Listen, I don’t even need to tell you – I like the Italian drinks. All of them. Including wine, beer, and soda. But especially the liqueurs had before and after dinner. And it turns out I’m not the only one, because lately the wonderful distillers of Washington state have been releasing some really tasty bottles inspired by Italian favorites. And, I was lucky enough to get to write about these delicious phenomena for Seattle magazine, in an article called Drink Up: Washington-Distilled Italian Spirits.
Spent an afternoon on pal Jeremy Holt’s (he’s the co-author of Double Take, the finest book ever about serving vegetarians and meat-eaters together, as you may or may not know, and a virtuoso chef and cocktail- and booze-maker) back deck recently, reveling in one of the few sunshine-y summer days we’ve had so far here in Seattle. And naturally, as it was summer, he brought out some of his homemade limeoncello for us to sip. See, I think of limeoncello as the sun-god of liqueurs, and think some chilled limeoncello when there’s sun out is wonderful thing. Jeremy’s recent batch was perfect, lemon-y with a kick and a smidge of sweetness. I don’t think it was exactly as the recipe in Luscious Liqueurs, but if you want to make your own, the recipe in that book will get you there. The limeoncello we had went down easy and was a good combo with a few cold PBRs:
and was fantastic with a few fresh blueberries:
Here’s hoping we get at least a few more worthy summer days—and that Jeremy doesn’t run out of limeoncello.
I recently was slinging cocktails for an Italian-themed charity event (it was for my mom’s HeartWork, if you’re interested), and the drinks were so popular (I say, humbly) that I wanted to post a couple. And, I had a few myself, so I thought they’d fit right into the What’s I’m Drinking group. But here, in this picture, it wasn’t me drinking, but Kent, one of the fantastic piano players who were tickling the ivies for the event. And what he was drinking was the La Rana d’Oro. Sounds continentally intriguing, yes? Really, though, between us, it was just an older drink called the Golden Frog, which I’d Italian-ized (in name, anyway). The drink is packed with Italian punch no matter what language the name is in, however, boasting both Galliano and Strega, two golden and delicious Italian liqueurs. It has a bit of a kick, but hey, what would you expect from a frog? Kent sure seemed to like it:
1-1/2 ounces vodka
1-1/2 ounces Galliano
1/2 ounce Strega
1/4 ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice
1. Fill a cocktail shaker halfway up with ice cubes. Add the vodka, Galliano, Strega, and lemon juice. Shake well.
2. Strain into a cocktail glass. Serve stylishly.
If you haven’t read Part 1 of our Branca Distiller tour, well, do so now. It talks lots about company history, the Collezione Branca, the Branca philosophy of novare serbando (renew but conserve), and much more. Go read it. Okay, are you back? Now we’re ready for Part 2, in which we actually get to walk around the distillery and see where the magic happens. Still with our tour guides Elisa, Marco, and Valeria, we last stopped at the Carpano area of the museum, where we learned more about Branca’s purchase of Carpano Antica (and the full Carpano family of vermouths), had a quick drink of Carpano Antica, and then got ready to hit the distillery proper. But first, as we’re walking into delicate areas, we had to suit up (attractive, aren’t we?):
Check out the wonderful Carpano ad in the background, too. Yet another piece of Branca-related advertising I wish I had framed in my house. After suiting up, we started by going through a few doors into the Borghetti coffee liqueur room. Now, here’s where I have to admit one downside for you, dear readers, in this Part 2 of the tour post. We couldn’t, in most areas of the distillery, take pictures. As mentioned in Part 1, having delicious liqueurs, vermouths, and amaros means that folks are always wanting to know how you make them. Which means even someone as un-spy-ish as me (though I could be a spy, I suppose–I have that look, right?) can’t snap snaps. Borghetti, if you don’t know (and you might not, as it’s sadly not readily available in the States) is the coffee liqueur made by the Branca company. It’s a staple in Italy (all the everyday bars/cafes we’d visit had it, usually in both big bottles and in these small, 3-inch-ish, portable bottles), and I’m not 100% sure why we don’t have it in the U.S., as it’s scrumptious. Normally, I’m not either a big coffee liqueur fan or a big coffee drinker (a lot of coffee liqueurs taste ickily chemical to me), but I really love the Borghetti, and after seeing where it’s made, I know why. It only contains coffee (freshly roaster and made there), liquor, and a natural sweetener. Walking into the room where it’s made is somewhat like walking into the best coffee roaster inside Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, as there’s a perfect sweet/coffee aroma—which matches Broghetti’s taste. Here’s what the bottle looks like, if you want to scoop some up on your travels:
From there, we saw where the ingredients in Fernet Branca are treated during production (where the secret processes mentioned in Part 1 happen), including the big iron pot (pictured in Part 1) where the spices and more are stirred up. Amazing stuff, really, as it’s partially mechanized, but still there are always workers in attendance, watching over the process. We next went to perhaps my favorite part of the whole tour (well, just hanging out with our awesome tour guides was my favorite part, but this coming up was a close second), the cask where Stravecchio Branca spends time before bottling. Stravecchio Branca is the brandy made by the Branca company, and is another item I wouldn’t mind seeing more of over here (again, it’s in most bars/cafes in Italy and is a really good, full-bodied brandy). Here’s the bottle if you ever want to try some and you see it:
But the cask (or flask, as they referred to it as) in question we could take pics of, but we didn’t have a wide enough angle lens to do it justice. See, it’s the biggest cask in Europe, and was built over a two month time period way back in 1892. And it’s massive and astounding to stand in front of:
Stravecchio was originally called “Vieux Cognac,” but they had to change the name due to the Cognac rules (about it having to be made in the Cognac region of France, that is). Today, the brandy spends some time in other casks, but each batch spends a least some time in this massive cask–which is never empty, as some is always left in to ensure that the brandy stays consistent (a nice little touch). On the back of the ginormous cask, there’s a chart that tells how full it is (somewhat like the little marks made on the wall as kids get taller), alongside a little chalkboard notepad (which is alongside my head):
My favorite part of the photo (and another reason why I loved this cask so much) is right above the “B100” where the cask looks like it’s sweating. This is a slight oozing out that happens, about which Marco said, “it is crying.” He even wiped some off on a fingertip to taste, and encouraged us to do the same–which I, naturally did. It was super-brandy-charged, and I dug it so much I went back for more (hey, I have a hard time seeing anything cry). After the Stravecchio, we wandered down into the cellars, where we viewed wooden cask after wooden cask, rows of them (all lovely, by the way), first more brandy (they start here in smaller casks before moving to the biggest cask in Europe), then the wooden casks Fernet Branca is aged within. Fernet Branca has to be aged at least a year, and the brandy for three, so you can imagine that there are tons of casks (not to mention that Branca Menta is also made with aged Fernet Branca, on to which is added pure peppermint oil, sweetening, and love). All these hundreds of casks, the giant cask, the production facilities upstairs, the museum from Part 1, and the offices live in this one building, in the center of Milan, a bustling city. There’s something almost otherworldly about it, especially when wandering through the building’s many rooms and passages. One could easily get lost down here—you’d never go thirsty, luckily. Also luckily, we didn’t have to worry about getting lost, because we were with our friendly and knowledgeable (and fun) tour guides. Check them out, aren’t they great:
After seeing the casks, and saying our goodbyes, we walked out in Milan craving a little Fernet Branca or Branca Menta. Of course, we had a four-and-a-half hour drive ahead of us, so the cravings just became sharper, until we were back in our home Italian neighborhood, where we could indulge our Branca thirst at Bar Fizz. Thanks again Fratelli Branca Distillerie, we had a great time.
Back in April (when still living in Italy), wife Nat and I took the road north from our Italian pre-tirement home, driving up to Milan so we could make a visit to the Fratelli Branca Distillerie, where Fernet Branca and many other delicious drinkables are made. When we showed up in the morning for our tour, we weren’t sure at all what to expect—a little talking, a little walking around the building, we just didn’t know. But it ended up being an amazing day, where we learned a ton and had some fun (huge props to Laura Baddish for helping to set it up, too). Once past the guards (serious liqueurs always need guards at the gates, cause secret formulas are too tempting to weaker minded individuals), we were met by three swell Italian folks: Elisa, Marco, and Valeria. Marco gave most of the tour, with tons of expert translating (his English is better than our Italian, but not by enough to carry on in-depth conversations) and more touring by Elisa, with Valeria filling in the cracks.
The tour started in the Collezione Branca, which is a museum created by the Branca family, a museum in the distillery (the aromas of Fernet Branca and other drinks waft up as you wander the museum), collecting Branca historical items, memorabilia, and more. It really serves as a tangible history of the company in many ways, and was full of intriguing artifacts. Right at the beginning are portraits of those family members who were there at the beginning, with a picture of Bernardino Branca in the middle:
Bernardino was the original creator of the famous Fernet Branca, developing the formula with Dr. Fernet, a Swedish doctor, to assist malaria and cholera patients. With this aim, it was first tested in hospitals (where it was shown to help patients) and first sold in local farmacias, or pharmacies (quick aside: Italian pharmacists have a lot more leeway than those here in the States, in prescribing and diagnosing). The first cask that Bernardino made this herbal health mixture in is also in the museum, and lives right under his portrait:
When walking through the museum, we learned more about the Branca family, which still runs the company today (the head of the company, Count Niccolo Branca, is the 5th generation of the family to make Fernet Branca). The family focus isn’t just with the Brancas, either, as our tour guide Marco is the 4th generation of his family to work at Branca (he’s been there since 1972). This lengthy dedication and devotion is quite remarkable, and shows in the end results: the liqueurs. There are lots more interesting family stories, such as those about Maria Scala, who married the third son of Bernardino and eventually became one of the first women in charge of a large company, and who originally developed the focus on continually creative Branca advertising—the company has always been on the forefront of advertising and advertising trends. One of my favorite, and a somewhat obscure, piece of marketing is this Branca suitcase:
I would carry one of those in an instant (if you have one you’re tired of, please let me take it off your hands). The museum also has loads of production implements from the past, and some that were used in the past but are still utilized today, which points towards the Branca philosophy of novare serbando, or renew but conserve. For one example, Marco showed us these giant iron pots for herb maceration and heating, which are still used today, though the stirring is done mechanically instead of by hand:
The pots were at one point stirred with both iron and wood stirrers (depending on the spices), and as the iron sticks were “cleaning” the pots, many thought that Fer-net came from some rendition of “clean iron.” Which is, I have to say, a great story. Fernet Branca gets its signature bitter, herbal, rich taste from an wide assortment of herbs, roots, spices, and other ingredients, and there’s a giant, mind-blowing, round table in the museum where you can see the complete layout of ingredients:
I knew (hey, I’ve done a little research before) that there were around 40 ingredients, and that the list included such far-reaching items as gentian root, rhubarb, myrrh, cinchona bark, galanga, saffron, and others, but I learned while there that all the products used are completely natural, and that all the suppliers have to sign a code of sorts, that says the products were obtained in a non-exploitive way. Another (and this was fascinating to me, but hey, I’m interested in odd things) fact I learned is that the real secret in the secret recipe for Fernet-Branca is how the ingredients are treated in production. Only the family knows, and the Count himself still does the treating (which means he has to go to the other distillery, in Argentina, regularly). Cool, isn’t it? After spices, we got to see tons of hip old Fernet-Branca ads, including the first one to use the eagle-over-the-world logo:
This logo was created in 1895, due to the large amount of Fernet Branca imitations being shuffled out of back alleys—always look for the eagle bringing the Branca over the world to ensure you get the real thing. There are a number of side rooms along the museum’s main path, where you can get a better picture of how Branca workers worked back in the day (as they say), with an herbalist’s room, chemist’s room:
and more. The museum is persistent in remembering not just what was made, but those who made it—not to mention that the museum itself was built by current workers at the plant. Again, there’s that whole atmosphere of devotion to people and product, to stories and to history. After looking over the production process, the spices, and hearing about the history contained within, we walked into a room full of bottles, whole tables of old Fernet Branca bottles, and bottles of other products brought out by the company, including older bottles of Branca Menta (a minty-er and sweeter version of Fernet Branca released in 1965), bottles of Carpano Antica (Branca bought the Carpano company years ago in a particularly astute moment—Carpano Antica being the first Italian vermouth, and one still made partially by hand, and the Carpano company also making Italian vermouth Punt e’ Mes), and more bottles. There’s even a whole cabinet of Fernet Branca impersonators (I suppose success always leads to imitation):
Then we stopped in the bar room (of course the museum was going to have a bar at some point), talked a bit more about advertising, had some Carpano Antica (which I loved even before stopping, and which I was happy to have a glass of even at 11:30 AM), and saw a host of happening ads for the non-Fernet-Branca-Branca brands. If the tour ended now, I would have been more than happy–but we still had the actual distillery to see! Which I’ll talk more about in Part 2, so come on back. Oh, first, check out this sweet and colorful Punt e’ Mes ad (one of about, say, 96, that I wished I had on my walls at home):
Living in Italy (as I am of this writing, at least), I’ve picked up a small addiction–to mirtillo juice (mirtillo=blueberries), which I like to have in the morning with my croissant. It’s a health kick (or seems to be) and has a great taste and color. Recently, however, thanks to my pals/landlords Andrew and Marianne (proprietors of the wondrous Amici Villas), I’ve discovered the grown-up sibling of my beloved mirtillo juice, the fantastic mirtillo liqueur. See, Andrew and Marianne picked up a bottle for me not too long ago, and it’s delicious, not too sweet and bursting with flavor, and I’ve been digging it solo and mixed. It’s especially good in the below drink, named after Andrew and Marianne’s lovable pup, Oscar, who is frizzante, just like this slightly sparkling sparkler. To round out the somewhat Italian experience (or, Italian-British, much like the above-mentioned Andrew and Marianne, cause gin’s involved, too), and to bring the frizzante, I combined the mirtillo with Donini wineries (read more about Donini here) Brigante (a bianco frizzante):
1 ounce gin
3/4 ounce mirtillo liqueur
1/4 ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 ounces Brigante (or other frizzante white wine)
1. Fill a cocktail shaker halfway full with ice cubes. Add the gin, mirtillo, and lemon juice. Shake well.
2. Strain into a Champagne flute, add the Brigante, and stir briefly. Sip and enjoy.
Even though I’m currently living in the world’s most wonderful land of liqueurs (that’s Italy, yo), I still like to make a few of my own (homemade liqueur freaks like me are like that, yo). Recently, I noticed that in the yard we had a ton of winter herby stalwart rosemary, and though, “why not a rosemary kinda liqueur, yo?” I wanted to have my new liqueur be a colder-weather one (matching up to the rosemary and the season I made it within), which led to picking apples as my other main ingredient. The end result was a rich, textured mix, one that I’ve been having solo, but one I can envision mixing with everything from cider to rum to mornings, yo. Just be sure to swirl and swirl, cause the apple and rosemary need to be cuddle up well—it is chilly, after all.
1-1/2 cups fresh rosemary
4 cups vodka
1 lemon peel
2 apples, cored and chopped roughly
2 cups simple syrup
1. Place the rosemary in a large glass container with a good lid. Muddle it up a bit, but don’t beat it to a pulp.
2. Add the vodka to the rosemary and swirl it around. Then add the lemon and apples, and swirl a bit more. Seal the container, and put it in a cool, dry place away from the sun. Let sit for two weeks, swirling every day or so.
3. Open the container, add the simple syrup to the mix, and stir. Seal and again place in that cool, dry spot. Let sit for two more weeks, swirling occasionally.
4. Strain through cheesecloth at least once, and maybe twice if extra-cloudy, and then pour into large bottles, small bottles, or straight into your mouth.
A Note: Yo.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: most times (that makes it sound sort folksy), most times I say, the simple things are the finest. Example A: I picked up a bottle of Punt e Mes (you probably know this, but it’s a particular Italian vermouth, fragrant and citrus and herbal in action) at one of my local stores here in Italy recently, and instead of getting all jiggy with it, poured it simple over ice, and then topped it with ginger ale (the Conad, which is a line of stores here, house brand, which is quite dandy, dry and ginger-tastic). An orange slice might have made it better, but you know what? It was a fine aperitif even without said slice. And so simple. You should make one yourself. Right now:
1-1/2 ounces Punt e Mes
3 ounces ginger ale
1. Fill a highball glass three-quarter-ish up with ice cubes. Add the Punt e Mes. Top with the ginger ale. Stir. Be happy for simple things.