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  • Italian Liqueurs

    By Anthony Parente

    Liqueurs by definition are spirits that have been flavored with herbs, nuts, spices, fruits or flowers. Once the alcohol has been flavored sugar is added. Some liqueurs are flavored with just one main ingredient while others use a combination of ingredients to create the desired taste. The alcoholic content can range from 15% to 55%. Liqueurs are broken down into categories or types. Some of the more popular types of liqueurs are berry, chocolate, coffee, cream, fruit, herbal and nut.

    In general liqueurs are very sweet. You will see them served before (apéritif) or after (digestif) a meal, but that doesn't mean you can't have it when the mood strikes you. People add them to coffee and use them to create a number of cocktails. In fact there are a number of recipes that use liqueurs to enhance the flavor of the dish. Desserts are a prime example of this.

    Italy has a rich history, which dates back centuries, of creating a number of exquisite liqueurs. This guide will introduce you to some of the popular liqueurs produced in Italy. It will also provide you with the stories or legends behind the creation of these liqueurs.

    Amaretto

    Amaretto is a sweet almond-flavoured Italian liqueur. Typically it is made from almond and apricot pits. There are a number of brands to choose from. One of the more popular brands of amaretto is Disaronno. Originally called Amaretto di Saronno, this Italian liqueur is flavored with herbs and fruits that have been soaked in apricot kernel oil. According to the Disaronno web site this liqueur was created in 1525 in Saronno Italy by a widowed innkeeper. Bernardino Luini, who was a pupil of Leonardo da Vinci, was commissioned to paint a fresco of the Madonna dei Miracoli in Saronno, which is still on display today. Bernardino needed someone to portray the Madonna for his fresco. He ended up choosing a beautiful innkeeper. She thanked him by giving him a flask that contained brandy steeped in apricot kernels. The rest is history. Amaretto liqueur is great on the rocks, combined with other beverages and widely used in many cooking recipes. If you want to try to make some on your own this recipe should do the trick.

    Campari

    Campari is a dark red liqueur made by infusing herbs, aromatic plants and fruit in alcohol and water. It is classified as a bitters, which means it has a bitter or bittersweet flavor. It was created in 1860 by Gaspare Campari in Novara, Italy. According to the Campari web site the recipe has never changed and only a few people know the exact ingredients. The first cocktail Campari made was the Americano. In the novel Casino Royale, by Ian Fleming, the first drink James Bond asks for is an Americano.

    Limoncello

    Limoncello is a lemon liqueur that is typically had after a meal preferably chilled. It is made by macerating the rind of lemons in alcohol. Once that process is complete you add water and sugar. This lemon liqueur was created around the 1900's in Southern Italy around the Sorrento area of Campania. The exact origins of the drink are hard to determine, because various areas in Italy all claim to be the first to create this liqueur. You can make your own limoncello with this recipe and be the eny of your entire neighborhood.

    Sambuca

    Sambuca is an anise flavored liqueur made from essential oils found in the star anise. Sambuca is typically white or colorless, but it comes in other colors like black and red. Each color has a different flavor then the original white. It is believed that Sambuca was created towards the mid to late 1800's in the town of Civitavecchia, Lazio. Luigi Manzi sold the liqueur under the name Sambuca Manzi. Sambuca Molinari and Sambuca Romana are two of the popular brands in production today. If you do not like the flavor of anise then this is not for you. Sambuca is considered a digestif that you would have after a meal. It can be had straight up, on ice or added to coffee instead of sugar (that is my personal favorite). Sometimes when you order this in a restaurant you will get it with three coffee beans floating in your glass. This is called Sambuca con la mosca (Sambuca with the fly) and the beans represent health, happiness and prosperity.

    Strega

    Strega, which means witch in Italian, is one of the most famous Italian liqueurs and is considered a digestif. It gets its vibrant yellow color from the saffron that is added to the herb distillate. There is about 70 herbs and spices from all over the world that are grinded together to make this alcoholic drink. Some of the herbs include Ceylon cinnamon, Florentine iris, Italian Apennine juniper and Samnite mint. The liqueur is aged in ash barrels to allow for the blending of the ingredients. The final product is a 40% proof liqueur that can be enjoyed neat, on the rocks or in many different cocktails. According to the Strega web site this liqueur was created in 1860 in the city of Benevento, which was notorious for witches and witchcraft. In fact witches from all over the world would gather at night around a magical walnut tree and they created a magic potion that would unite couples who drank it for eternity.

    Vermouth

    Vermouth is a fortified wine that is flavored with herbs and spices. In 1786, in the city of Turin, Antonio Benedetto Carpano took white wine and added herbs and spices and created this apértif. Vermouth is either dry or sweet. Dry vermouth is white in color, it has more alcohol per volume than sweet vermouth and it is has a bitterness to it. A popular drink made with dry vermouth is a Martini. Sweet vermouth can be white or red in color. You can drink it by itself or use it in mixed drinks. A popular drink made with red vermouth is the Manhattan. Many people refer to dry vermouth as French vermouth while sweet vermouth was considered an Italian vermouth. Some popular brands of Vermouth made in Italy are Campari, Carpano and Martini.

    The first time I had vermouth was at a birthday party. You may think we drank it as a toast, but that was not how I had it. My Mom used to make her birthday cakes from scratch including the icing. She would make a two layer cake. On the bottom layer she would soak it with vermouth. She would add homemade icing then add the top layer. The entire cake would get icing over it than she would add toasted almonds along the side. That cake was delicious!

    This is not a complete guide to Italian liqueurs. If there is a specific liqueur that is not listed please send me an email and I will look at getting it added to this list.

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