is oddly bittersweet with soft undertones of mint.
Originating in Milan, the most famous Fernet brand is called Fernet Branca which was first developed by Bernardino Branca in the mid 1840s. Fernet is hugely popular in Italy and Argentina but in recent years it has become more widely known due to its use in cocktails like the Hanky Panky and the Toronto.
This delicious nutty liqueur was invented in Piedmont and is made by distilling a hazelnut infusion. This infusion is then blended with other flavors including chocolate, vanilla or coffee. Finally, it is blended with a base alcohol, water and sugar before it is left to age.
Frangelico traditionally comes in bottles that are shaped to look like the habit of a monk because it was originally created by monks from Piedmont and named after a hermit monk called Fra’ Angelico. This sweet tasting liqueur is well balanced with vanilla flavors and a lovely hazelnut undertone. Frangelico is usually served chilled and neat in a shot glass or mixed with soda and a dash of lime as a refreshing summer pick me up.
As one of Italy’s most famous drinks, Sambuca is a strongly flavored aniseed liqueur that is made with a closely guarded secret mixture of herbs and spices. The first person to produce sambuca was Luigi Manzi in the 19th Century in Civitavecchia.
More recently, sambuca has been made world famous by Molinari in the 1940s; and although the Molinari brand produces sambuca in a number of different flavors the traditional aniseed version is still the most popular.
Sambuca is usually served neat, in a shot glass with ice or blended with water in a taller glass. Alternatively, it is served in Italy with coffee in a Caffe Corretto that combines espresso and Sambuca, often with a teaspoon of brown sugar.
Originating in Sardinia, Mirto is produced by macerating the small bluey black berries of the myrtle plant in a base alcohol. The myrtle plant is a common shrub that grows in Sardinia and other parts of the Mediterranean which is also used to make a sauce to accompany game and other meats.
Mirto is usually consumed as a digestif in Sardinia and is generally served neat however you can also muddle in a few mint leaves to give it a bit of an extra twist.
This orange flavored liqueur was invented in Padua by the Barbieri brothers in 1919. Aperol is made with a secret recipe which includes oranges, unknown herbs and rhubarb among other ingredients.
Aperol was first created as an aperitif which was served over ice but it also tastes fantastic with fruit juices and soda. It’s deep floral flavor combines beautifully with the bitter fruity overtones making it extremely refreshing on a hot day.
In modern times the favorite way of drinking Aperol is to mix it with Prosecco and soda; known as an Aperol Spritz.
Originally produced on Capri Island, Limoncello is created with fresh lemon zest that is slowly infused with a base alcohol. This is mixed with sugar to sweeten it and then filtered and allowed to age. Limoncello is enjoyed throughout Italy but it’s most closely associated with the Amalfi Coast, Sorrento and, of course, Capri Island where it was patented in the late 1980s.
Limoncello has a bright yellow hue and a lovely fresh flavor that is aromatic and sweet with citrus overtones. It’s usually served in a chilled glass as a digestif or aperitif but it’s also a beloved ingredient in cocktails such as the Sparkling Limoncello which combines the liqueur with lemon soda, Prosecco, mint and ice.
The Limoncello is also popular in the United States.
Invented by Gaspare Campari in Novara in 1867, this aromatic Italian liqueur is made with a base alcohol that is infused with bitter extracts, citrus, ginseng, orange peel, pomegranates and even the treated bark of the cascarilla tree.
The complete method of putting together the Campari recipe is still a secret in order to protect its unique flavor from market competitors. Although originally invented as an aperitif, Campari is usually served as a cocktail today including favorites such as the Americano, the Garibaldi and the Negroni.
Heralding from Saronno, the Amaretto’s name originates from the Italian word, ‘amaro’, which means ‘bitter’. Made with a subtle combination of herbs, almonds, spices and sometimes a touch of apricot kernel oil extract. Surprisingly, despite the meaning of its name, the Amaretto is actually quite a sweet tasting liqueur with only a slightly bitter undertone.
Traditionally Amaretto is served over ice in a small glass or else with coffee or mixed with lemon juice. Today though, Amaretto is frequently used in cocktails including the beloved Godfather, the Almond Kiss and the Amaretto Sour.
This unique liqueur is produced by distilling a fermented pomace. Pomace are the solid parts of grapes that are left over after they have been pressed to make wine. Consequently, the taste of grappa depends on the type of grapes used in its production and is most strongly associated with Northern Italy although it is now made in most provinces of the country.
Grappa is broadly categorized as Grappa Bianca which is slowly aged in steel containers and the Golden Grappa which is aged in oak barrels. Grappa can be served neat in a small glass or mixed with non alcoholic beverages such as coffee or fruit juices.
This herbal liqueur is a strong digestif that was invented in Italy during the 17th Century. Amaro is made by macerating flowers, aromatic tree bark, herbs, citrus and spices which are infused into a base alcohol or wine.
This is then carefully blended and left to age after adding thick sugar syrup. Amaro has a lovely earthy taste which is quite sweet. It’s usually served in a glass tumbler with orange rind or, sometimes, a slice of fresh lime.
Sterga was invented in the 1860s and is named after the famous witches of Benevento. According to the legends, these witches had the ability to create magical potions that could cause couples to fall in love for the rest of their lives!
Made with up to 70 separate spices and herbal ingredients, Strega is generally served on the rocks in a glass. Many Italians drink a Strega with lemonade or coffee in a separate glass to wash down the taste.
Cynar is primarily made from artichoke leaves. This is what produces the tell tale aroma that Cynar is known for. It was originally invented by Angelo Dalle Molle, a Venetian businessman in the late 1940s and has since become a mainstay of Italian culture.
Cynar is best served straight in a small glass. Some Italians like to add a few drops of saline solution to their Cynar, which is an interesting take on the drink but probably not for everyone’s palette! Alternatively, you can crush up some ice cubes and then serve the Cynar over the ice for a milder version of the classic serving method.
Italian Liqueurs – A Tradition And A Way Of Life.
Liqueurs play an important role in the life of Italians and are used to aid digestion both before and after a meal. However, in recent times, many of these liqueurs are also being used as ingredients in cocktails and other long drinks.
This type of evolution is a classic element of Italian culture which seems to easily incorporate new concepts and ideas into traditions that often stretch back for centuries.
While you’re in Italy it’s certainly worth tasting some of these liqueurs; not only because they are said to aid your digestion but also because they each have their unique flavors as well as interesting historical lineages.