Vanessa Piromallo of ilgin.it shares her love of Italian gin and why it’s well worth seeking out.
Do you know there are hundreds of different gins produced in Italy? You may well have heard about a few of them, but the country has a long history related to gin, beginning in the ninth century and stretching to the modern Gin Craze, and probably beyond!
The Medical School of Salerno, founded in the ninth century, was the first in Europe to make technical advancements in stills and perfect the art of distillation, building on the work of scholars from Persia, Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. At the time juniper berries were abundantly used for medical purposes and they were also infused into wines and distillates. The monks of the school made the first proto-gins of the world.
Fulvio Piccinino, in his book The Italian Gin, shares his research on historical volumes and proves that in Italy something recognised as gin was made long before it was formally invented. He cites many books from the 16th century with recipes of liquors and spirits infused with juniper berries and other herbs that were traditionally made in the country; these spirits today would be called gins.
Despite a long-established history with juniper spirits, in the 20th century there were very few makers of gin and by the end of the century they had all disappeared. Growing interest in gin from nearby Spain persuaded some producers to start making gin initially; these were mostly liqueur manufacturers who made cold-compounded gins by infusing herbs and spices in neutral alcohol. Many of these gins were intense and complex, one example being Roby Marton Gin which uses juniper and heavy spices such as ginger, anise and cloves. The Greedy Gin uses a combination of distillation and maceration and has 20 botanicals; impressively you can taste them all, so it’s citrusy, floral, spicy and balsamic at the same time.
London dry gins for a long time were much rarer, with Luxardo (best known for its Maraschino) releasing one in 2016. This was followed by Italy’s first new dedicated gin distillery in a generation, Peter in Florence, who launched their London Dry Gin in 2017.
Today there are around 300 different Italian gins – probably more – and the variety of flavours and aromas is huge. Production spread all over the country; in early years production centred around the north and centre of Italy, but now the south and the islands are joining in too.
The Italian regions are full of evocative flavours and aromas and it is common for distilleries to embrace this sense of “botanical terroir”. For example, the Silvio Carta distillery chooses only botanicals from Sardinia, while Gin Rivo prefers
hand-picked herbs from the areas near Lake Como. Volcano Gin and Insulae Gin have Sicilian botanicals, Dol Gin uses ingredients picked in the Dolomite Mountains and VII Hills Italian Dry Gin chooses botanicals from the hills around Rome. The interesting fact is that the herbs growing in different parts of Italy have their own organoleptic characteristics; infused in the gin, they give to it all their beautiful different aromas.
Italy is home to excellent juniper berries and some of the purest examples of Italian gins are infused with only juniper berries: Solo Wild Gin is made with molasses alcohol and Sardinian juniper; River Mentana Venetian Dry Gin has a base of rare Mentana grain and juniper from the Veneto region; Gin Glacialis has a neutral base and juniper from Val d’Aosta; Baciamano Gin 45 chose juniper berries from the Balkans. They are all very different from each other and are all rich in flavours and aromas despite the fact that they are distilled with only juniper.
Flavoured gins and pink gins are not as popular in Italy as they are in other countries such as the UK and Spain. There are, of course, many citrus gins, because the south is famous for its lemons, oranges, bergamots and tangerines. Flavour-wise Italians particularly love herbal and floral gins and a superb example is Gin Acqueverdi. Made at the La Valdotaine distillery, in the Val d’Aosta region, it uses juniper, Alpine rose, pine sprouts, mallow, genepy and other botanicals sourced from the fields around the distillery. All these herbs were traditionally used for cooking and making liqueurs and now are greatly balanced to make gin.
The Italian coasts and seas inspire many producers. There is a tendency to use seawater and sea salt to make gin. Gin Primo is cut with salted water and the salt and botanicals are from Romagna, in the north-east of Italy; its slight savouriness makes it perfect for Martinis and Gin and Tonics. Menegiks Gin is cut with a little bit of seawater and infused with capers, mint and lime, so it’s very refreshing and balanced. It’s very different from Baciamano Salis Gin, where the seawater and the salt are very strong, making the gin difficult to use in mixing but very interesting when used well, especially when experimenting with food.
Italians love food and are used to drinking alcoholic beverages while eating, so they are also getting used to pairing cocktails with dishes. Some gins are designed for food pairing. Bugin was created by a butcher to be paired with meat, especially raw meat, using botanicals that are not commonly used for cooking but that work with it perfectly, such as genepy, Arquebuse and Artemisia. Blaue Chocolate Gin has a special recipe made by a chocolate evaluator to make it perfect for pairing with cocoa, using pink peppercorn, turmeric, ginger, hot pepper, jasmine, cinnamon, rosemary, vanilla, almond, liquorice, bergamot and chamomile flower.
There is an increasing interest in aged gins, appreciated in Italy because people are used to drinking spirits neat (like grappas and amaros); that’s also why many Italian gins are rich in flavour, so they can be appreciated neat. Another curious experimentation going on in Italy is the production of sloe gin, unknown until a few years ago, and there are at least three of them made with Italian sloe berries: Rivo, Kapriol and Aquamirabilis. Italian producers love experimenting, trying new ingredients or using everyday ones in different, innovative ways. Many new products are released every year.
Italian gin is primed and ready to take over the world. The question: is the world ready to embrace it?