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An Amaro Crawl Through the Italian Alps

Alec Jacobson cuts a path from Lombardia’s Braulio to Trentino’s Cappelletti to capture the landscape that informs Italy's alpine amari.

What does a place taste like? If you were to choose an alcoholic beverage to help answer this question, wine would be the logical choice; it’s a query, after all, that’s central to its culture. But in the stretch of the Italian Alps, from Piemonte to Trentino-South Tyrol, you might consider amaro.

“The beauty of the alpine amari is the uniqueness of the herbs that grow there,” says Jeff Porter, beverage director for the B&B Hospitality Group, which includes the iconic New York Italian restaurants, Babbo and Del Posto.

Taken as a group, the bitter liqueurs that come from northern Italy tend to be lighter and more intensely herbal than the richer, sweeter and citrus-forward amari that come from the country’s south. Transportive, with levity to their flavors, these liqueurs are unique expressions of their place.

On his last trip to Italy, Porter brought home a bottle of Lyskamm, an Piemontese amaro made with wormwood, thyme and cloves that, he says, takes him back to the region, almost like Proust’s memory-invoking madeleine. But, when he’s serving guests, his go-to intro to alpine amaro is Braulio, which, he says, has a “brooding nature with this velvet glove.”

For a long time, the brand was unavailable in the U.S., routinely smuggled back by devotees in suitcases, eventually becoming enough of a secret wine-industry handshake that it become know as the “sommelier’s Fernet.” Following its acquisition by Gruppo Campari, the brand increased production and distribution; it’s now widely available in the U.S., but still something of a cult item—especially the limited, vintage-dated Reserva bottlings.

“Braulio, in particular, is among the best examples of commercial amari that truly transports to where it’s produced,” says Brad Thomas Parsons, author of Amaro and Bitters.

But what, I wondered, do the landscapes that Braulio and its other alpine brethren evoke actually look like?

Last month, I traveled to Lombardia and Trento—the homes of Braulio and Cappelletti, respectively—to capture the terrain that has informed these two icons of alpine liqueurs. I woke early on my first morning in Lombardia’s Bormio, a quaint hamlet filled with ancient stone homes and Swiss-style chalets at the end of the Valtellina Valley that stretches above Lake Como. I watched the dense fog rise of the jagged peaks above the town, as if they’d be doused in water following a blaze.

Braulio’s approach to capturing this landscape is to unite botanicals that appear at different elevations between the town and nearby Mount Braulio—from juniper, gentian and yarrow, to wormwood and chamomile. While the botanicals were originally foraged by hand from the nearby fields, woods and high pastures around Bormio, following growth of the company and new restrictions around foraging in Stelvio National Park, most of the plants are now sourced both locally and beyond, then air-dried and shipped in sacks to the production facility in the town. They are then macerated with a neutral grain spirit for 30 days, pressed and blended with sugar before being piped into barrels, where the liquid is then aged for 15 to 20 months for the regular Braulio release, and up to three years for the Reserva bottling.

“Braulio is never quite the same each year,” said Edoardo Tarantola, Braulio’s cellar manager, as he led me down to the barrel room, “so we keep tasting it.”

Alpine Amaro In Photos

Driving out of Bormio, there are several routes that weave through the tall peaks, but the northern road will give you a view of Mount Braulio’s 9,774-foot summit before you roll over Stelvio Pass, the highest paved road in Italy, and into the Trentino-South Tyrol region. As you follow the road east and then south, you’ll reach Trento, the region’s capital, where the Cappelletti family has spent four generations making spirituous interpretations of the rugged terrain surrounding the city.

In fact, “rugged” isn’t a bad word to describe Cappelletti’s extensive portfolio of bitter wines and liqueurs, which skews more old-school in style with potently medicinal flavors.

Elisir Novasalus, a boldly bitter blend of 30 botanicals—including gentian, dandelion, burdock, aloe vera and buckthorn added to a base of Marsala wine—has been the family’s flagship product since the early 1900s. “It has broad shoulders compared to Braulio,” says Porter, “walking softly with quite a big stick.”

Cappelletti also makes several other amari that focus on single native flavors. A new product, Alta Verde, is a nearly pure wormwood amaro that is lighter bodied than absinthe but more bitter and drying, while Trentio is based on gentian, peppermint and anise—offering a profile that is typical of alpine amari.

Another, Pasubio, also a wine-based amaro, is expressive of alpine blueberry alongside notes of herbs and pine. Though it’s named for Mount Pasubio, which is pictured on the label, the “the major ingredients, you find in all of the mountains here,” says Maddalena Cappelletti, who belongs to the fourth generation of the family.

Maddalena and her brother, Luigi, harvest some of those ingredients themselves, like the mugo pine that grows near Lake Molveno, and they buy from local farmers when they can. But they have also long sourced ingredients from far beyond the Trento region—like Marsala wine, manna and the sweet sap from Sicilian ash trees. “The spice trade coming in through Venice allowed northern amaro makers, and eventually others, access to more exotic herbs and botanicals,” explains Parsons.

Take, for example, Cappelletti’s Amaro Sfumato Rabarbaro, which is a reflection of how exotic flavors have been co-opted over centuries to become an essential part of a region’s spice rack. The smoky, cloudy amaro is focused on is infused with Chinese rhubarb, which has grown in region since the 17th century, when it was first imported through Venice.

The Cappelletti amari that focus on a single-ingredient hark back to the earliest days of infusing alcohol with botanicals to extract their specific medicinal properties. Though it’s still common to flavor grappa with a single fruit or herb, this is rare in the world of amaro, where brands have been built on the mystique of grab-bag secret blends.

All of Cappelletti’s amari are also quite potent by modern standards—each of them finding a way to channel the austerity of the alpine landscape, as if the mountains themselves were able to imprint on the liquid. It’s this combination of pure alpine flavors and a rugged severity that is perhaps the best answer to the question of just what, exactly, this place tastes like.