We’re always down for trying a new cocktail ingredient at Paste, so when I read something about the winner of the “Best New Spirit/Cocktail Ingredient” category at the 2017 Tales of the Cocktail event, I took interest. The annual New Orleans event’s Spirited Awards have been branded as “the Oscars” of their industry for some time, so introducing a popular new spirit or liqueur there is a smart play. If it wins, it immediately announces that new ingredient as a bottle you’re likely to see showing up in cocktail bars in the near future.
This year, that honor went to Italicus Rosolio di Bergamotto, more simply referred to as just “Italicus,” which clocks in at 40 proof / 20% ABV. The new liqueur comes from “Italian spirits expert” Giuseppe Gallo, who claims to have “captured Italy’s art, architecture and poetry in liquid form.” Alright; nothing to live up to with that billing, right?
Italicus is essentially classified as a rosolio, which is a style of liqueur I can’t say I’ve ever sampled before. Traditional rosolios are rather obviously named after the rose petals they incorporate, which give many a pinkish hue. They’re light and on the sweeter side, floral apertifs that are consumed as neat cordials or mixed with lighter liquors/sparkling wines. Italicus takes that basic concept of rosolio and combines it with “the Gallo family’s own Rosolio-making traditions,” which involve the addition of several types of citrus. The final spirit features both citrus and other botanicals: Calabrian bergamot oranges, Sicilian citrons, lavender, roses, chamomile, melissa balm and gentian.
On its own, Italicus is quite fragrant and inviting on the nose; a blend of multiple citrus influences and light herbaceousness—or as a friend put it, “smells like Sprite!” There’s a fairly prominent suggestion of sweetness on the nose, coupled with lemon/lime (which is where the Sprite comparison came from) and the bergamot note you’d expect in Earl Gray tea. There’s also an underlying suggestion of some herbal bitterness to balance things out.
Drinking Italicus neat, the liqueur tastes as it smells: Friendly and inviting, with a big melange of citrus and lightly green, grassy and floral herbaceousness. There is some minimal bitterness that tries to balance things out, but this is a sweeter liqueur first and foremost—you will want to be careful with sugar or simple syrup when using Italicus for mixing. In comparison with some cheap orange curacao I had laying around the house, the Italicus was appreciably more complex, with a greater variety of citrus impressions and much more depth in terms of its other botanicals. It was also somewhat less sweet—but not by much.
Considering this liqueur probably isn’t going to be used by most consumers for neat drinking, though, we decided to mix up a few cocktails and mixed drinks with Italicus.
There’s a suggestion on the back of the Italicus bottle to use the liqueur in a 1/1 ratio with prosecco, along with a few olives, to make a sparkling Italicus cocktail in a goblet. This strikes us as not a bad idea, except perhaps for the ratio—at a 1/1 level, we can’t help but think that it would be overwhelmingly sweet and citrusy. Still, while searching online for similar uses of the Italicus I saw reference to one person mixing it with India pale ale, reasoning that the citrus/herbal profile would fit right in alongside a classic west coast IPA citrus/pine profile.
This made sense to me, so I chose a light-bodied session IPA at only 4% ABV or so, and set to tinkering with the ratio. We eventually settled on the following: 4 parts session IPA to 1 part Italicus, served in a cocktail coupe glass and given a quick mix with a bar spoon. Super simple—you could perhaps add a dash of your favorite bitters—but a very effective, low-ABV little apertif. The citrus character of Italicus indeed plays very nicely with the IPA, and the light-bodied, refreshing drink also benefits from a low volume of liquid—it’s just like a before-dinner palate cleanser. Highly recommended, if you can find the right IPA or session IPA to pair with it.
It doesn’t take a lot of thought to dump a little Italicus into your G&T and see how it turns out … so I did. Turns out, the answer is “pretty decent.” The residual sugar and citrus of the Italicus has a curious way of smoothing out the sharper edges of both the gin and the tonic water—it sort of hides the medicinal note of quinine to some extent, which you may find agreeable or unfortunate. In doing so, you’re sort of swapping the traditional lime of the G&T for a wider array of citrus influences as well. I’m not sure this is something I’ll return to, as I think I prefer the sharper, more piercing character of the traditional G&T, but I can see others quite enjoying the rounder character that the Italicus brings. Of note: This drink became considerably sweeter as I got toward the bottom, suggesting that the Italicus may have had some trouble mixing with the gin and tonic, or perhaps that I just didn’t do a good enough job of mixing them.
I’m a big drinker of American bourbon and rye, so it was a given that I was going to try and find an application for Italicus that involved them, even if the company says it was intended for white liquors rather than brown ones. After all, how many classic whiskey cocktails incorporate citrus, right? Surely it couldn’t be that hard to find a way to use Italicus in place of some other citrus infusion.
I initially considered classic whiskey cocktails such as the Manhattan, but I turned away from that possibility after considering having to mix Italicus and sweet red vermouth. Beyond the fact that that I reasoned the residual sweetness would be too much, I was afraid that the flavors of Italicus might clash with the botanicals found in a bottle of Carpano Antica or a dash of Angostura bitters. Perhaps this actually would work—but that’s an experiment for another day.
Rather, I dusted off an old Manhattan variant that doesn’t see much play these days: The Brown University. Basically, the classic recipe for a Brown University is more or less a “dry Manhattan”—it uses dry vermouth rather than sweet (at a 1/1 ratio, which I think is way too much vermouth) and orange bitters rather than Angostura. It also uses bourbon rather than the more traditional rye, but for this case I thought rye might be preferable. I present, then, the “Italicus University”:
3 parts rye whiskey
1 part dry vermouth
1 part Italicus
dash of orange bitters
Prepare as you would a normal up drink—combine with ice, stir, strain, etc. Garnish with a twist of additional citrus, if you like.
This one, I think turned out pretty well! The use of both rye and dry vermouth were both good ideas, as they kept the overall amount of residual sugar at a manageable level. The result is a drink that combines the spice of rye with the gentle herbaceousness of the vermouth and Italicus, along with its bright and cheery pop of citrus. Nothing earth-shaking, but I wouldn’t hesitate to make this one again.
I’ll keep fooling around with my bottle of Italicus as time goes by, and perhaps I’ll find some other great applications for the liqueur. It seems obvious that it would make a good addition to a classic daiquiri, for instance—or perhaps you could use it in place of orange juice when making a twist on the mimosa. I look forward to seeing how professional bartenders find ways to incorporate it in the future.
In the meantime, keep your eyes peeled for bottles of this stuff if they end up in a liquor store near you.