Artisanal liqueurs. Say what? First of all, “liqueur” is a tough word to type! But I digress.

Each week, I write our Wine Down and Chill column to give you wine-food-movie pairings around a given theme. This week, in the words of Monty Python, “…and now for something completely different.” But fret not, Wine Down & Chill will be back next week.

I’d also like to use this opportunity to first, thank all my readers and second, solicit suggestions. Is there anything that you’d like me to feature? Perhaps there is something wine and spirits-related that you’d like to learn more about? Just ask!

What’s old is new again

Yup, this trend has also reached artisanal liqueurs. Perhaps it’s nostalgia that’s driving our need to bring back Cabbage Kids dolls. Or maybe it’s our collective realization that what’s old can still be cool. Either way, it’s definitely happening. The artisanal approach to distilling spirits to reinvigorate the cocktails industry is starting to take hold. Case in point, Don Ciccio & Figli. DC&F is an Italian herbal and artisanal liqueurs distillery located in Washington, DC.

Entrepreneurs in the distillery business are popping up like rabbits! Here are a few statistics that give that last statement some validity. One, craft breweries are outpacing the growth of beers overall. In fact, they are approaching $30B in annual sales. Moreover, non-craft beer consumption has been declining year over year. Two, In 2014, there were 3,814 craft breweries operating in the US. In 2018, there were 7,346. Three, there is now an official Independent Brewers’ Day, which just happens to be next week, July 3rd. Finally, a key stat, the US market is on target for $20B in sales by 2023 clipping along at a whopping 32% CAGR (growth rate).

A behind-the-scenes look at artisanal liqueurs

Photo Credit: Jennifer Chase

I had the opportunity to talk to DC&F’s portfolio manager, Jonathan Fasano, for a behind-the-scenes look at their handcrafted liqueurs. There’s clearly something to this “what’s old is new” movement. I wanted to learn more about it as well as share what I learned with our readers at Grit Daily. So, let’s dig into it.

Grit Daily: How did you get into this business?

Jonathan Fasano: I had an unconventional path. I attended a liberal arts college, studied sculpture and photography then went abroad to study in Florence where I worked at an aromatics farm. That experience changed my life! Harvesting and distilling lavender, rose and fennel introduced me to a friend in Tuscany who needed help with their distillery’s production and promotion. And, here I am today.

GD: What’s behind the “artisanal” trend?

JF: Spirits distillers in the whiskey, gin and vodka categories have extensive resources. So they’ve expanded into liqueurs which is helping drive the momentum. Another key driver is the legalization of spirits. This now enables people to start their own distilleries. There has also been a resurgence of interest in the chemistry aspects of the business.

And The Bitters Book has become popular and spurred other publications like it. Overall, people are interested in learning about these processes and the history of cocktails, so tours and tasting sessions are in high demand.

Family traditions then and now

Photo Credit: Jennifer Chase

GD: DC&F has been around for decades, what changes have you witnessed?

JF: Surprisingly few, actually. Technology equipment upgrades have helped refine our product. But we’ve taken great pains to ensure that our flavor profile, structure, and sugar content of the liqueurs has remained unchanged. Now they’re a bit fresher and cleaner through improved purification methods. However, our goal is to maintain the integrity and authenticity of the original recipes.

We seek to bring old products to modern doorsteps. Other distilleries are shifting to meet the preferences of contemporary and simple palettes. In contrast, we’re focused on old-style production that taps into collaboration and conversation for a more pure experience. Doing so allows for complex and layered flavors which linger on the palette.

GD: Didn’t DC&F almost disappear?

Jonathan: Just about! Operations in Atrani, Italy by the first generation of Ciccio family were halted in 1931 in response to some of the pre-WWII rumblings. It remained closed for nearly 20 years. The second generation of the family relocated it to Furore where it operated until an earthquake in 1980 destroyed it.

Francesco Amodeo, a fourth generation of the family, was working as a sommelier in DC in the mid-2000s and handcrafting small batches of his ancestors’ cordials. Then, in 2011, DC made distilling legal again so he launched cordials by DC&F in 2012 then later expanded into bitters. His grandparents had retained all the recipes by memory which were passed down.

Artisanal liqueurs taste different

GD: I am a super-taster but some of my friends tease me that you really can’t taste the difference between handcrafted and mass-production. Of course, I argue, but to no avail. What’s DC&F’s position on this?

JF: Yes, you can taste the difference! Our top sellers are our artichoke and Campari products. We don’t use syrups, fake coloring, concentrates, heat-accelerated fermentation or machine-measured contents. Even our cloth bags were hand-stitched by Francesco’s grandmother. These are well seasoned through repeated re-use. We use hand-sifted sugars, homemade pots, stir our batches by hand and literally let nature blend the flavors as long as She likes. This ensures that there is enough time for the flavors to blossom. In turn, this helps define the product’s structure and ‘mouth-feel.’

GD: No doubt these recipes are trade secrets. Do you protect them in a vault?

JF: To some extent, yes, but we also try to be transparent about what we do.

And now for something completely different

GD: My readers are avid wine drinkers. Do you have an artisanal liqueurs cocktail recipe that could potentially convert them?

JF: Well, they need to have an open mind. Amaro is a citrus, herbs and bark liqueur. We take the lemons leftover from our limoncello fermentation and blend them with iron. Years ago, people would drink these iron tonics or tinctures, which we call bitters, as a health remedy. The cocktail I’m recommending combines the stringent metals taste of our Amaro Tonica Ferro-kina with your red wine of choice.

And here’s the recipe:

3 oz Red Wine

1 oz Bourbon

.75 oz Don Ciccio & Figli Amaro Tonico Ferro-Kina

.5 oz Lemon Juice

.5 oz Simple Syrup

Ummmm … I’m not sure that recipe is going to convert any of my wine drinkers. And I personally can’t get past anything with a metallic taste. But, to Jonathan’s point, we all need to have an open mind. Plus, we’re here to learn. True to the theme of this article, an iron-wine cocktail is something completely different.

Bottoms up!