Odd colors, strange ingredients and unusual flavors can pose a challenge for even the most fearless of bartenders. Spirits or liqueurs like Greece’s mastiha and other pine liqueurs, whose flavors and uses have almost no history in classic cocktails; or crème de violette and sloe gin, which appear in a few classics but rarely make cameos beyond. Only in a moment of madness, curiosity or perhaps unbridled inspiration do bartenders turn to the long-forgotten bottles—those hidden away from prying eyes and hands along the far reaches of the back bar.
Strega is one of them.
“Almost mythically, Strega just appeared behind a bottle of Campari and Pernod one shift,” says longtime Seattle bartender Andrew Bohrer about the first time he discovered Strega. “It was almost as if it had appeared when I was ready to understand it.”
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, a mixture of saffron—responsible for its shimmering yellow tint—and about 70 different 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 and fraught with mystery and magic. One such story begins with 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.”
Italian bitter aperitifs have seen a recent boom in the U.S.—think Aperol, Campari, Cocchi Americano and the new Contratto products, among many others. But Strega has struggled to find its niche, primarily because it stands out as in a category all its own: predominately savory, but still sweeter than most of the aforementioned aperitivi. As such, it’s become something of a fascination, albeit one that still tends to languish unused.
“I got really into it about three years ago,” says Maison Premiere’s Will Elliott. “I revisited it after not tasting for many years and was floored by its distinctive contradictions.” He instantly tried to pull it into a stirred rhum agricole cocktail with Sapin 40% (a French herbal liqueur) and a dose of Peychaud’s bitters.
“There are still burn marks on the coaster,” he says. “It was called Victoria’s Secret. Terrible, but true. Bad names happen. Bad Strega drinks happen. But never that bad.”
Since then things have improved immeasurably. Now, Elliott explains, he enjoys Strega in a nominally Italian context with other lighter, less viscous ingredients—preferably bubbly ones—and on the rocks with a twist. His Viva Alberti spritz, which combines Strega, cognac and the punishing Amaro Cappelletti as a base for a topper of sparkling wine, is the perfect example of how well Strega works in aperitif-style drinks. Brad Thomas Parsons, author of Bitters and the forthcoming Amaro, takes a similarly bubbly approach in his Gargoyle & Spire, a long drink that combines gin, Strega, simple syrup and orange bitters, all piled into a highball glass and topped lavishly with chilled champagne or sparking wine.
While Strega can play the role of aromatic amplifier in the above drinks, it plays a very different role in stirred cocktails, its sweetness and intense savoriness taking the lead. For his Amaris, New York’s Aaron Polsky combines bittersweet Gran Classico, Fernet Branca and dry vermouth, creating a new amaro all his own—and a drink that foregoes any known cocktail blueprint. Vin Rouge’s Brad Farran sticks closer to the classics, turning the Manhattan on its head by replacing American whiskey with Japanese and pumping up the sweet vermouth with Strega in his Tokyo Drift.
Andrew Bohrer, meanwhile, has—per his style—broken the mold entirely, using 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.”