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Spirits

Amaro’s Sicilian Cousin Steps Out

November 24, 2021

Story: Andrea Strafile

photo: Simone Aprile

Spirits

Amaro’s Sicilian Cousin Steps Out

November 24, 2021

Story: Andrea Strafile

photo: Simone Aprile

Rosolio, a pared down interpretation of amaro that's traditionally homemade, is being embraced by a wave of new producers.

They call it “liquor from the past” because it almost disappeared. But rosolio, an infused after-dinner drink, is a cornerstone of Italianate drinking preserved almost exclusively by Sicilians.

Today, at least in the United States, rosolio has become synonymous with a single brand, a bergamot-flavored expression called Italicus that made a splash when it hit the market in 2016. But back in Italy, a number of producers—both old and new—are latching onto the homegrown Sicilian spirit, offering their own takes in the hopes that the category might one day compete with the ever-growing amaro mania.

Unlike amaro, rosolio (from the Latin ros solis, meaning “dew of the sun”)  is rarely bottled commercially—at least under the rosolio name. While it’s possible to find the infused spirit traveling under the ambiguous label “liquore,” which simply means “liquor,” it is more common to encounter the traditional digestivo as a homemade liqueur, with families typically passing down recipes from generation to generation. Its preparation requires only infusing a base of neutral alcohol with herbs, fruits or spices, then adding sugar and water for sweetness and dilution. The most common infusions in Sicily are orange and lemon, but local ingredients like dried roses and prickly pear are also popular, steeping for a period of a single day up to several weeks. What differentiates it from its cousin amaro is its focus of flavor—rosolio is typically monothematic, centered around a few central flavors, while amaro tends to blend a barrage of herbs and spices. (Limoncello, for example, would be considered a type of rosolio.)

By some accounts, Sicilian rosoli (the plural of rosolio) were imported by Arabs as early as 1500. However, production ramped up from the end of the 17th century, in part due to the arrival of cheap sugar in Europe. At that time, rosolio was traditionally prepared by Sicilian nuns and monks and used to ward off cholera, a practice that was maintained up until the 1800s, when it became the drink of choice for the noble classes. These early rosoli were often flavored with cinnamon, a nonnative spice available in the region thanks to its role as a global trading hub.

Even today, Sicily has remained the most active region for making rosolio. Distilleria Fichera Liquorificio has been making rosoli there for four generations. “Our Fuoco dell’Etna (Etna’s Fire) is a unique rosolio because it [is] 70 percent alcohol,” notes owner Dario Finocchiaro of their flagship expression flavored with fresh strawberries, citrus and Sicilian herbs. (Rosoli proof typically hovers between 20 and 25 percent ABV.) “It’s a secret recipe that dates back to my great-grandfather and celebrates our land,” he says.

Fresh operations have sprung up, too, fueling new growth for the category not only within Italy, but also abroad, where these new outfits hope to capitalize on the success of Italicus as a popular cocktail ingredient. “Rosolio is very versatile in cocktails,” says Simone Pappalardo, a Dubai-based bar manager who was born and raised in Sicily at the foot of the Etna volcano. “Italicus led the way a bit abroad, but I [have seen] different rosoli mixed in cocktails as well.”

One such example is Nepèta, founded in 2017. The company has created a mint-flavored rosolio called Amaro Nepèta that is available overseas, including in the United States. “For business necessities, we called it amaro, because the word ‘rosolio’ is still pretty unknown abroad, but it is a rosolio,” explains Federico Tanasi, founder of Nepèta. “We do a nepitella infusion—a wild mint that only grows in the Noto area—and one of Siracusa lemons. Then we blend them,” says Tanasi.

Like Nepèta, the goal of Liquori dell’Etna, a new-to-market brand, is to capture the essence of Sicilian terroir through rosoli. “We wanted to enhance the native fruit of some of Etna’s districts,” says Edoardo Strano, founder of Liquori dell’Etna. “Citrus in the winter, mulberry and prickly pear in the fall and Maletto strawberry in the spring.”

Centuries old, rosolio—like amaro and nocino before it—is finding a contemporary audience as an expressive and versatile cocktail ingredient beyond its native Sicily. The “liquor of the past,” it seems, has found a modern home.

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Tagged: amaro, rosolio

Andrea Strafile lives in Trastevere, Rome. He is a food and cocktail writer for Munchies Italia, La Cucina Italiana, Esquire, Standart and more. He can’t say no to a Gibson. Wet, please.