A few years ago, back when I still ran a regular podcast and did interviews with distillers from all over the world, I conducted an audio interview with the Nonino sisters—the three famous (and beautiful) heirs to the Nonino family distillery in Italy’s Friuli region, one of the country’s most famous grappa producers. We were hoping to bring attention to the traditional and regional spirits of Italy—a blossoming category we thought would be of immense interest to our cocktail consumers who couldn’t seem to get enough Campari and sweet vermouth to satiate their thirst. In 2016, however, that message is no longer in need of broadcast. The vast and complex world of Italian spirits is no longer a secret. The word is out; the cat is completely out of the bag. The category is all the rage with today’s curious cocktail drinkers and bartenders across America are continuing to innovate and create exciting new drinks from the country’s long-held and spirited traditions. If you thought there were few Italian cocktails beyond the ubiquitous Negroni and Aperol Spritz these days, think again. You’ll find the Nonino family’s amaro recipe on drink menus across the nation mixed with whiskey, rum, Cognac, tequila, cachaca, and even mezcal. The combination of sweet spices with bitter herbs adds an incredible depth to a number of different libations, no matter what the base ingredient. Amaro means “bitter” in Italian, and as America seems to have lost its sweet tooth as it pertains to alcohol over the last decade, it has developed a real taste for Italy’s unique category of bitter liqueurs known as amari. Spirits that were once sipped neat as a way to settle the stomach after dinner are now moving to the forefront of the meal. As the awareness for Italy’s historic regional spirits has continued to spread, it’s brought with it a new renaissance of distillation in the old country and the resurrection of a category once associated with older generations long past. It’s also opened the door for new developments in Italy, casting a wider spotlight on distillers who are branching out into whiskey and even gin. I caught up once again with Elisabetta Nonino this past week to pick her brain about the recent explosion and find out how her family is adapting to the trend.
David: I just tried to order more Amaro Nonino yesterday and I was told by the distributor that the product has backordered because—once again—it’s sold out from the supplier. This is becoming a regular thing! You must be seeing record sales in the United States right now due to our county’s current fascination with amari.
Elisabetta: It’s doing very, very well; both in the United States and in Canada. There’s a big amaro trend in North America right now, especially with the mixology scene.
David: Are you visiting more with bartenders and sommeliers these days rather than with retailers and supermarkets?
Elisabetta: Yes, I was just at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. It’s funny because in Europe the bartenders are saying that London is the origin of this new interest in amari. On Monday, we had a meeting because they’re starting a new mixologist fair and event in Italy, so there were a few bartenders at the meeting saying that London was the source. But I told them: I don’t think so. I think it’s coming from the U.S.; especially the West Coast. Starting about eight to ten years ago we saw interest in San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland for amari, so I think it started there. Don’t you agree?
David: Yes, I do. I remember seeing Manhattans made with Amaro Nonino instead of vermouth back in 2007 when I first started exploring the Bay Area bar scene.
Elisabetta: There is a massive consumption of amaro happening in the American cocktail scene. They are the pioneers, in my opinion. If you study the history of American cocktails before and during Prohibition when alcohol was illegal, I think that’s the origin of today’s mixology. The beauty is that Europe—and especially Italy with amaro—has a long tradition of classic liqueurs. In Italy we make amari, liqueurs, and bitters—we use all three terms. They have always been of a very high quality and a very precise flavor. We used to drink them straight, but the American mixologists have shown that it’s possible to use them in a different way with very good results.
David: Are you seeing bartenders in Europe follow suit?
Elisabetta: In London, yes, because that’s the most important place for cocktails in Europe right now. In Berlin, too; from what I’ve heard. There are a lot of famous bartenders in London right now who are Italian, so they understand the tradition and the history of vermouth and bitters from Italy. Globalization has helped to spread these ideas, I think. What I have noticed, however, is that in Europe we often use fewer ingredients in our cocktails than what’s normal in the U.S.
David: As someone with a long family tradition of producing after-dinner spirits, what does your family think about this new trend of drinking Nonino products as part of a cocktail before dinner?
Elisabetta: We are excited! It’s a great thing. I think it’s also the best way to introduce younger people to spirits, so that eventually—when they are adults—they can appreciate grappa and amaro by itself. When I was young and just starting to drink grappa or a glass of wine, I didn’t really like it. I think I was like most young people—I wasn’t used to it yet. In Italy and in my family, we are used to eating and drinking very good products, but when you are in your early twenties it’s difficult to appreciate that quality when it comes to spirits. If you start by mixing it, however, you can dilute the alcohol a bit and start to understand the flavor slowly. Then, when you are in your thirties or forties, you can start to appreciate grappa and amaro the traditional way. With cocktails, this same evolution works perfectly.
David: Do you think grappa will follow the same path as amaro? Are you using grappa in cocktails now?
Elisabetta: Yes, and we are proud to be one of the pioneers to use grappa in cocktails. We have a cocktail that my mother helped develop at the Grand Hotel bar in Rome made with our grappa, so we have been interested in grappa cocktails for some time. But the real moment has been in the last five years. It’s nice to see more young people appreciating spirits and not linking grappa or amaro to merely something that their grandparents would drink.
David: People in the U.S. are fascinated by that tradition, I think. It’s almost cooler because your grandparents did drink these spirits. How do you feel when you come to America and see all these young bartenders mixing your family’s traditional spirits in a new way?
Elisabetta: It’s incredible because in the U.S. people are really in love with Italian spirits right now, especially the amari. It’s nice to see so many amari that I remember from my youth—that I remember from the advertisements—come back. In Italy, they had all but disappeared. We’ve been producing our amaro since 1945, but it was originally produced and sold just in Friuli. It was a regional product. My parents were always very focused on pure spirits and distillation—brandy and grappa—whereas the amaro is a mix of ingredients with a brandy base. To see a regional spirit like that become popular in the U.S. makes us very proud of our tradition. It’s also nice to see a renewed focus on quality in spirits. People everywhere are appreciating the high quality of what Italy is doing, but in a different way. In this case, globalization is a good thing.
David: Are young people and bartenders in Italy now embracing their country’s traditional spirits as well?
Elisabetta: Yes, in the big cities we’re starting to see more cocktail bars. Compared to the U.S. it’s a very small number, but it’s increasing. The bartenders and mixologists are all very young people—in their twenties and early thirties—and they are very interested in the history. They love to research the ingredients and the historical background of cocktails as well. Maybe they weren’t interested in spirits at first, but they fell in love after learning more and more about the history and the tradition involved. There’s a high level of knowledge required today to make classic cocktails. When there is research, there is usually an increase in quality as well, so I think we’ll continue to see good things. Research and innovation go hand-in-hand.
David: Do you think the resurgence and research we’re seeing now with traditional Italian spirits might lead to innovation at Nonino?
Elisabetta: Yes, we may look back at some old recipes from my grandmother. My father lost his father when he was eight years old, so my grandmother Sylvia Nonino ran the distillery by herself until my father was about twenty. My father learned how to distill from his mother. When I was in elementary school I remember we had a big selection of liqueurs and amari. My father, however, was more focused on pure distillation. We will probably go back and look at some of those recipes; something linked to tradition, but also innovation.
David: What does the older generation at Nonino think about the new trend of Nonino cocktails?
Elisabetta: In the beginning, they were not really convinced. However, they realized that this is the gateway to traditional appreciation, so it’s great. Nowadays when we go out to a restaurant, my mom loves to drink a Nonino grappa and tonic instead of wine. She says she feels better the next day after a cocktail. She doesn’t have a headache and she thinks it’s better for her overall health. She loves that she can still sense the fresh aromatics of the grappa, but with less alcohol.
David: Lower alcohol drinks are really becoming the norm. We eat differently today than previous generations did. We’re not sitting down for multi-course meals, so it makes sense that we would alter our drinking practices around this evolution. It’s nice to see, however, that traditional Italian spirits are adapting to that change.
Elisabetta: For sure. That is the beauty when you look at the evolution of the way we eat, the way we dress, and the way we live. We’re able to appreciate food and drink in ways that weren’t possible before. Sixty years ago many people didn’t have heat in their home, or air conditioning. Most people did physical jobs to make a living. Now people work in the office, so they eat differently—they don’t need a big meal at lunch anymore. Sixty years ago you might eat meat once a week and you were lucky to have it; now you can have it every day if you like. Since then we’ve moved from fundamental needs based on survival to more specialization. Back then wine was red or white, but now we want to know the vintage, the variety, and the region; with spirits, it’s the same.
If you're a whiskey drinker looking to try using the Amaro Nonino in a fun cocktail, here are a few options. Personally, I haven't made a Manhattan with vermouth since trying it this way:
The Amaro Nonino Manhattan
- 2 oz. of rye or Bourbon
- 3/4 oz. of Amaro Nonino
- 2 dashes of bitters
Stir well and strain into a cocktail glass with our without ice. Add a cherry!
There's another drink someone showed me once called the Paper Plane that, like a Negroni, is easy to remember because it's all equal parts (so long as you remember what those parts are!).
The Paper Plane
- 3/4 oz. Bourbon or rye
- 3/4 oz. Amaro Nonino
- 3/4 oz. Aperol
- 3/4 oz. lemon juice
Shake with ice and strain into a cocktail glass.