Developed in 1860 in Benevento, Italy, Strega looks every inch an antique import. Giuseppe Alberti and his father, Carmine Vincenzo Alberti, worked together on the liqueur, flavored with a mixture of saffron—responsible for its shimmering yellow tint—and about 70 spices and herbs, including mint, cinnamon, white pepper, iris, nutmeg and juniper.
Not surprisingly—thanks to Benevento’s enchanting reputation as the “City of Witches”—tales of Strega’s creation vary and are often dubious. One such story begins with Giuseppe Alberti on a search for herbs when he happened upon a witch who had been trapped under a fallen tree branch. Alberti, upstanding citizen that he was, saved the witch and was given the recipe for Strega as a reward. Fitting then, that strega is the Italian word for “witch.”
While Italian bitter aperitifs have seen a boom in the United States in the past decades, Strega has struggled to find its niche, primarily because it stands out in a category all its own: predominantly savory, but still sweeter than Campari, Cocchi Americano and other aperitivi. Despite its differences, though, Strega works well in aperitif-style drinks. Brad Thomas Parsons, author of Bitters and Amaro, uses it in his Gargoyle & Spire, a long drink that combines gin, Strega, simple syrup and orange bitters, all piled into a highball glass and topped with chilled Champagne or sparkling wine. Other takes, such as the Strega Sour, are even more straightforward. The simple shaken mix of gin, lemon juice and Strega was first published in 1971; its bracing recipe can be smoothed out with a touch of honey syrup.
Strega acts as an aromatic amplifier in bubbly, bittersweet drinks, but it plays a very different role in stirred cocktails, where its richness and intense savoriness take the lead. For his Amaris, Aaron Polsky combines bittersweet Gran Classico, Fernet-Branca and dry vermouth, creating a new amaro all his own—and a drink that forgoes any known cocktail blueprint. Brad Farran, meanwhile, sticks closer to the classics, turning the Manhattan on its head by replacing American whiskey with Japanese and partnering the sweet vermouth with Strega in his Tokyo Drift, while Amor y Amargo’s Sother Teague turns the Penicillin extra savory with a measure of the liqueur in his Powerful Baritone.
Other drinks with Strega break the mold. The oddball combination of Strega and melted vanilla ice cream is the key to the Solid Gold Cadillac at San Francisco’s Bottle Club Pub, which takes the Golden Cadillac in a savory, saffron-forward direction. Andrew Bohrer, too, uses Strega in drinks that defy categorization, like his Bruxa Irmã Seis Batida, which pairs Strega with cachaça, oloroso sherry and coconut milk. Having learned quickly that anise flavors pair well with red fruits, he took a slightly more tame approach with his Bruja Smash, a combination of tequila, raspberries and Strega.
“To this day,” says Bohrer, “the only thing I don’t like about [Strega] is the fact that the word ‘witch’ is required in every cocktail featuring it.”