In 2012, Federico “Fred” Cremasco took over Bar Polcenigo, located along a stretch of SP10 that cuts through the center of the centuries-old Italian town of Polcenigo, Friuli, population 300. For the 30 years prior, the bar was known among regulars as “Pinocchio”; its bartender-owner, Enzo, had an affection for the fairy-tale character and had, over time, filled the space with some 1,500 Pinocchio figurines. The bar and its cocktails were famous throughout northern Italy.
Ten years later, the bar’s nickname remains, but the cocktails are markedly different. Many of them feature Cremasco’s own spirits and liqueurs, all of which are grounded in ingredients found largely in Friuli. (“My idea is to have a 0 km project,” he says.) His company, Fred Jerbis, joins a nascent group of Italian spirits producers—including Liquore delle Sirene in Lake Garda; Nonino, also from Friuli; and Piemonte’s Bordiga—who are bringing a more natural approach to classic Italian spirits, liqueurs and vermouth. Cremasco grows many of his own herbs, works directly with friends and farmers for others, and sources his bottles from a factory in Venice. This slow-food approach to spirits production has earned Cremasco’s line of gin, amari and vermouths a cult following among bartenders looking for spirits that express a sense of place.
A bartender himself, Cremasco grew up in the adjacent village, Travesio, and keeps just over an acre of gardens there, now largely watched over by his mother, Vanda. At first, he was cultivating herbs (jerbis, in the Friulian dialect) to use in cocktails, but after a couple years, he began to dabble in using those same ingredients to make gin. He’d found an old book that detailed the spirit’s lengthy history in Italy, dating back to the 15th century. And though the very first recipe didn’t quite add up to what we know as gin today, it was based on juniper grown in Italy.
To create his Gin43, Cremasco augmented his garden cuttings of thyme, mint and lavender with Tuscan juniper and other botanicals grown or foraged in the nearby foothills of the Dolomites. The final recipe features a blend of 43 components. “For me, it’s very important to understand the best way to get the best results from single botanicals,” Cremasco says. To this end, depending on the ingredient, he uses different methods of extraction: distillation, vapor infusion, hot infusion, cold infusion. When working with fennel seeds, for example, he harvests them in September and allows them to dry for a month. Then, rather than distilling the seeds, which he finds too harsh, he does a seven-day cold infusion. When working with flowers, like yarrow, he distills their essence, using a basket in the pot still that keeps the flowers nearly 70 degrees cooler than the rest of the still, for a more gentle distillation. The result is then aged for two months in acacia barrels, sourced from a cooper in Udine.
From gin, Cremasco expanded into vermouth and a bitter liqueur, all of the necessary components for a Negroni. His Vermouth25 is based on wine made from verduzzo (a white Friulian grape) that he buys from Conte D’Attimis-Maniago, a producer in Collio, and infuses with 25 botanicals. Cremasco relies heavily on the inherent sweetness of the wine, adding only a tiny amount of natural beet sugar, also from Italy. His Fred Jerbis Bitter34 likewise takes the familiar aperitivo liqueur template, but dials back the sugar and amps up the botanical profile. “Usually the classic Campari has 25 percent sugar [by volume],” says Cremasco. “I used 12 percent sugar—half.” Which is to say that when in combination, the trifecta of Fred Jerbis Gin43, Vermouth25 and Bitter34 is drier than the traditional Negroni. “The sugar is coming from the vermouth—not the bitter,” notes Cremasco. If anyone has ever pondered whether a Negroni could express terroir, a Jerbis Negroni is a certain yes. “It’s so cool to say, ‘This guy did it all,’” says Bruce Shultz, head bartender at New York’s Amor y Amargo.
It’s in Cremasco’s Amaro16 and Fernet25 that the imprint of his region’s flora is most apparent. Noting that there are already more than 400 amari made in Italy, Cremasco wanted to rethink the formula to represent his corner of the country. “The classic recipe is herbs, herbs, herbs, but one day, I was working in the mountains with my family and I thought: ‘Why not use trees?’” Of the 16 botanicals that go into his amaro, 12 are from trees—including chestnut, laurel, poplar, birch, linden and mulberry. “Herbs are very bitter; trees are not so bitter,” he says. “I don’t use a lot of sugar with the trees.” Essentially, all of the ingredients (leaves, flowers, bark, roots and botanicals) and alcohol, along with the fortifying spirit and a small dose of Italian beet sugar, go into a tank for a week.
Whereas the vast majority of modern amari are started with purchased concentrates or infusions—or even something called “amaro base”—to maintain a consistency of flavor between batches, Cremasco’s ingredients naturally vary in flavor from harvest to harvest. In order to maintain some continuity, however, he reserves 20 percent of each batch to go into the next, a sort of solera approach to amaro. This fractional-blending process is also central to Cremasco’s fernet, which is more traditionally herb-forward, relying on bay laurel, peppermint, marjoram, summer savory and hyssop, among others, as well as mugo pine foraged in the Dolomites. For those for whom the word fernet recalls nights concluded with dare shots, this is something quite different. At Nightmoves, in Brooklyn, Orlando Franklin McCray prefers to pour it on its own. “It’s almost like a cocktail in itself,” he says.
For the Fred Jerbis devotees, the spirits are a welcome alternative to the iconic and heavily relied-upon Italian brands that have for so long driven vermouth, aperitivo liqueurs and amari globally. Cremasco’s work reconsiders these categories at a smaller scale with the kind of intimate focus on place that is often lost in mass production. Applied to cocktails, Cremasco can stir up his favorite classic, a Hanky Panky, using his own gin, vermouth and fernet—and taste home.
The Fred Jerbis Experience
Cremasco’s Gin43 was his first venture into spirits-making, putting to use 43 botanicals sourced from his own garden or nearby farms, or foraged from the woods surrounding his village at the base of the Dolomites.
- Price: $56
- ABV: 43 percent
“Vermouth was born in Italy more than 200 years ago,” says Cremasco. But his version shares little resemblance to those from well-established Italian brands. For his Vermouth25, he infuses Friulian white verduzzo wine with three varieties of wormwood, gentian grown by his friend Luca, and bitter orange (along with 20 other botanicals) for a product that is noticeably richer and more bitter than sweet vermouth from the category’s standard-bearers, like Cinzano or Martini & Rossi.
- Price: $32
- ABV: 18 percent
Cremasco tips the scale with this aperitivo liqueur, adding more bittering botanicals to his blend and pulling back on the sugar. Expect your Negroni to have a more subdued color, as the Fred Jerbis Bitter34 is made without artificial coloring.
- Price: $40
- ABV: 25 percent
Producing a softer, less syrupy version of amaro than many today, Cremasco assumed the role of arborist when choosing botanicals for his Amaro16. Of the 16 roots, flowers, leaves, barks and branches used, 12 are derived from trees native to northern Italy, including chestnut, laurel, poplar, birch, linden and mulberry.
- Price: $40
- ABV: 25 percent
If his amaro steps away from herbal bitterness, Cremasco’s fernet walks straight toward it, with 25 local herbs. He ages the fernet in chestnut barrels from a cooper in Udine, which plays a role in the bitterness of the liqueur. “In the chestnut, the fernet grabs the tannin,” says Cremasco. “It’s very dry and bitter, but very balanced; this is the work of the barrel.”
- Price: $42
- ABV: 34 percent