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Spirits

“Sansi” Doesn’t Have Fans, It Has Fanatics

January 19, 2022

Story: Brad Thomas Parsons

photo: Lizzie Munro

Spirits

“Sansi” Doesn’t Have Fans, It Has Fanatics

January 19, 2022

Story: Brad Thomas Parsons

photo: Lizzie Munro

In Turin, Amaro San Simone is an iconic, homegrown brand. For visitors, it’s a sought-after suitcase bottle with cult status.

Fiat, Lavazza, Martini & Rossi and Superga are just a few iconic Italian companies headquartered in Turin, the capital of Piedmont. But aside from Juventus F.C., Italy’s winningest soccer team, you’ll find no greater pride and affection for a homegrown brand than you will for Amaro San Simone. Even in a country steeped in amari, San Simone’s distinctive terroir and limited, regional availability make it an in-demand suitcase bottle for expats and visitors alike.

Count me among the converted. My first sip of San Simone marked the end of an hourslong alfresco dinner on a humid summer night in a crowded, table-filled Turin boulevard. In 2015, I was in Italy researching my book Amaro. Fulvio Piccinino, a local drinks historian and author who had graciously spent the day guiding me around the city and countryside, refilled my glass from the iconic black-and-gold bottle, explaining how San Simone was the “pride of Turin,” found in every bar, restaurant, café, enoteca and grocery store in the region. Two weeks later, when I managed to pack a dozen bottles of amaro into my luggage, I already regretted that San Simone wasn’t among them. (Thankfully, a friend later gifted me a bottle.)

Piccinino notes that when traveling in other parts of Italy, asking for San Simone, even when you’re certain the bar doesn’t carry it, is a way to let the bartender know you’re from Turin. “For my generation, San Simone was sort of a status symbol,” says Piccinino. “Saturday night would start with a coffee and a glass of Sansi. During the week, when you talked to friends, you’d say, ‘Shall we go have a San Simone?’ Like in England when you say, ‘Let’s go out for a beer.’”

Amaro San Simone as we know it today was created by Dr. Aldo Fechino, who in 1953 took over San Simone’s Antica Officina Farmaceutica, which produced and prescribed pharmaceuticals to the Turin community. Among those curatives was a 16th-century elixir (known for its properties as a laxative) first created by the monks of Turin from the district of Doragrossa. Fechino spent several years reformulating the medicine to make it more palatable, while honoring the unaltered principles of the historic recipe, and released the new formula, with an agreeable balance of alcohol and sugar, in 1960. Within two years, the popularity of consuming San Simone for pleasure shifted its distribution as a digestive drug to a commercial liqueur, embraced by the city’s cafés and restaurants.

“It started to be known door to door throughout Turin and its province, until it became so popular that my grandfather abandoned his career as a pharmacist to devote himself to the production of the amaro known today,” says Federico Fulcheri, Fechino’s 29-year-old grandson. Fechino died in 2012, but Fulcheri and his father, Ruggero, own and operate the family business from the same small, unassuming facility located in the center of Turin where, since the early 1960s, every bottle of San Simone has been produced—about 400,000 annually.

As with most amari, the recipe for San Simone remains a family secret, but gentian, cinchona, wormwood, rhubarb root and marjoram are among the 39 botanicals, herbs and roots sourced from the Piedmont region that lend the amaro its distinctive, layered complexity that deftly balances the spectrum of bitter and sweet. Fulcheri notes that in a world dominated by consumerism and mass marketing, San Simone’s success has been built on the fact that, until recently, it has been established, celebrated and consumed only in Turin. “This has allowed San Simone to give an identifying soul to anyone who tastes it. When you taste San Simone, you taste Turin,” he says.

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But more than its homegrown terroir, the appeal of San Simone lies in the soul of the city itself. “I believe what binds San Simone to the people of Turin is its philosophy,” says Fulcheri. “Turin has always been a city dedicated to passionate work, yet always maintained a low profile and a sober elegance. It’s always preferred substance to form and is used to creating excellence without spending too much time trying to convince someone that it is good.” Over the years, San Simone has slowly established a presence in Italy beyond Turin in the neighboring regions of Lombardy, Liguria and Aosta Valley. While the company has recently adopted a social media presence, San Simone has never done any advertising, crediting its success exclusively to generations of word-of-mouth enthusiasm.

“In Piedmont, San Simone is the amaro, so you grow up thinking that it’s not something specific to our region. It’s just so common to see that bottle on any bar shelf that you think you’d find it anywhere in Italy,” says Ilaria Dutto, a New Yorker who hails from Piedmont. “I discovered only years after my first sip that San Simone was hard to find outside of Piedmont. My friends expect me to come back from Italy with a bottle of San Simone for them and I expect them to do the same.”

Clara Ramazzotti’s family has a long history in Northern Italy. Ausano Ramazzotti, who created his namesake amaro in Milan in 1815, was a first cousin of her grandfather, though the family business was sold before she was born. “I [typically] prefer amari that have an intense flavor and are stronger and really digestive,” says the New York–based Italian instructor and journalist for Vanity Fair. “I like that Amaro San Simone is in between. It’s not too sweet and it’s not too strong. You can sip it even if your dinner was a light one, which I don’t usually feel like doing with other amari.”

For passionate amaro enthusiasts traveling to Italy, there’s an admitted thrill in the hunt for a bottle of San Simone to add to their collection. When Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Paul Loren was in Italy last fall, he compared his expedition for San Simone to Steve Zissou’s quest to bag the elusive Jaguar Shark. On his final night in Rome, Loren stopped by Roscioli to load up on salumi, and there, sitting on the shelf behind the bar, was a bottle for sale—the last one in stock. “I think some of the most special things should be the most elusive or hard to come by,” says Loren. “It’s a bit of a golden age for amaro and, honestly, we’re spoiled these days by the selection of high-quality and once-hard-to-find amari on the market. So can’t we afford to leave a few of them more out of reach?”

Often, even people who don’t obsess over amaro can still be captivated by San Simone. “Here’s the thing—my love for amaro is not unconditional. I’m not always going to tuck in with an amaro. This is definitely a place I visit, not live,” says Charlie Hall, noted cocktail enthusiast and drummer for The War on Drugs. At the end of the band’s European tour in 2018, their hosts in Turin left a bottle of San Simone in their dressing room; Hall cracked it open to share with his bandmates after their set. “There’s a reason I keep a bottle of San Simone out on our kitchen shelf with other cherished items—it’s just plain beautiful,” he says, calling out the midcentury design of the font, color palette and distinctive gold stripe running down the neck of the bottle.

Hall considers the lone bottle left in his possession “special-occasion stuff” and embraces the limited availability that is an inherent part of San Simone’s allure. “Who doesn’t love the feeling of getting to take part in something special and unique?” he says. “In these days of streaming music, isn’t there something kind of special when you pull out an LP and realize that it’s not available anywhere else in that moment except for right there?”

It may be a long time before we ever see San Simone sold stateside, as the brand prefers to focus on developing the domestic market in Italy, Fulcheri says. He does, however, drop this end-credits teaser: “I do not exclude the possibility of exporting for the future.”

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