Food

The Italian job of young distillers

I have always been fascinated by gin but never comfortable enough to get closer to the intricate art of distilling it, that is until I moved to New York. There I got the chance to work with several mixologists and was brought closer to this fascinating environment of flavor creativity. I wanted to get down to the roots in different areas of Italy and came to the conclusion that in order to be a professional distiller, an innate passion for refined notes and a sense of mysticism are necessary. To be a distiller is like being a terroir’s alchemist, a researcher of olfactory and taste synergies. To write about it is like hiking undiscovered hills and analyzing soils.

Italy hosts about half of the plant species and approximately a third of all animal species currently present in Europe. The unique geographical position in the heart of the Mediterranean sea, several volcanic soils and mountain ranges, as well as latitudinal differences, characterize Italy as a microclimate extravaganza, with a unique reservoir of plants and animal biodiversity.

I started my gin journey in Friuli Venezia Giulia, Italy’s north-easternmost region that spans a variety of environments, from the Alpine to coastal landscapes. Back in 2014, Fred Jerbis’ founders Massimo and Federico sensed the growing interest and trend towards gin and the potential of the rich network of flora and fauna in their region. Even the name, Fred Jerbis, which literally means “Federico’s herbs”, highlights the importance of locally-grown products and the crucial role of Friuli’ natural environment. 

Before falling in love with gin and the other spirits he produces, Federico Cremasco focused on herbalism. Still today the interpretation of herbs as medicinal plants is so strong that he established the brand’s headquarters in a XVII century pharmacy in Polcenigo, among the slopes of the Western Carnic Prealps. Federico’s work starts with focusing on maintaining the botanicals unaltered so that they keep their digestive and corroborant properties. In order to preserve and educate new generations on the importance of this métier, this year Fred Jerbis will start an educational program dedicated to the culture around botany.

Fred Jerbis’ GIN 43 includes 43 botanicals for a symphony of balanced hints of citrus, herbs and spices. The finish is smooth and pampered by mouth-cleaning lavender and mint. Flavor is in constant evolution. GIN 7 is a drier, simple gin made with young barrels. The nose suggests acacia and the taste is round. Juniper is vivid but the wood is very low since ageing is fast (approximately 45 days). Every year, Fred Jerbis comes up with a limited edition dedicated to a wild plant: the chamomile edition presents 7 botanicals and two different perfumed chamomiles. 

I learned a useful lesson with Fred Jerbis’ founders: to work with plants is hearing and seeing the potential and power that surround us, to work with gin is to apply knowledge, instinct and creativity.

From Friuli, I got south, specifically to Tuscany. By the time I learned about Enrico Chioccioli Altadonna, I immediately got the second important lesson of this journey: sometimes, even if fate is already written within your own roots and culture, you still need to study and invest in personal preparation, as distillation is a passionate and technical work. Enrico grew up in the wine world with his oenologist father and brother, and his family has been producing in the Chianti Classico region for over a decade. Distillation has been love at first sight for Enrico, who got curious about the craft distilling movement while studying for the bar exam in New York. He ended up in a Brooklyn-based bourbon distillery and later went to the Oenological School of Conegliano to become a certified Master Distiller, crossed the Alps to go to study oenology at the University of Bordeaux and then to France’s region of Cognac for another distilling experience in three distilleries. Enrico became a lawyer, but the distillery experiences marked him irreversibly and pushed him to create Winestillery, the first and only craft distillery in the Chianti Classico Region, combining the traditional elements of a Tuscan Winery with the arti maggiori guild of arts and crafts in Florence.

What makes Winestillery a radical project is that it lives and evolves thanks to the experimentation and the dialectic between the highest oenological knowledge and the finest art of in-house distillation. Since the laws related to spirits permit so many ways to correct and change the color and the taste of the products, Enrico wrote a Grape To Glass (GTG) Manifesto as a contract that binds Winestillery to strict production rules and as a testament to explain in a clear and neat way his terroir-driven philosophy of production:

 

“The botanicals chosen for each product reflect the heritage and the territorial identity of Florence that date back to the Middle Ages and are rooted in the work of the Medici e Speziali, one of the major arts of the guilds of arts and crafts in Florence. We studied to discover both indigenous and allochthonous botanicals used here in Tuscany for centuries and found the perfect ones to apply to our gins and to the other spirits we produce.”

When I jumped from Tuscany to Marche, at Lorenzo Castricini’s Scriptorium Gin, I understood that there is a common thread along my journey, which is a continuous research of transmitting the scents of each terroir in order to understand the soil, its smell and nuances, to capture the palate with soft and herbaceous notes. Lorenzo started his journey far from his native region, specifically in London, where he spent seven years working as a mixologist but with his mind always back home:

 

“Every summer, I used to go back here and after many years I focused on distillation in Sunderland (UK) and decided to work on a product able to describe the richness of Marche and to and give visibility to its mountains, its hills and the seaside. I worked on a distilled gin that consists in the cold infusion of hand-selected botanicals that preserve balsamic notes of juniper berries of the Sibillini mountains that leave room for floral notes of the hilly area and then close with a fresh hint of our coastal area.”

 

The name Scriptorium recalls and draws attention towards the monastic culture of practicing distillation, specifically by the Benedectine and Cistercian monks. The word scriptorium also encloses the work of the scribes, who transcribed texts, including content botany related. Scriptorium Gin’s recipe takes inspiration from an old recipe found by Lorenzo in Marche, bringing to light a contemporary distillate linked to rooted traditions.

Sometimes I still have the feeling that to deeply understand gin is like learning a whole new language. However, throughout my journey I learned that in order to proudly stand up and present a qualitative spirit, the work of a distiller requires bending over books and then stooping to the ground to listen to the soil and the wind and interpret it. That’s where the magic happens.