A guide to Italian liqueurs

“When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” So goes the old adage. In Italy, where it’s customary to bookend one’s meals with a pre-dinner aperitivo or a post-dinner digestivo, Italian liqueurs such as amari, sambuca and limoncello are as much a part of the dining culture as the meal itself.

What is a liqueur?

Liqueurs are alcoholic beverages that have a relatively low alcohol content, typically ranging somewhere between 15 to 30% ABV. These distilled spirits are sweetened with sugar or other sweeteners and flavored using different ingredients ranging from fruits (e.g. Chambord) to chocolate (e.g. Mozart), coffee (e.g. Tia Maria), flowers (e.g. St-Germain), nuts (e.g. Amaretto), honey (e.g. Drambuie), herbs and spices (e.g. Galliano), whiskey (e.g. Irish Mist), cream (e.g. Amarula) or even vegetables such as artichoke (eg. Cynar). There are also several crème liqueurs such as crème de cassis and crème de banane, which tend to contain lower amounts of alcohol, around 15%, which puts the in different category altogether.

“Dried herbs and other medicinal flora were infused in alcohol to release their essential oils. Sugar was also added to these early liqueurs to make them more palatable.”

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The word ‘liqueur’ is thought to be derived from the Italian word ‘liquefare,’ which means ‘to liquefy.’ During the Middle Ages, tinctures were concocted by monks as remedies to cure or treat various ailments. Dried herbs and other medicinal flora were infused in alcohol to release their essential oils. Sugar was also added to these early liqueurs to make them more palatable.

A flight of Italian liqueurs

Anise liqueur

Sambuca is similar to anisette but made from a distillation of star anise. Sambuca ‘con la mosca,’ which means ‘with the fly’ in Italian, traditionally comes with three coffee beans floating on top to symbolize health, wealth and good luck. To add to the fun, the sambuca’s surface is briefly set on fire before serving to toast the beans, then extinguished just before drinking. Others prefer to dilute this sweet liqueur with chilled water. Molinari is the world’s most popular brand of sambuca and has been in operation since 1945, a testament to its tastiness and effectiveness as a digestivo. Click for sambuca recipes and more.

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Orange liqueur

Campari, the signature bright red bitter, is most commonly served with tonic water, or with equal parts sweet vermouth and gin as a Negroni. You can also enjoy this sweet, syrupy liqueur on the rocks, or as a refreshing spritz by simply adding white or sparkling wine. Campari was originally produced in the late 1800s in the Piedmont region of Italy, but today’s recipe now calls for 60 different ingredients, including orange peels, bergamot, rhubarb, ginseng and herbs. We’re fans of Campari-spiked orange sorbet. Benissimo!

Hazelnut liqueur

Frangelico is easily recognizable with its distinctive Franciscan friar-shaped bottle. Named after the Piemontese hermit monk who is believed to have lived in the region during the 18th century, the recipe for this sweet dessert liqueur goes back centuries. Tonda Gentile hazelnuts are soaked in a base spirit together with coffee, cocoa, vanilla bean and other herbs. The resulting liqueur is then filtered, sweetened and bottled.

Lemon liqueur

A sip of limoncello is a taste of pure sunshine. In Italy, this delicious digestivo is served in ice-cold shot glasses. Made from lemon rinds that are fermented and then macerated in alcohol, limoncello is often associated with the Amalfi Coast in towns like Sorrento, where the large, fragrant lemons grow in abundance. Its tangy, refreshing taste makes it the perfect summer liqueur. Click for limoncello recipes and more.

Almond liqueur

Amaretto is frequently used in desserts and cocktails. Depending upon the brand, this dark, sweet almond liqueur is flavored using various ingredients such as: almond essence, apricot kernel oil, herbs and other botanicals. The name ‘amaretto’ means ‘little bitter’ in Italian, although the liqueur itself is traditionally sweet. Disaronno is the best known brand of amaretto, produced in the town of Saronno. Those who prefer a slightly more bitter tasting almond liqueur should try Averna, a Sicilian maker of amaretto.

“Depending upon the brand, dark, sweet almond liqueur is flavored using various ingredients such as: almond essence, apricot kernel oil, herbs and other botanicals”

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Bergamot liqueur

Italicus is one of the more recent brands to enter the aperitivo scene. Based on a 19th century recipe, Italicus gives the traditional Rosolio (a rose petal liqueur) a modern twist by adding notes of Calabrian bergamot, cedro (or citron) and a maceration of lemon balm, chamomile, lavender and gentian.

Herbal liqueur

The intensely fragrant Fernet-Branca is a bitter herbal digestivo that was invented in 1945. This Milanese bitters is made from a secret blend of 27 different herbs and other flowers, roots and plants that are said to aid digestion and help settle the stomach. Fernet-Branca is most often consumed neat and served in a cordial glass, but it can also be combined with gin and sweet vermouth in a Hanky Panky.

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Cherry liqueur

The Luxardo brand of Maraschino traces its storied past back six generations to the founding of its original distillery in 1821. Made from a true distillation of sour Marasca cherries and crushed pits, this clear Italian liqueur is a must-try. Its subtle, bitter almond flavor will work wonders when it comes to enhancing your cocktails. After all, it’s not every liqueur that can boast the “Privilegiata Fabrica Maraschino Excelsior” denomination, a distinction that the Emperor of Austria awarded the Luxardo family’s Maraschino liqueur in 1829.

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