Story by Manos Angelakis
Bottle photos by the producers and importers.

blackberry cocktail

Aperitivi & Digestivi
Italian Liqueurs

The Italian peninsula sends to the rest of the world far more than just great wines and cheeses, fast cars, sultry actresses, and temperamental tenors. It’s also the source of some of the most complex and sought-after liqueurs.

If you are partial to summer spritzes, I’m sure you have in your home-bar Aperol, Sambuca, Limoncello, Strega, Fernet Branca, Campari, Vermouth or a number of other bottles. Every region in Italy makes its own liqueurs; most are iconic and give distinctive taste and flavor to cocktails or are used as sipping spirits to either stimulate the appetite (aperitivo) or assist in the digestion (digestivo).


fabrizia limoncello bottle

Pallini Limoncello

When I travel to Campania or anywhere around the Gulf of Naples, the Sorrentine Peninsula and the coast of Amalfi, every restaurant you go to has its own homemade Limoncello. The recipe for this fruity tipple is pretty straightforward: neutral distillate -- most commonly grappa, macerated rinds of local lemons that have intense aromatics, and simple syrup. This tasty digestif finds itself on nearly every Southern Italian table.

Meletti Limonchelo is one of the best known; it strikes the perfect balance between fresh, tart, and sweet. Meletti exclusively uses lemon peels from the coastal groves of Sorrento to create this enjoyable liqueur. Flavors of fresh-squeezed lemons and a touch of sweetness dominate the palate. No coloring or additives are used. 

Another Limoncello we really liked is Fabrizia Limoncello, a sample bottle of which was sent to us when Fabrizia Lemon Baking Company sent a package of outstanding baked goods -- including great biscotti -- all made with Limoncello (see Fabrizia Lemon Baking Company article). Fresh lemon flavor is derived from rinds of Femminello St. Teresa lemons and a touch of sweetness dominate this elixir.

For a cocktail mixer that isn't too expensive and always maintains quality, we have in our bar Pallini Limoncello. This liqueur was first crafted in 1875 by the Pallini family, who only uses Sfusato lemons sourced from the Amalfi Coast. The fruit is hand-picked and the rind is immediately infused to retain freshness and flavor. We like the Pallini brand because it doesn't taste like a lemon lollipop (fault found in some other brands); it tastes like sweet lemon pulp and zest with a kick, and it blends easily.


Though most brands keep their recipes secret, Fernet Branca is typically made with a blend of various spices and botanicals such as saffron, juniper, rhubarb, aloe, chamomile, and mint, to name but a few of the known ingredients. Because of the extensive list of elements, Fernet is characterized by its complexity and a usually unique, bittersweet flavor. The most popular brand in Italy is the Milan-based Fernet Branca, invented in 1845 by Bernandino Branca. Italians prefer to enjoy it as a digestif or incorporate it into café correto.

Liquore Strega

Strega Liqueur is an herbal Italian liqueur with a unique flavor and a distinctive bright yellow color from saffron infused when the spirit is created. It hails from the town of Benevento, in Campania, Italy, and is known as the "witches liqueur."

In ancient times, the town of Benevento was considered a refuge of withes and according to local lore the secret recipe was given to Giuseppe Alberti by a witch, when he saved her after she was trapped by a fallen tree in the woods. A very popular liqueur in Italy, it's enjoyed on its own or in cocktails. All the 70 spices and herbs that comprise the secret recipe, selected from all over the world, especially the fennel, make it an ideal digestif – and there are lots of cocktail recipes it can be used in.  To this day, only two people in the company actually know the exact secret formula for Liquore Strega.

Strega is aged in ash barrels over a long period of time to ensure a perfect blending of the different aromas and flavors. The distillate is 40% proof and after the ageing process is complete, the liqueur is bottled and distributed. Italian bitter aperitifs have seen a recent resurgence in the U.S. and Strega has a singular niche, primarily because it stands out in a category all its own: predominately savory, but still sweeter than many of the other Italian aperitivi. Because of its complex flavor profile it’s a favorite among American mixologists, but Italians also use it poured ever desserts, sometimes just drizzling it over chocolate cake or gelato and, of course, when making espresso correto.

During a recent bar hopping adventure, I had a very interesting cocktail called Witch Smash that blends Strega with Tequila, lemon juice, fresh mint, smashed raspberries and simple syrup.

Luxardo’s Maraschino Originale

Another aperitivo that came in the same package with the Strega was Luxardo’s Maraschino Originale.

Bright and clear, the Marasca cherry liqueur has been made in Padova since 1821. It features an earthy nose and a sweet, creamy berry flavor with spice and roasted nuts on the palate. When Luxardo marasca cherries are harvested at the beginning of every summer, they are put in an alcoholic infusion in larch-wood vats together with some leaves and branches of the same trees, for up to three years. When ready, both the liquid and the solid parts are distilled in traditional copper pot alembics. Only the heart of the distillate is allowed to mature in ash-wood vats. The final process consists in transforming the distillate to liqueur by adding simple syrup, lowering the ABV to 32%. Crystal clear in color, the aroma is typical of marasca cherries with strong alcohol spirit; the taste is smooth with hints of dark chocolate, Tahitian vanilla and cherry preserves.

Taste-wise it reminds me a bit of my mother’s cherry liqueur, that she would make every June or July when cherries were in season. We would all gather around the dining room table armed with long aprons and bobby pins. My mother would bring the ripe cherries in a bowl, and what we had to do was take the stones off with the bobby pins without mangling the ripe fruit too much. She would boil the fruit-meat with sugar and make a spoon sweet, and would break the pits, take out the kernel, put it in a bottle with sugar and tsipouro (the Greek version of grappa) and put it in the windowsill to macerate in the sun for 3 weeks. No secret recipe there!

Sambuca Romana

Another iconic Italian liqueur, Sambuca Romana, is produced by the infusion of elderberries and licorice, sweetened with simple syrup and enhanced with a secret combination of other herbs and spices; it has a bold yet pleasingly sweet anise flavor. It is sweet and viscous with a distinctly oily note through the finish.

Like other anise-flavored liqueurs, the ouzo effect is observed when water is combined in the Sambuca. It is usually consumed after coffee or added directly to coffee in place of sugar to produce caffè corretto.

To your health!




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