Whether relaxing during a mid-day siesta or unwinding after a long day at work, Italians delight in sitting back and sipping a good drink. Though you may imagine them swirling a glass of Chianti or pouring a bottle of Nastro Azzurro, Italians have in fact been mixing up the occasional cocktail for decades. Italy is home to some of the world’s finest liqueurs—enjoyed not only by the natives but by drinkers all over the globe. More than 50 different types of liqueurs are produced in the various regions of Italy, but only a hand-selected number have established themselves as the bona fide ‘kings’.
Italian liqueurs fall into three general categories—sweet, semisweet (or bittersweet) and bitter—giving you a plethora of options, depending on the maturity of your palette, and offering numerous alternatives to the monotonous gin-and-tonic or rum-and-coke combos.
In the world of sweet liqueurs, Frangelico has been a top its class for the past decade, thanks to its distinctive taste. This hazelnut-and herb-flavored liqueur comes from the town of Canale in Northern Italy. Not a devastatingly strong liqueur in terms of alcohol content (48 proof, 24 percent alcohol), Frangelico can be enjoyed in a handful of ways—most commonly with soda, coffee or espresso. The hazelnuts are crumbled up and soaked in the base spirit, which in turn absorbs the nutty flavor. The liqueur is then filtered, sweetened and bottled. Lifting the glass to your mouth, you draw in this unique nutty flavour that awards the Frangelico its unriveled taste.
If you’d like another option for sweet liqueurs, try the famed Sambuca spirit, which is a tasty infusion of star anise and white elder flowers. The careful balance of alcohol and sugar keeps this digestive powerful but not overwhelming. On occasion, you will see Sambuca served as a long drink with water. Typically, people either hate Sambuca or love it, as it holds a preferential taste with hints of licorice.
Limoncello is a widely popular liqueur with a semisweet taste. One of Italy’s most recognizable and celebrated drinks, it is becoming increasingly popular in English-speaking countries across the globe, especially in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. This delightful liqueur has gained more notoriety of late as celebrities Danny Devito and Avril Lavigne have both made public references advocating it. Limoncello, made from lemon rinds, alcohol, sugar and water, is normally served chilled as an after-dinner digestive. As many of you may imagine, with lemons and sugar as two of the main ingredients, Limoncello carries a sweet taste without being excesively bitter. The best Limoncello hails from southern Italy, specific to such Mediterranean areas as the Amalfi coast and the islands of Capri and Sicily, where the finest lemons are cultivated. Though it’s mainly produced in the south, Limoncello is enjoyed by drinkers all across Italy.
An alternative to the zesty Limoncello is the heavily advertised Campari. This bright red cordial is extremely versatile as it can be served with grapefruit or orange juice, soda tonic water or sparkling wine, on the rocks or straight up. It is also an essential ingredient in the popular Negroni cocktail. What’s more, Campari’s secret recipe incorporates over 60 ingredients and has been unaltered since 1860. The liqueur is produced in the town of Novara in northern Italy. Campari is favorite among bar-goers in central and northern Italy as a before-dinner drink, an aperitif.
It’s rare, if not impossible, to enjoy Italy’s bitter liqueurs on the first few tries. Much like Scotch, bitters are an acquired taste that may take years to develop. Among the bitters is Amaro Fernet Branca, a top-notch liqueur made from an assortment of 27 herbs and spices, including rhubarb, myrrh, chamomile, cardamom, aloe, and saffron. Like the Campari mystery, the recipe for Fernet Branca has forever been kept a secret. This beverage is commonly mixed with coffee or espresso. It has recently become a popular mix with Coca-Cola. When served straight up, Fernet Branca is meant to be enjoyed by only the most experienced connoisseur.
Grappa, another well-known Italian bitter liqueur which has been gaining more and more recognition in different parts of the world, is fermented from the peels, seeds, and stems of grapes. Northern Italy is the central hub for this clear Italian brandy—it’s in this area that the best concentration of Grappa grapes can be maintained. Like wine, the flavor of Grappa depends on the type and quality of the grapes used. It’s mainly consumed as a digestive after-dinner drink, although it may be mixed with espresso to create a delicious café corretto.
Consider this a mere introduction into the world of Italian liqueurs, as there are dozens of quality products. When you’ve grown weary of your current cocktail, explore these liqueurs and you might just discover an entirely different drink.