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Savoring the Flavors of Italy: A Guide to Authentic Italian Liquors

Explore Italy through their diverse liquor, liqueurs, and aperitifs

Italians are well known for their exquisite varieties of wine and food, like pasta, pizza, and cannolis.

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italian liquor

But many people overlook the long list of appetizing and extraordinary Italian liquors, some of which have been around for less than 100 years.

Many of these liquors are for sipping after dinner, but you can get creative and incorporate them into cocktails.


Grappa

Grappa is a grape-based liquor with an ABV between 35% and 60%. Some people, call it firewater because it has a sharp, biting flavor and intense alcoholic taste.

grappa

It’s made from the remnants of the wine-making process, including grape seeds, stalks, and stems that are leftover in an attractive straw basket.

People expect it to have a similar flavor to wine but a bit stronger. However, it tastes much closer to tequila than wine.

It’s common as a digestif following dinner and is best when served chilled or over ice. People may also use it in potent cocktails to add some richness and a biting fruity flavor.

Amaretto

Amaretto is a sweet liquor from Saronno, Italy.

amaretto

The alcohol flavor was inspired by amaretto cookies, using alcohol distilled from molasses with notes of caramel. This dessert-like liquor is often served neat or over ice following dinner.

The flavor is warm and nutty, with hints of vanilla and almond, creating a tantalizing taste. The ABV is around 25%, so it can get you tipsy if you have more than one or two glasses.

The delicious liquor also finds its way into recipes like tiramisu and amaretti cookies.

But common cocktails include the amaretto sour, The Godfather (whisky cocktail), and The French Connection (cognac). This drink is rich, heavy, and luxurious, so it’s best during the cold months as a dessert accompaniment. 

Campari

Campari is a liquor known for its wild red color and dazzling flavor.

campari

It’s made by infusing alcohol and water with herbs and fruit like chinotto and cascarilla. The ABV hovers around 25% but can be as low as 20% or as high as 30%.

It’s similar to another Italian liquor, Aperol, but Campari has a darker red hue and a lighter flavor.

Both are bitter, but Campari has elevated fruit flavors, while Aperol is a bit spicier. While some people may sip Campari over ice as an apéritif, it’s a fabulous and colorful cocktail ingredient.

It’s common in negronis, spritzes, and sangrias, adding a pop of color and a sweet depth of flavor.


Fernet

Fernet is a bitter and aromatic Italian spirit made from herbs and spices.

fernet

It originated in 1845 in Milan and has a distinct dark brown color that is offputting to some.

But unlike dark liquors like Jagermeister, this liquor is a bold sweetness and rich flavor that is easy to sip on.

People often take shots of fernet because of the smooth and decadent flavor. It’s also known to be a favorite shot of industry workers like bartenders and servers because it introduces new flavors and can elevate your palate.

The ABV is high, around 45%, so a few shooters can knock you over. It’s rare in cocktails, but you may find it in cocktails that feature Coke, Campari, bourbon, or orange juice.

Sambuca

An iconic Italian liquor, sambuca is a clear liquor with an intense licorice flavor that is impossible to ignore.

sambuca

It has a strong anise taste that coats your tongue and travels to your nose, making Sambuca shots one of the most flavorful shooters.

Traditional sambuca is white sambuca, as you can find blue, black, or red versions, but these varieties do not come from Italy. The ABV of sambuca is about 38%, and it’s most commonly taken as a celebrity shot.

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Sambuca is a common shooter at Italian weddings and is often brought out to celebrate a special occasion. It is rare in cocktails, but some use it to make unique martinis or gin and tonics.

Anisette

As the name suggests, anisette is anise-flavored liquor. It originated in Italy but is popular among many Mediterranean countries.

anisette

Some people give credit to the French for this drink, but an Italian gentleman name Luigi Manzi is responsible for this liquor.

The liquor is colorless and has a sweet, sugary flavor with dry notes of licorice and anise for an herbaceous and sharp taste. Many people liken anisette to sambuca because the flavor profile is so similar.

And there are not many differences between the two liquors, except that anisette became more widely popular while sambuca remained an Italian favorite.

However, anisette’s ABV is notably lower at 25%, making it easier to drink. This liquor is often mixed with water or tonic to dull the intense flavor.

Aperol

Aperol is a bar staple and appears in many cocktails, especially the iconic and classic Aperol Spritz. It has a unique and bold flavor that is bitter, spicy, and fruity.

It has a bright reddish-orange hue and features gentian, rhubarb, and cinchona in addition to other ingredients.

The name Aperol comes from the Italian word “aperp” which is slang for apéritif. Aperol’s ABV is about 11%, but it’s often an ingredient in cocktails, not a stand-alone drink.

It can be mixed with soda, champagne, and sparkling water or make its way into versions of margaritas, floats, and tropical cocktails.

One of the reasons bartenders love to use this Italian liquor is the vibrant and recognizable color that makes any beverage more exciting and enticing. Many people compare Campari and Aperol, but Campari is bolder and less spicy.


Cynar

A hidden Italian gem, Cynar is a unique and odd liquor flavored with artichokes. This vegetable apéritif is closer to a digestif but straddles the line.

cynar

It features 13 herbs and plants, with artichokes being the most prominent ingredient.

The drink has only been around since 1952 and has a dark brown color and low ABV. Usually, Cynar is only about 16.5% ABV, much lower than most liquors on this list.

You may not detect the artichoke flavor, but you will experience a vegetal, herbaceous, and earthy taste. It’s sipped over ice after dinner, but also finds its way into inventive cocktails.

You can make Cynar spritz, Cynar bitter, Cynar negroni, and more.

Limoncello

Limoncello is a sweet and tart liquor made from Italian lemons. The flavor is smooth and sugary, with a distinct sour taste.

limoncello

This Italian liquor generally comes from Southern Italy near the Sorretine Peninsula and is an after-dinner digestive or nightcap. People drink it in small glasses neat or over ice.

There are a few versions of limoncello, some of which have a more creamy and milky texture and appearance. The ABV ranges from 25% to 30%, so it’s strong. It’s not a common cocktail ingredient, but people sometimes mix it with champagne or use it to create bourbon citrus cocktails.

Zucca

A highly sophisticated and rare liquor, Zucca is a rabarbaro liquor with a spicy-sweet flavor. People liken it to pumpkins and other members of the squash family because of its deep and aromatic flavor.

It’s made using roots from an unusual type of rhubarb. It delivers a zesty and warm herbal liquor taste that is an acquired flavor for many. With an ABV of only 16%, it’s easy to sip on its own.

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People often mix it with soda water or champagne to mellow the flavor without overpowering it. It’s rare in cocktails, but people find it to work well with fruit or bourbon cocktails.


Rosolio

Rosolio has a sweet botanical taste with zesty notes of citrus and the delicate aroma of roses. It’s a lovely pink color which is how it got its name.

The drink uses bergamot, lemon rinds, and other fruits macerated in sugar and alcohol. Sometimes Rosolio is aged in an oak wine barrel to develop an earthy and deep flavor.

The liquor has an ABV of 20%, and is a popular apéritif, thanks to its intense herbal notes and floral profile. It’s the best option for people who dislike the heaviness of other apéritifs and digestifs, like amaretto and Aperol. The light flavor of this drink is delicious when served ice cold or paired with sparkling water and a lemon wedge.

Alchermes

This classic Italian liquor has a spicy and intense flavor profile with underlying notes of bright citrus fruit. It’s a popular ingredient in Italian desserts, including trifles and souffles.

alchermes

The consistency is surprisingly thick and syrupy, with a sweet and spicy flavor that combines anise, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, jasmine, nutmeg, mace, orange, and vanilla.

The layers of flavor blend to create a bold and aromatic taste with delicate notes of citrus and rose. It has a bright red color and an ABV of around 40%. It’s often sipped as an after-dinner drink and rarely makes it into cocktails, but complements bourbon and dry vermouth well.

Centerbe

Probably the most herbaceous liquor ever made, Centerbe or Centerba combines many herbs that naturally grow on Mount Majella in Northern Italy.

The list of herbs is extensive, but some of the most prominent are basil, rosemary, sage, saffron, mint, thyme, and chamomile.

A slow, cold-fusion process that eliminates all humidity in the environment creates this unique emerald green liquor with a layered flavor profile. It has a hot and prickly mouthfeel with a refreshing air of mint and a slight tingle of spicy.

The ABV is typically around 45% but can be as high as 70%, depending on the brand. It’s sipped as an apéritif but can also be an excellent base for herbaceous and earthy cocktails.

Bargnolino

This variation of sloe gin uses soaked sloe fruits from the blackthorn plant. Blackthorn is a type of berry with a juicy and pungent flavor.

These berries create a reddish liquor with a sweet and robust taste. The ABV can range from 40% to 50% and is delicious when chilled and typically served after dinner.

This liquor is practically an ancient recipe, unlike some other famous Italian liquors that only came about in the 19th or 20th centuries. The succulent and bitter taste is brilliant in many drinks, including sangrias, negronis, and gin and tonics. The herbaceous berry flavor is easy to incorporate into many classic cocktails.


Tuaca

Tuaca is a liquor made with brandy, citrus, vanilla, and holiday spices. The exact recipe is somewhat of a secret in Italian history, but the subtle notes of butterscotch and orange are tender and yummy.

People love to mix this Italian liquor with Coke and other dark sodas because the two beverages bring out the warm and rich flavors in one another. The ABV of Tuaca is about 35% and can be sipped on or added to a cocktail.

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One of the most intriguing things about this alcoholic drink is that the flavor profile changes for everyone; some people notice the spiciness more, while others find it sweet and sugary. People may also detect the flavor of figs or honey, so this drink can be a unique experience for everyone who tries it!

Nocino

Nocino is a warm and bitter walnut liquor. It has the sweet but buttery nutty flavor one would expect from a walnut liquor but has green notes and balanced sweetness.

nocino

It features spices and ingredients like cloves, cinnamon, vanilla, lemon peel, and unripened walnuts.

The liquor is a super dark brown almost-black color and has a spicy and bitter taste that you may expect from a digestif.

The ABV is 40%, and Nocino is most often an after-dinner drink because of the warmth and cozy flavor that has a dessert vibe. However, you can try some inventive Nocino cocktails, like the Walnut Manhattan or the Milk Punch.

Vespetrò

A rare liquor, Vespetrò is still homemade by Italian families in the city of Canzo or Canza.

The recipe is mysterious, as these families hand down the ingredient list and distilling process from generation to generation.

It uses a robust combination of spices and medicinal herbs. The rink has a sweet and anise-like flavor with an ABV of about 40%.

The intense herbal aroma and sweet citrus flavor create a distinct depth of flavor that is intriguing but not overwhelming. With a sunset-orange color, it can add a pop of color to a cocktail, but people mostly sip on it and pour it over ice. Very few Vespetrò cocktails exist, so it’s generally just an apéritif.


Frequently Asked Questions

Below are a few related questions to provide more information about Italian drinking.

What is the difference between an aperitivo and a digestivo?

An aperitivo or apéritif is usually a light and colorful liquor with a sweet, herbaceous flavor and lower ABV. A digestivo or digestif is typically a dark liquor with a more bitter and intense taste. Both are post-dinner drinks or nightcaps.

Is whisky popular in Italy?

Yes! While Italians are known for their fancy liquors and wine, whisky is a popular drink in Italy. It’s consumed as an after-dinner drink or digestif.

What is the Italian equivalent of “cheers?”

When Italians want to toast or cheer something, they raise their glasses and say “saluti” or “salute.” Another Italian way to say cheers is “cin cin.” These phrases all essentially mean the same thing and are used to begin or end a toast.


Cin Cin!

While most of these drinks are an after-dinner indulgence, the wild range of flavors and ingredients makes them conducive to inventive cocktails or even fancy, boozy desserts.

If you’re looking for a new apéritif, a fascinating cocktail ingredient, or something to liven up your dessert, one of these Italian liquors will get the job done.

If you have a favorite Italian liquor or recipe for one of these drinks, leave a comment below!

Please drink responsibly, be fully accountable with your alcohol consumption, and show others respect.

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Paul Kushner

Written by Paul Kushner

Founder and CEO of MyBartender. Graduated from Penn State University. He always had a deep interest in the restaurant and bar industry. His restaurant experience began in 1997 at the age of 14 as a bus boy. By the time he turned 17 he was serving tables, and by 19 he was bartending/bar managing 6-7 nights a week.

In 2012, after a decade and a half of learning all facets of the industry, Paul opened his first restaurant/bar. In 2015, a second location followed, the latter being featured on The Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.

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