As someone who approaches spirits and wines from an anthropological perspective, the regions of northern Italy make a wonderful case study. These provinces are unique not only in that some of the world’s most exquisite grape varietals grow here, but also because these regions have such deep cultural history. It is no wonder that the Italians of these regions have sewn into their daily cultural experience the aperitivo—a respite between work and dinner where one need do nothing else but savor both natural and human-made beauty that surrounds. Of course though, this is only a cheap and romantic American view. But each day at around 5pm, from the Ligurian coast to the shores of the Alpine lakes, people congregate at cafes and bars, on side streets, corners, and in grand piazzas to sip on spritzes and Americanos and catch up with each other. It’s happy hour Italian-style—an idea that we Milwaukeeans can and should get behind.
Our case study would be interesting even if we were to focus solely on the wines of these regions, but the local topography offers even more. Botanical ingredients are ubiquitous in these mountainous regions and these have influenced the way certain wines are consumed. The infusing of base wines with botanical and aromatic ingredients has been done since ancient times—perhaps even prehistoric times—and it creates something unique . . . vermouth. While these “fortified wines” are often enjoyed by locals (and me) on their own, vermouth became an essential cocktail ingredient in the late nineteenth century and has driven the evolution of some the most famous cocktails in the world—namely the Martini and its cousin, the Manhattan. I tend to regard these particular cocktails as the perfect embodiment of the relationship between American brash and Italian elegance.
Over the course of the next few weeks, we will present a short series highlighting the world of Italian vermouth, and it’s bitter cousin amaro. We will begin by exploring the history and mythology of these spirits, and then we will highlight a number of vermouth and amaro houses throughout northwestern Italy, including Cocchi, Fernet Branca, and Campari, among others. These spirits will be prominently featured during our inaugural pop-up dinner “In Bocca al Lupo, Vol 1” but we encourage you to follow along even if you haven’t reserved seats for the dinner. (You can reserve seats here.) While many bartenders around the city adore fortified wines and bitter spirits, the general public has, in my experience, been kept in the dark and as a result largely missed out on these beautiful products. We’d like to change that, and offer you some insights into this elegant category. It may just make your next happy hour a little more, well . . . happy.