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Italian Liqueurs
Aperitif (Apertivo) and Digestif (Digestivo)
Italian Liqueurs
A liqueur is a sweet alcoholic beverage, often flavored with fruits, herbs, spices, flowers, seeds,
roots, plants, barks, and sometimes cream. The word liqueur comes from the Latin word liquifacere
which means "to dissolve".  This refers to the dissolving of the flavorings used to make the liqueur.
Liqueurs are not usually aged for long periods, but may have resting periods during their production
to allow flavors to marry.  There are many categories of liqueurs including: fruit liqueur, cream
liqueur, coffee liqueur, chocolate liqueur, schnapps liqueur, brandy liqueur, anise liqueur,
nut-flavoured liqueur, and herbal liqueur.  At 15-30%, most liqueurs have a lower alcohol content
than spirits, but some liqueurs have an alcohol content as high as 55%. Dessert wine, on the other
hand, may taste like a liqueur, but contains no additional flavoring.
Apéritifs and digestifs are alcoholic drinks that are normally served with meals.  An apériitif  is usually served before a meal to stimulate the appetite.  An aperitif (the
word comes from the Latin aperire, "to open") is a light, most often dry, most often modestly alcoholic beverage meant to spark the appetite without overwhelming the
senses. And while an aperitif may be as simple as a glass of dry white wine or Champagne, a true aperitif  has a little more flair, more flavor, more color and a bit
more sophistication.  Italians tend to prefer bitter aperitifs like Campari, Aperol, and various herb-based drinks but Spumante is becoming just as popular.  Apéritifs
are commonly served with something small to eat, such as crackers, cheese, pâté, or olives.

Digestifs are served at the end of a meal to aid digestion.   They typically contain herbs and spices that are believed to have stomach-settling properties.  The first
attempts to aid digestion using aromatic herbs and seeds steeped in liquids were made by the Greeks and Romans.  In Italy, these digestifs or digestivos are
collectively known as amari.  The word refers to the bitterness that is common to this group of liqueurs.  Digestifs, which are usually taken straight (neat), generally
contain more alcohol than apéritifs.  Some fortified wines such as sherry, port, and Madeira are often served after dinner, but should be classified as dessert wines
and not digestifs.  See our recipes for Italian Cocktails.
A bitter spirit that ranges in color from gold to dark brown, amaro is likely to appear on the table after a heavy meal.  Recipes vary, but all amari essentially consist of an infusion of various herbs, roots, and vegetables in alcohol, and flavors range from earthy and bitter to sickly sweet.  Some popular brands of amaro include Amaro del Capo, Ramazzotti, Lucana, Averna, and Fernet Branca.
Aniseed spread throughout the Italian peninsula after the Arabs brought it to Sicily.  Aniseed liqueur is distilled from the fruit of the green aniseed plant along with other aromatic ingredients.  It can be clear, milky white, or straw yellow and have a 40 to 60% alcohol content.  Aniseed liqueurs may be drunk at room temperature, on ice, or diluted with water.  In Italy today there is a huge variety of aniseed liqueurs.  Aniciono, Sassolino, Anisetta, and Mistra are a few of the varieties, but Sambuca is probably the best known.  Aniseed liqueurs are especially popular in central and southern Italy.  Aniseed liqueur is a traditional ammazza caffe, or coffee killer.   The liqueur is either poured directly into espresso or drunk after strong coffee to get rid of the coffee’s bitter after taste.
Bright orange in color, Aperol has a unique taste, thanks to the secret recipe, which has never been changed, with infusions of selected ingredients including bitter and sweet oranges and many other herbs and roots in perfect proportions. Aperol has a very low-alcohol content of only 11 percent.  Because of this, Aperol is probably the lightest spirit in the world.  It can be served over ice or in a variety of mixed drinks.  Hundreds of thousands of Aperol Spritz are consumed in the Veneto region every day.
Gaspar Campari opened a café in Milan in 1867 and served his customers a creation of his own.  The drink with its marked bitterness and striking red color was known as ‘bitter Campari.’  To this day only a few priviledged employees in Milan know the true secret of Campari ingredients.  All the company will divulge is that the production begins with an infusion of herbs, fruits, and various parts of plants; the aromas are extracted by alcohol.  This flavor concentrate is mixed with alcohol, sugar, water, and red coloring.  Campari is usually served as an aperitif.  A number of cocktails also specifically call for Campari, such as a Negroni.
Centerba is distilled from various plants indigenous to the alpine regions of Abruzzi.  The name suggests that a hundred herbs are required to produce this greenish conconction, but the manufacturers keep the ingredients a closely guarded secret.  The most powerful of all Italian liqueurs, Centerba was originally made by herbalists as a digestive. True to Abruzzi tastes, “the spicier the better,” Centerba produces such a powerful burning sensation in the throat that you might believe it was spiced with peperoncino. The bottle is presented in an attractive straw basket.
Cynar is an Italian bitter apéritif made from 13 herbs and plants. Predominant and most unusual amongst them is the artichoke (Cynara scolymus), from which the drink derives its name.  Cynar is dark brown in color, has a bittersweet flavor, and its strength is 16.5% alcohol.  Cynar can be drunk as either an aperitif (generally over ice), or as a cocktail mixed with soda water and lemon or orange slice, or with cola, tonic water, or bitter lemon soda). Europeans often mix it with orange juice.  Because of its artichoke component, Cynar is also regarded as a digestive.
Fernet is a type of amaro, a bitter, aromatic spirit.  Saffron is just one of the over 40 herbs and spices used to make Fernet-Branca, an Italian brand of fernet.  The health-enhancing properties of Fernet-Branca (fehr-NEHT BRAHN-kah) have made it the favored "digestivo" at tables across the world. Traditionally served straight up at the end of a meal, it aids in digestion and cleanses the palate. It can also be used to spike espresso to make the famous "caffè corretto" (literally, "spiked coffee") which is served all over the world. In recent years, as a new generation of Americans and Europeans has discovered the invigorating liqueur, many have begun to serve it on the rocks, with cola, fruit juice, Grenadine, or just a splash of mineral water. It contains 40% alcohol. It may be served at room temperature or on the rocks (with ice).
Frangelico  is produced in the Piedmont region of northern Italy, its origins date back more than 300 years to the presence of early Christian monks living in the hills of the area.  The Frangelico bottle is an immediate reminder of this distinctive history; shaped like a monk’s habit, with a traditional rope belt around its waist.  To make Frangelico, local Piedmont hazelnuts are roasted and infused in a solution of water and alcohol.  A number of natural extracts - including cocoa and vanilla - are blended with the hazelnut infusion and hazelnut distillate to create the Frangelico concentrate.  The mixture is then left to
mature in vats for 6 to 8 weeks.  The resulting liqueur is pale gold in color, a rich texture, and a pronounced hazelnut flavor with hints of vanilla and dark chocolate.  As a classic liqueur, it’s perfect after a meal - either with coffee or in coffee, or pour it over ice in a chunky tumbler.
Galliano, is a sweet herbal liqueur created in 1896 by Italian distiller and brandy producer Arturo Vaccari of Livorno, Tuscany. Among the many ingredients in Galliano are star anise from China , Mediterranean anise, juniper, musk yarrow, ginger, lavender and peppermint as well as vanilla with its delicate aroma and cinnamon with its spicy touch. Vanilla is the most important ingredient in Galliano.  The vanilla top note differentiates Galliano from other anise-flavored liqueurs such as Sambuca, Pernod, or Anisette.  Galliano has a similar appearance to Strega, another Italian herbal liqueur. Galliano is sweet and has a complex, vanilla-anise flavor with subtle citrus and woodsy herbal under notes. It is used both as a digestif  and as an ingredient for cocktails, most notably the Harvey Wallbanger.
Genepy, a clear herbal schnapps, is possibly the most famous spirit from the Aosta Valley of Italy.  It is made according to a strictly guarded recipe, using not only alcohol, sugar, and water but also a great variety of local herbs.  The herbs used can be either fresh or dried.  If the herbs are fresh, they give Genepy a beautiful green color.  If dried herbs are used, the schnapps will be pale yellow.  Genepy is about 40% proof.  It is a favorite tonic but also serves as a digestive.
Grappa is a crystal clear sprit that is made from the remains of grapes after pressing.  The Italian word grappa literally means ‘grape stalk.’  The original use of grappa was to provide warmth in the chilly climate of northern Italy.  The most important areas of grappa production are the Piedmont, Fruili, Lombardy, Val d’Aosta, the Veneto, Trentino, and Alto Adige.  Any grappa simply described as ‘Italian’ is probably a blend of spirits from several regions.  In Fruili, grappa made using marc from the sweet, low-yeild grape variety Picolit is a specialty.  Opinions differ on whether grappa should be aged or not. 
A riserva or stravecchia is aged for at least 12 months; 6 of those months are spent in a wooden cask.  Oak casks give grappa its typical golden hue.  Aged grappa is best drunk from a brandy glass at (61 - 64 degrees F) (16 - 18 degrees  C)  Young grappa is crystal clear.  Cloudiness or impurities are a sign of poor quality.  Young grappa is best served slightly chilled (46 - 50 degrees F)  (8 - 10 degrees C) in tall stemmed glasses.
Limoncello is a liqueuer flavored with the lemons for which the Amalfi coast is famous.  It is just as essential a finishing touch to a Campanian meal as grappa or aniseed liqueur is in other regions of Italy.  The lemon liqueur is said to be good for digestion.  The Nostrano variety of lemon is considered to be Italy’s best variety of lemon and it provides the flavor for genuine limoncello.  The Mediterranean climate of the Sorrento - Amalfi coast produces this lemon with large and perfumed peel.  Limoncello is usually served cold.  Some prefer it at room temperature, even stirred in tonic water or champagne. 
Maraschino is a clear, relatively dry liqueur made from Marasca cherries.  Crushed cherry pits give it a subtle bitter almond flavor. The cherries are processed and distilled much like brandy, and later combined with pure cane syrup before it is aged and filtered.  There are several distillers of this liqueur, but one of the foremost brands are produced by the Italian company Luxardo.  Maraschino liqueur should not be confused with the juice from Maraschino cherries or other cherry liqueurs, that are both much sweeter.  It is typically bottled in a straw-coated bottle.
Along with Campania, Emilia-Romagna is the biggest producer of walnuts in Italy.  The ripe walnuts are eaten but the young green fruits are made into a highly alcoholic specialty known as Nocino.  Nocino is made all over Italy, but in the area around Modena, where this walnut liqueur was apparently invented, the farmers occasionally still make it at home.  Traditionally, the walnuts are picked on the eve of the Festa di San Giovanni on June 24th and the Nocino is drunk on All Soul's Day, November 2nd, to honor the dead.  To make Nocono, the walnuts are cleaned and quartered, put into round glass bottles with a mixture of alcohol, sugar, cinnamon, and cloves and allowed to rest in a warm sunny place for 40 days. 
The liquid seeps into the nuts and turns dark brown.  More sugar and spices are added and, if the liquid has become too strong, a little water is added.  The result is a delicious drink used as a digestive.
Crystal clear, with anisette-like characteristics, Sambuca derives its flavoring from the fruit of the elderberry bush, not aniseed.  Sambuca comes in a number of varieties and colors including white sambuca (which is actually clear), black sambuca (which is more like a dark purple) and red sambuca (which is actually red).   In Italy it is common to serve neat.  Sambuca with some floating coffee beans dropped on it. The beans are there as an ornament, but they can be chewed to increase the taste of anise. It is said that the beans represent health, happiness, and prosperity or the Trinity.  Sambuca may also be served in a shot glass and then set on fire for a second or two, in order to increase its flavor.
Strega, is an Italian herbal liqueur produced since 1860 in Benevento, Campania, Italy.  Strega is the Italian word for "witch" and legends of witchcraft at Benevento date back to the time of the Lombard invasion.  Strega is considered a digestif, meant for drinking after meals.  Its yellow color comes from the presence of saffron.   Strega has a similar appearance to Galliano.  It is slightly sweet, semi-viscous, and has a bold, complex flavor.  Strega is 80 proof (40%) and among its approximately 70 herbal ingredients are mint and fennel. 
Tuaca is a striking blend of vanilla, orange essence, and oak-aged Italian brandy.  Vanilla is the dominant flavor.  The liqueur is sweet and golden amber in color. Tuaca is a brand of liqueur originally produced by the Tuoni and Canepa families of Livorno, Italy, and now produced by the Tuaca Liqueur Company of Louisville, Kentucky.  It has a bold yet incredibly smooth taste.  Tuaca is most commonly chilled and consumed neat, but can also be mixed with ginger ale, cola, and hot apple cider.
In 1786 Antonio Benedetto Carpano presented the customers in his bar in Turin with his own creation, which he called vermouth.  The name probably goes back to the old High German word werimonta, which describes a kind of vegetable bitters that stimulated digestion.  The drink was not very popular.  Carpano created a new enthusiasm for vermouth by taking local white wine and adding a refined and secret mixture of herbs.  Other manufacturers, particularly Cinzano, began to produce the aromatic fortified wine.  Martini & Rossi came on the market in 1863 with their version.  Vermouth comes in both white (dry) and red (sweet) versions.  Piedmont is still home to vermouth and Carpano, Cinzano, and Martini & Rossi are still synonymous with this aromatic drink.  Today white wines with very little distinctive flavor of their own are used to make vermouth.  Sugar, alcohol, and a mixture of various herb extracts are added.  The seasoned wine is then heated and distilled.  Sweet vermouth is colored with caramel. Dry vermouth has an alcohol content of around 18%.
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