A tip sheet to the wonders of the Italian elixir—and six recipes that bring them to life
by FRANCESCO LAFRANCONI / photograph by NIGEL COX
Aperitifs and digestives are a European invention, just as the cocktail is an American one. In Italy, at least 20 regions produce the essence, and though ingredients may be listed on the bottle and include such things as saffron from Iran and rhubarb from China, the manufacturing process is not—for a reason: It is secret, and the techniques cannot be reverse engineered. Fortunately, the flavors are no secret. Here are some of the more distinguished brands, as well as some recipes using them...
Amaro Nonino Quintessentia is a combination of bittersweet botanicals and whole-grape grappa aged in ex-sherry barrels. It has an extraordinary fragrance of mountain herbs ennobled by the grape distillate.
Averna, the amaro of Sicily, dates back to an 1868 formula handed down for five generations. Semi-bitter, with a uniquely delicate and balanced profile, velvety and warm on the palate, it’s an expression of all the flavors and aromas of the land where it originated.
Fernet-Branca, created in 1845, has become the world’s most popular digestif, with more than 2 million cases sold globally each year. With notes that include aloe, colombo (curry), myrrh and gentian’s unmistakable tang, its repertoire of flavors is unveiled with each sip.
Aperol was created in 1919 by the Barbieri brothers in Padua, Italy. It has an unmistakable vivid orange color and a complex, rich secret formula of citrus fruits and sweet herbs.
Cynar, composed primarily of artichokes, has a distinctive taste and a bouquet evocative of peels and herbs, with a medicinal aroma. It’s popular for its slightly sweet citrus quality and pleasant bittersweet character.
Dimmi, based on northern Italian organic wheat for distillation, includes infusions of fruit flower essences and nebbiolo grappa. There’s a light touch of organic beet sugar for viscosity.
Campari, created in 1860, is the namesake elixir of Gaspare Campari, who based it on an original recipe that’s still used. The exact formula, surrounded by considerable security, includes more than 60 herbs and citrus (primarily orange), as well as spices and wood barks from all over the world.
Zucca is made from rhubarb rootstock put into an infusion with bitter orange peel, cardamom seeds and curative herbs. It has an ebony color and a pleasant, bitterish, caramelized taste that lingers on the palate.
Punta e Mes, which translates as “point and a half,” was born in 1870, when a stockbroker inadvertently ordered a vermouth with half a dose of cinchona (bitters). With notes of wormwood and a touch of sweetness, it makes a wonderful Negroni or Americano.
CAMPARI SUMMER CRUSH
2 strawberries, sliced
2–3 leaves fresh basil
2 ounces lemonade (fresh lemon juice, agave nectar and water)
1 ½ ounces Magellan gin or Belvedere pink-grapefruit vodka
3 ounces Campari seltzer*
Fresh basil sprig
Place basil and strawberries in highball glass, add lemonade, and muddle briskly. Add ice and gin or vodka. Fill with seltzer, stir and serve. Garnish with skewered strawberry wheels and fresh basil.
Add 1 cup Campari to 2 cups San Pellegrino or soda and transfer into soda siphon. Close the lid tight and charge with CO2 cartridge. Keep refrigerated.
CYNAR FRUIT CUP
1 ounce Plymouth gin
1 ounce Cynar artichoke apertif
2 ounces lemonade, made with fresh lemons
2 ounces Fever Tree ginger ale
1 orange slice
1 red apple slice
Cucumber sphere (½ inch)
Sprig of mint
Pour ingredients over ice into a highball glass. Stir and serve. Garnish with orange, red apple, cucumber and a sprig of mint.
½ ounce BarSol Pisco or Nonino Úe
¾ ounce Aperol Aperitivo
¾ ounce Dimmi Liquore di Milano
2 dashes Fee Brothers Peach Bitters
Luxardo maraschino cherry
Stir all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice then strain into chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with grapefruit and cherry.
1¾ ounces Campari
1¾ ounces Cinzano sweet vermouth (or Barolo Chinato or Punt e Mes)
½ ounce Danny DeVito Limoncello
2 sprigs of fresh thyme
2 ounces club soda
3–4 orange wheels
Place 1 sprig of thyme and lemon peel at bottom of glass and muddle briskly for few seconds to release the oils. Add ice and liquor, top with club soda then stir. For a more bitter profile, use Barolo Chinato or Punt e Mes instead of sweet vermouth. Garnish with orange wheels and sprig of thyme.
¾ ounce Averna
1 ¼ ounces rye whiskey
2 bar spoons of limoncello liqueur
4 sprigs of fresh lemon verbena
Put lemon verbena and Averna in a double old-fashioned glass and muddle briskly, dragging the herb around the bottom of the glass in order to release the oils (but avoid mincing it). Fill up glass with crushed ice and stir well, leaving the herb at the bottom. Pack with more crushed ice, then add whiskey and drizzle the limoncello. Stir and serve. Garnish with orange and lemon peels.
1 ¼ ounces Luxardo Amaro
1 ounce Carpano Antica Formula
¾ ounce Absolut Pears vodka
1 leaf lemon verbena
Stir all ingredients in mixing glass with ice. Strain into chilled cocktail martini glass or serve over a sphere of ice. Garnish with lemon and orange oils (from squeezed peels) and lemon verbena.
See why Amari—bitter herbal elixirs—are the next great Italian import >