As I’ve said countless times on this blog, the appointments that you always expect to underwhelm you always end up blowing your mind. Take today’s meeting with Orietta Maria Varnelli for example. Despite my extreme interest in Italian bitters (amari) and liqueurs, I wasn’t expecting too much from these products. By the end of the tasting, I was taking as many pictures as possible, writing copious amounts of notes, and our Italian wine buyer Greg St. Clair was screaming out various praises in Italian – we were completely caught off guard and wowed by what we tasted.
Distilleria Varnelli has been producing spirits in the Marche region of Italy since 1868. They’re located in the slopes of the Sibillini Mountains and have been family-owned for more than 140 years. Like most great products in Italy, their spirits are comprised of the roots, herbs, and spices found in the nearby region: things like star anise, cloves, and the incredibly bitter gentian – both its flowers and its root. The amari are unlike any other amari I have ever tasted – likely because they are flavored with honey instead of sugar and are grounded in grain alcohol rather than brandy.
The Amaro Sibilla (should retail for around $50) is soft and gentle on the entry, but thick on the palate, moving into herbal notes before hinting at dark chocolate. The finish is incredibly powerful, loads of bitter herb flood your tongue and you almost can’t believe how bitter it is. The Amaro Dell’Erborista is the real gem – it’s pricy at around $65, but for a liter bottle – and it’s completely unfiltered and unfined, giving the spirit a cloudy color. The flavors are again founded in the gretian root, but this time on the lighter side as the orange peel and anise are allowed to shine a bit more. The finish is once again extremely bitter! The CaffeMoka is ungodly good. It's the only thing I've tasted that gives Dave Smith's Firelit series true competition. They infuse the grain alcohol with espresso and some honey. So freaking good you'll want to cry! The punch is like egg nog without the eggs! That's the only way I can describe it. The dry anisette is a purer form of Pernod or Ricard, ripe with anise flavor, but without the sweetness - almost like a better version of Ouzo (which I'm happy to have finally found).
By the end of the tasting the room was a panic. I was running to get my camera, Greg was blabbering stuff in Italian, Kyle was trying to ask more questions, and Orietta was trying to focus on all three of us. These should be available in a few weeks and I couldn't be more excited. With the Italian staff on board, this should be an easy sell!