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Spirits: Scoping Out New Finds in Italy

Italy is a constant source of interesting spirits, including aperitivi such as Aperol, which adds gorgeous color and a balance of sweet and bitter to the Aperol Sunset. (James M. Thresher for The Washington Post)

As I've written before, I am a big fan of Italian aperitivo-hour spirits such as Campari, Punt e Mes and Aperol, and of amari such as Averna, Cynar and Ramazzotti. At the moment, I am in Bassano del Grappa, a lovely town in the middle of Italy's Veneto region, doing research for an upcoming column on grappa. But I have also been keeping my eye out for interesting new finds. I've discovered a few, and some are even available back home, or will be soon.

While visiting the Poli Distillery, I tasted a brand-new aperitivo, released in the past month. Poli's new product is orange in color, similar to Aperol, and it's fresher-tasting and less cloying than Aperol, which is seen on all kinds of cocktail menus these days. Jacopo Poli, some of whose products can be found in the District, says his company might be bringing this to the United States soon.

I found some other surprises when visiting the Nardini Distillery in Bassano, as well as its small, historic bar on the picturesque Ponte degli Alpini, where you can relax with an aperitivo while gazing at the mountains and listening to the rush of the Brenta River underneath. Besides grappa, Nardini makes Rosso and a bitter, both of which are red and in the same category as Campari.

Nardini also makes a rabarbaro, which is perhaps my favorite Italian aperitivo. Rabarbaro is infused predominantly with Chinese rhubarb, along with other herbs, and has a unique taste and aroma. It's a weird and entirely pleasant mix of earthy, bitter and vanilla with notes of honeysuckle, coffee and yam. It's great chilled with a little seltzer.

At the Nardini bar, you can order a drink called a Mezzo e Mezzo, which is half Rosso and half rabarbaro. Anyway, I've never written about rabarbaro because I've never found it in the States. The biggest brand in Italy is Zucca, which operates the famous Caffe Zucca in Milan's Galleria on the Piazza Duomo. Zucca is owned by the same company that makes DiSaronno amaretto, but it has yet to launch Zucca in the United States, though I keep waiting hopefully. Zucca may be beaten to the punch, as Antonio Guarda-Nardini tells me he is thinking about launching Nardini Rabarbaro in the States.

Meanwhile, one interesting Nardini spirit that you can find is Tagliatella, a bittersweet infusion of grappa, cherry juice and orange and herbs. The drink was created in the 19th century from the leakage from the old taps in the Nardini bar — essentially a "cut," or "taglio," of all the other spirits on offer. Nardini eventually began bottling the stuff. At 35 percent alcohol by volume, it tastes like a higher-proof version of Punt e Mes or vermouth, but with a kiss of cherry that gives it an interesting finish. I know I'm going to be looking for this bottle when I return home.

-- Jason Wilson

By The Food Section  |  May 21, 2009; 5:00 PM ET
Categories:  Spirits  | Tags: Jason Wilson  
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I'm very much looking forward to your grappa article, one of my favorite spirits. Bassano del Grappa is a beautiful and almost unknown city with a wonderful history (grappa production, partisan base during WWII, etc) - I envy your trip! I do hope that you get to make some side trips to prosecco country and find some of the wonderful breweries up there as well...

Posted by: ArlingtonSMP | May 22, 2009 8:31 AM | Report abuse

Ooh, that new Poli aperitivo sounds like it would be an awesome sub for Aperol in a spritz! Here's hoping we'll see it in the States someday. And I'm looking forward to the grappa article as well...

Posted by: lizlemon | May 22, 2009 10:54 AM | Report abuse

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