A great cocktail is a work of art. With that ideal, ITALICUS Rosolio di Bergamotto— the bergamot rosolio aperitivo brand founded by Italian bartender and drinks industry veteran Giuseppe Gallo—challenged bartenders worldwide to create an ultimate art-inspired aperitivo experience, using the Rosolio di Bergamotto as a key ingredient.
The eight U.S. finalists of the 2022 Art of ITALICUS Aperitivo Challenge rose to the occasion. With references spanning literature, architecture, music and the culinary arts, along with forms of visual art ranging from Van Gogh’s Starry Night to graffiti, the final suite of drinks encompasses a particularly varied and creative assortment of aperitivi.
While many bartenders bring props to cocktail competitions, Korab Loga, bartender at Bella’Gio Ristorante in Cheshire, Connecticut, brought an entire Colosseum he had fashioned from the necks and caps of more than 60 empty ITALICUS bottles. The piece isn’t why he was named U.S. Bar Artist of the Year—he earned the title with his Eternity cocktail—but it speaks to Loga’s remarkable persistence, attention to detail and craftsmanship, qualities that extend to his work behind the bar.
Primarily self-taught as a bartender, Loga grew up working in his family’s Italian American restaurant about a half-hour outside of Hartford. “My family’s been in restaurants over 30 years,” he explains. His father “came here as a pizzaiolo, a pizza man,” and later opened his own restaurant, where Loga started at 12 years old washing dishes. When he returned from college, he took a place behind Bella’Gio’s bar and began elevating the drink menu.
“I bought all these cocktail books: Dale DeGroff, Dead Rabbit, PDT, Death & Co.,” he recalls. “Every time I’d get an order, I’d look it up.”
Today, he describes his drink-making style as “definitely aperitivo-heavy, but with a New England vibe.” An autumn spritz with an ITALICUS base, local apples and cranberries is just one example of how he mixes “Italian style with New England flavors, to keep it familiar.”
Embodying that style is his Eternity cocktail, created for the competition, which he developed with the same studious methods he used when first making drinks. “My inspiration was the Colosseum on the ITALICUS bottle,” he recalls. “It made me think: What were people drinking then? What was the aperitivo at the time?” Research led Loga to a storied Roman beverage called posca: wine diluted with water and sweetened with honey, herbs and spices, often consumed by gladiators to fortify them for the fight.
His interpretation starts with ITALICUS liqueur as the herbaceous foundation of the drink, lengthened with Italy’s trebbiano wine and an “acqua di posca”: mineral water flavored with honey, Italian herbs, and dried bergamot and citron peels, meant to echo the complex flavors of the liqueur. “I really wanted it to show off the herbal and white floral qualities of ITALICUS,” he says, while the leatherwood honey plays off its “honey sweetness.”
The result is a sessionable drink he envisions as just right to accompany the start of a meal. “Aperitivo, to me, means it’s a gathering,” Loga says. “A gathering of family, friends, to enjoy a good time together, have a conversation, and talk about our day over a nice cocktail [meant] to open us up for a beautiful meal to come.”
Looking back, Loga says that he also found inspiration in the ITALICUS competition and company founder Gallo. “I love that Giuseppe was a bartender, and everyone on his team has worked behind the bar,” Loga says—something he personally relates to as a career bartender. “Hopefully, with this competition, I can open up a lot of people’s eyes that they don’t need to go to the big city,” he adds. “You can make it happen anywhere.”
Next, Loga will be entered into the Aperitivo Challenge global final in May. The final will take place at the Roma Bar Show in Rome, where one global winner will be crowned ITALICUS Bar Artist of the Year.
“Bartenders are artists,” says Gallo, referencing the competition’s theme. “Their craft of creating drinks with different ingredients, techniques and inspirations is a liquid art that needs to be celebrated.”
Eternity | Korab Loga, Cheshire, Connecticut
The inspiration for this cocktail—which won the U.S. finals of the 2022 Art of ITALICUS Aperitivo Challenge—is nothing less than the grandeur of ancient Rome. Korab Loga, of Bella’Gio Ristorante, references a storied Roman drink called posca: wine diluted with water and sweetened with honey, herbs and spices. “It was considered a ‘Gatorade’ for gladiators,” Loga says. Here, the drink is reinterpreted with ITALICUS liqueur as the herbaceous backbone, lengthened with Italy’s trebbiano wine and an “acqua di posca” that sees mineral water flavored with honey, Italian herbs, and dried bergamot and citron peels. The finished drink is served in a chalice fit for a Roman gladiator.
Spritz Olympia | David Leon, Chicago
The inspiration for bartender David Leon’s drink was the work of Jamaican painter and sculptor Christopher González, best known for creating a 9-foot-tall statue of Bob Marley. In the Spritz Olympia, served at Chicago’s Untitled Supper Club, Leon pays homage to González by accenting the floral notes of ITALICUS with a housemade chamomile sorrel soda. (Sorrel, a garnet-hued drink made with hibiscus, ginger and spices, is a Jamaican staple, particularly around the holiday season.) The finishing touch: the lemon peel trimmed into small birds, a reference to Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.”
Starry Night | Meg Benshalom, San Francisco
The “unapologetic brushstrokes” of Vincent Van Gogh’s famed Starry Night inspired the layers of bold flavors in this pretty pink drink, says San Francisco-based beverage director Meg Benshalom. “Rhubarb and bergamot offset each other like the colors of ice blue…and canary yellow in the famous painting.” In addition to ITALICUS, mixing butterfly pea flower syrup with Indian tonic creates the striking rosy hue. Jicama juice adds surprising freshness, while a single purple orchid adds the perfect natural accent.
Zitalicus Al Pesto | Francesco Donvito, New York City
This tall, cool drink is “an aperitivo reinterpretation of pasta with pesto, one of the classic dishes of Italian cuisine,” explains Francesco Donvito, of Manhattan’s Rezdôra. In addition to herbaceous ITALICUS, London dry gin and lime, the drink incorporates orgeat blended with fresh basil and toasted pine nuts, along with tomato water carbonated into a housemade “tomato soda.” A single basil leaf is perched atop a long ice block for visual effect and delicate aroma.
Golden Hour | Derek Stilmann, Miami
A post-graffiti-inspired spritz that reflects the vibrancy of a Miami sunset? Yes, please. “I find post-graffiti can be similar to serving a cocktail,” says Derek Stilmann, “it creates a personalized experience to those who get to watch and enjoy it.” Painting a balloon glass bar-side with edible paint in golden hour pink, silver and gold creates a similar immersive experience. The glass is then filled with a clarified, carbonated cocktail featuring ITALICUS, vegetal gentian liqueur, and a spritz of “strawberry mist.”
Hemingway Spritz | Javier Ortega Diaz, Las Vegas
Inspired by American writer Ernest Hemingway and the many years he spent living in Cuba, this tall, refreshing spritz from Carversteak’s Javier Ortega Diaz gets its purple ombre appearance from butterfly pea syrup. Homemade coconut soda adds tropical flavor and effervescence, while lemon juice and a lemon leaf garnish tease out the citrusy notes found in ITALICUS liqueur. “Hemingway was a fan of Cuba’s gastronomic and food and beverage culture,” Diaz explains. “This cocktail represents the flavors of the island of Cuba.”
Saudade | Carolina Malta, New York City
Brazilian native Carolina Malta drew on her heritage for this drink: spice-infused cachaça and yerba maté tea nod to Brazil, while a measure of white port pays homage to her late Portuguese father. The drink’s name—Saudade—is a Portuguese word that describes “the infinite feeling of deeply missing someone,” explains Malta, a bartender at Bea in Manhattan. Garnished with a caramelized banana slice, the drink expresses “the art of life” and “the sweet feeling of memories,” she says.
Art Through Time | Adam Carroll, Las Vegas
“Today’s society is in constant motion,” says Golden Tiki bartender Adam Carroll. “There’s little to no time to enjoy and appreciate the present moment.” With that in mind, he found inspiration in two phrases: “The purpose of art is to stop time,” from musician Bob Dylan, and “L’arte e’ senza tempo,” an Italian phrase that means “art is timeless.” Carroll’s drink is relatively streamlined, accenting the citrus notes of ITALICUS with smaller amounts of yuzu liqueur, expressed lemon oils and dry vermouth.