I was enjoying an evening at a fancy Italian restaurant with a large group last week, and I noticed several people ordering spirits instead of wine.
Italian wine and food are famous the world over, but the hard liquors of Italy are somewhat less popular.
If you were boozing back in the swinging seventies, you probably had a bottle of Frangelico in your liquor cabinet. Frangelico is that hazelnut liqueur in a bottle shaped like a monk’s habit, complete with the cotton sash around the waist.
Frangelico went out of favour with the last days of disco, but has recently been enjoying a resurgence in popularity, probably thanks to those millennials discovering it for the first time.
Frangelico comes from the Alba region of Italy, which is unsurprisingly famous for its abundant hazelnut harvests. If hazelnuts are to your liking, you will also be happy to hear that Nutella and Ferrero Rocher also come from the Alba region, as do the highly sought Barbera d’Alba wines.
Limoncello is another Italian liqueur, and quite possibly the simplest, made from lemon peel, alcohol and sugar.
Unlike other spirits, Limoncello does not have a long and sordid history, being a relative newcomer to the world of booze. The first Limoncello is thought to have been invented on the Amalfi coast in the early 1900s, but was relatively unknown until 1988, when it exploded onto the world scene, thanks to an Italian entrepreneur deciding to start producing Limoncello in industrial quantities for export.
I have even made Limoncello at home by carefully zesting the peels from a dozen lemons into a two litre mason jar, and then pouring in a bottle of vodka. Let that sit in a cool dark location for a month for the infusion to complete, then strain out the solids through coffee filters. Finally, add 3 cups of water and 3 cups of sugar, stir well, and keep in the freezer until ready to serve.
Grappa is yet another Italian spirit, and one with which I am more familiar. Unlike that young upstart known as Limoncello, Grappa has a history going back more than a thousand years
While Grappa is considered a fancy drink today, its origins are decidedly less refined. When the medieval peasants were toiling in the vineyards for their wealthy landlords, they really looked forward to a stiff drink at the end of the day.
Unfortunately, the peasants from a millennia ago could not afford the expensive wine they were working so hard to make for the local lords and ladies, so they took the crushed grapes, skins, and stems that were left over after the winemaking process, and distilled it into a fierce liquor.
The process is quite simple – since the grape skins are high in natural sugars, just throwing in some yeast starts the whole mess fermenting. After the mash has fermented for a while, the alcohol level was increased through distillation.
For nearly a thousand years, Grappa was nothing more than rotgut Italian moonshine. It took until the 1960s for Grappa to make the transition to a premium spirit, when several of the larger Grappa producers decided to industrialize the production process, rather than leaving it to haphazard collection and distillation by the poor and downtrodden vineyard workers.
This produced a much cleaner, fruitier, and more elegant Grappa, eliminating the harsh nail-polish aromas and taste so commonly associated with the spirit. Luckily, at the same time, North America experienced an explosion in popularity of Italian cuisine, and Grappa rode on the coattails of pasta dishes to take its place as a classy liquor in its own right.
Saving the most famous for last, Sambuca is another thousand-year old liqueur from Italy, made from the white petals of the elderberry flower and flavoured with licorice root or aniseed oil.
All the countries in the Mediterranean have their own version of a liqueur made from anise, with histories dating back a thousand years or more. Italy is the home of Sambuca, while Greece has Ouzo, Lebanon has Arak, Turkey has Raki, Spain has Anís, and so on.
Sambuca tends to be more heavily sweetened than the other Anise-based liqueurs of neighbouring countries, which may explain why it is the most popular option in the export markets.
Whatever your pleasure, there is sure to be an Italian spirit to your liking. Ask your friendly server the next time you are dining at an Italian restaurant, and try a few for yourself!