Alcohol in Italy

Find out about the different alcoholic drinks in Italy, from aperitivos such as Vermouth and Campari, to the well-known digestivos grappa and amaro...


Although beer is consumed throughout the country, Italy isn't a great brewing nation. The historic hub of any production is Alto Adige, where the brewing traditions of Austro-Hungarian and German neighbours spilled over the Alps. Germanic-sounding brewers (Forst, Dreher, Splügen, Theresianer, and Wührer) still operate, but the biggest today are Moretti and Peroni (neither of them Italian owned). When the Italians do reach for a beer it's usually of the lager variety, although darker beers, variously described as birra nera or birra rossa, are produced in small quantities, often by microbrewers. Beer consumption in Italy is gradually increasing (although wine is still the norm at home), especially amongst younger drinkers who will often order foreign brands.


Many Italians still drink an aperitif to stimulate the appetite and enhance conversation before a meal. There are two old favourites (see below), although sparkling spumante wines like Prosecco are gaining in popularity: their lower alcohol content may reduce the need for an after-lunch siesta.


A Piedmontese legend made from white or red plonk, with added herbs, spices and bitter flavourings. One of the additions is wormword, the digestive aid from which the drink takes its name via the High German, werimouta. Unlike French versions, white Italian vermouth is off-dry and red is sweet, although they all have a balancing savoury tang. Famous brands include Martini & Rossi, Cinzano and Carpano, who make Punt e Mes, a classic red. Vermouth-based cocktails like the Dry Martini, Americano, Negroni and Manhattan attract American tourists but few locals.


A refreshing Milanese pick-me-up also drunk as an aperitivo; usually taken straight with ice, with soda or with orange. The recipe is secret but we know that much of the tang and flavour derives from cinchona bark. The bright red colour comes from cochineal.


If the appetite has been over-stimulated and then overindulged, the Italians believe in the restorative properties of a digestivo, taken after the meal or even the following morning.


Meaning 'bitter', amari come in many forms, all of them wine or spirit based. Most are flavoured with herbs and roots that can include cinchona, angelica, anise, wormwood, and gentian. The most bitter of all are called fernet, of which Fernet Branca, invented by 19th century spice trader Bernadino Branco and containing 27 herbs and spices, is the most famous. Fernet is drunk neat or added to coffee. In the 18th century, it was thought to combat cholera and tapeworms. Other amari include nocino, a bitter liqueur made from unripe walnuts in Emilia-Romagna, carciofo, made from artichokes and taken before or after dinner (the biggest brand is Cynar), and tartufo, produced from black Umbrian truffles.


A sweet liqueur usually made from almond kernels. The biggest brand name, Disaronno, actually uses apricot kernels along with a secret mix of 17 herbs and spices.


A sweet aniseed-flavoured digestivo often served with coffee as an ammazzacaffè (coffee killer). Restaurateurs sometimes serve it con mosca (with flies), meaning they float three coffee beans in the glass: one to represent health, another happiness and a third prosperity. Excitable tourists inevitably opt for a flaming sambuca, in which the neat liqueur is set alight. The leading brand is Molinari.


Another sweet ammazzacaffè, especially popular in the south, limoncello is made by macerating lemon peel in alcohol. The best comes from the Sorrento lemon, a fruit with its own IGP label no less.


The superstar of digestivos is made by distilling pomace (the residual grape skins, pips and stalks of wine making). It's usually a clear liquid, although some grappas, labelled riserva, take on a golden hue from a year's cask aging. Grappa is often drunk with or in coffee (caffè corretto) or swirled around an empty coffee cup (rasentin). Nardini is the leading brand.

Extract from Speak the Culture Italy, a Thorogood publication Speak the Culture series website / Buy online Copyright © 2009 Thorogood Publishing