Meet the Grandfather of Forgotten Italian Aperitifs
Campari, Aperol, and vermouth may be the three cornerstones of Italian cocktails, but one drinks specialist wants to add rosolio—a 19th century liqueur from Turin—to the list.
Campari, Aperol, vermouth. If you count yourself among the ranks of the cocktail sophisticates—y'know, the sort who were ordering Negronis before they were cool—then you'll be familiar with this established cornerstone of Italian aperitivi.
But they're not the whole story—no more than Gordon's Gin is all there is to be said about English spirits. Like saying you love Italian food when all you've ever tried is lasagne, you know nothing about Italian booze if you haven't ventured beyond this trio of liqueurs. Or so Giuseppe Gallo tells me.
"I spent years travelling and telling people about the history of Italian drinking culture. I'd talk about Campari, Aperol, and rosolio. And then one day, someone asked me what rosolio was," says the Amalfi Coast-born drinks specialist, now based in London. "Everyone's making gin. I wanted to make something different."
After years of explaining the different kinds of spirits, liqueurs, and bitters traditional to bartenders in Italy, Gallo decided to show the world what he meant. And with a personal twist.
"Back in the day, the king of Italy lived in Turin," he begins, with a fairytale-like cadence. "The king was the number one consumer of rosolio, made with botanicals like Roman camomile, Gentian wood, dry lavender, yellow roses, and lemon balm."
The concoction became known as "Rosolio di Torino," after the city in which the king lived. But the drink's lofty status was soon to be lost when, at the start of the 19th century, Victor Amadeus III seized on a business opportunity and got local farmers to produce large quantities of white wine. The drink of the court became vermouth, and rosolio's status as a drink for the elite was usurped, pushing it into almost complete obscurity.
But some remembered and kept the spirit alive.
"If you go to a local village and find someone in their 70s, 80s, or 90s, they'll know what rosolio is and they probably still make it. My grandma is 86 now, and she makes it," says Gallo. "When she got married in 1949, she gave all the guests a little glass of her rosolio as a welcome drink to celebrate. She still makes it today with white mulberries that grow in her garden."
In part inspired by his grandma, part by his own research into this historic spirit, and part frustration at the proliferation of gins, Gallo decided to resurrect rosolio.
"My grandma's rosolio is high on alcohol, very punchy, with a sweetness coming from the fruits. But it's a mono-flavour and obviously home made," he says.
It's not that Gallo is trying to teach his grandmother to suck eggs—nor distill liqueur—rather that years of experience in the drinks industry have led him to believe that the moment for a professionally made, subtly crafted rosolio has come.
"Every second day, I see a new gin or a new vermouth. Do we really need them? You can only keep a few in a bar, and really what makes them all so different from one another? Why not work on something else?" he asks. "There are so many interesting things in old books. I decided to make something old new to drink now."
To resurrect an entire category of drink, Gallo had to create something special, using flavours more nuanced than those of his nan's mulberry liqueur. His starting point was the original recipe for Rosolio di Torino, which he found in an ancient book.
"It's fairly secret," he says, with a note of glee in his voice. "There are only two copies in the world. One is in the library of the University of Turin. The other is in my house. In the beginning, my plan was just to make that recipe, but when I followed it, it tasted, kind of … iffy. It might have been good enough for the king in the 1800s, but it wasn't good enough for me."
So, Gallo looked to his own past for inspiration on how to improve rosolio.
"I'm from the Amalfi Coast and over Christmas, my mum would always make sea bass carpaccio with the zests of the bergamots which grow there on top," he explains. "Ten years ago, I started to see lots of perfumes made with bergamot, and then cakes and sorbets, but no aperitivo or liqueur. It's such an interesting flavour, I decided it would be good to use."
Bergamot is certainly the top note in Gallo's rosolio. It's the main fragrance you notice when opening the bottle and the distinguishing flavour at first taste. To get the fruit's aroma into his spirit, he employed a longstanding method of extraction known as "sfumatora," which involves sun-drying the peel, infusing the dried skin in cold water, and then pressing the oils out.
Added to this is another extraction, taken from a huge citrus fruit grown in Sicily called cedro.
"It's basically a massive lemon that's almost completely skin, with no juice inside," Gallo explains.
Both bergamot and cedro have Protected Designation of Origin status in their respective parts of Italy. Continuing along these lines, Gallo made sure that all other components of his new drink—including the glass for the bottle and metal of the bottle top—were Italian too.
This also provided inspiration for the new rosolio's name: Italicus.
"Italicus is Latin for Italian. It's a celebration of a modern but quintessential Italy," Gallo explains. "Not the old dusty spaghetti and mandolins idea, but the Italy of Armani and Ferrari. Modern and elegant. Every ingredient except the sugar is Italian."
And even the sugar in Italicus has a story.
"It's the first modern liqueur which isn't made with sugar syrup but with non-refined brown beet sugar," Gallo says. "First, it has a different pH. Secondly, because it gives length to the mouthfeel, and thirdly, because it's what they'd have used in the original rosolio."
So, by going back to the start, with a base of the king's favourite Rosolio di Torino, bergamot to remind him of his mother, and the liqueur-making legacy of his 86-year-old grandmother, Gallo has created something he hopes all of Italy can be proud of. A drink that is both delicious and new.
Less gin gin and more cin cin to that, I say.