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My (not so) secret Italian love affair

Not content with producing some of the world’s finest wines for centuries, those cheeky, and clearly alcoholic Italian brethren of ours are also the purveyors of some very unique tipples.  The Scots and the Irish (and now arguable the Japanese) have Whiskies. The Poles and the Russians have their vodkas and watching a representative from both of those countries argue about who invented it and which are better is entertaining and potentially violent.

The Italians have Grappa. Distilled from grapes, originally from what was left over from the wine making process, this stuff can be superbly smooth and drink like the finest of malts, yet has a reputation for being a little rough in this country. This is because the Italians kept the best for themselves and sent us the crap. A little selfish but that’s changing.

A collection of drinks they did import the best of however are their bitter spirits, vermouths, amaros and fortified wines. You will know these as things like Campari & Aperol, the Martinis (Rosso, Extra Dry and Bianco) and the likes of Fernet Branca. Most started life drunk as aperitivo before a meal or in the case of amaros like Fernet Branca (incredibly bitter herbal based drinks) as a digestivo, after eating to aid digestion and combat the inevitable bloated feeling you get after a full Italian meal.

It is these amazing, quite peculiar drinks that they are really famous for and are used as the key ingredients of many an amazing, renowned classic cocktails. The Negroni, Milano-Torino, Americano, Boulevardier, Campair & Aperol spritz to name but a few.

They are incredibly complex, made with at times a huge and often very secret recipes of herbs, botanicals, wines and spirits. Take Campari for instance; its full recipe is only known by three people at any one time, none of whom are even allowed to travel together at the same time. Overkill perhaps, but the Italians are nothing if not passionate about these things. All we know is orange is a key ingredient and the rest is just guess work.

The Negroni, arguably Italy’s most famous and played with cocktail export, started life as a Milano-Torino. Campari from Milan and sweet red vermouth from Turin and that’s it. Even though red vermouth is called sweet, it can have a bitter edge like Punt e Mes for example. This was drunk in vast quantities by the celebrated alcoholic aristocrat, Count Carmillo Negroni, around the turn of the century. One day he complained to his bar tender that it wasn’t getting him drunk enough, so the bar guy added an interesting new spirit from London that was making the rounds at the time. Gin. This did the job and the Negroni was born.

As my friends know, I am a slave to this drink and have modified it at times but always come back to the classic equal parts gin, Campari and vermouth with a slice and a twist of orange, stirred and poured over ice in a heavy glass. It’s smooth and bitter at the same time and so damned refreshing, one is never, ever enough.  Vincent over here at Forge makes mine, occasionally with grapefruit rather than orange if I’m feeling dry. He’s good. Very good.

Come and try for yourself. Come and find me and I’ll probably have one with you.

Until next time my fellow booze hounds.