“There was No TV and No Women, So We Drank.”
Amari in the Italian Alps
Generations of Pedranzinis have herded cows through the Italian Alps, moving them from their winter barn on the valley floor in Bormio up to their high summer pastures near the base of the Forni glacier, following the best seasonal grasses and herbs. I was working on a story about cheese in the region and drove up to visit their summer cottage just as they were closing it down at the end of the season.
Outside, in the pastures around us, snow was spinning through the Italian Alps. But inside, as we warmed ourselves by the fire and snacked on fresh cheese and hearty rye bread, Sara Pedranzini poured out little tastes of alpine summer. First, I sipped a splash from a bottle hand-labeled ‘genepi,’ savoring the rich drink made from wormwood. Then ‘teneda,’ a gentler floral draught of yarrow. Sara poured herself a touch of raspberry grappa, laughing as she explained that her 18-year-old cousins were to blame for the sticky, sweet experiment.
There’s a rich tradition of digestivo in Italy to sooth stomachs and wind down long meals. And, for that, many reach for an amaro, a bitter draught that varies around the country, derived from local herbs, fruits, barks, and spices macerated in strong, neutral alcohol, and then brought down to low, sip-able proof. All variations trace their origin to medicine; your first amaro can taste a bit like your first cough syrup, but your second sip will pull out a vast range of terroir: orange and caramel-tasting Del Cappo in Calabria, punchy and profoundly bitter Elisir Novasalus in Trento, Fernet Branca in Milan, or the silky smooth, juniper and rhubarb-tasting Braulio from Bormio, where the Pedranzinis live.
Journalists and sommeliers in the U.S. talk in hushed, reverent tones about their favorite bottles that they have smuggled home in their suitcases. Most amaro are shrouded in a dose of mystery, tracing their origins to a recipe gifted from a monk, like Averna, or to a virtuoso pharmacist grandfather, like Cappelletti. Recipes are often kept a secret to add to the myth, with brands revealing a few core botanicals but alluding to long lists of hidden ingredients that are expertly blended behind-the-scenes to achieve maximum balance and digestion.
But, drinking with the Pedranzinis, entirely removed from careful branding, stripped of tasting notes, and far away from the nearest reviewer, I experienced a much purer understanding of amari. The family grazes their cows on alpine herbs to sweeten the milk and make excellent cheese. They turn the same herbs into drinks to pass the time. There is no mystery in the process: the amari taste good and they can get you tipsy.
“They drink more here than in other regions,” said Sara’s uncle, Andrea, sitting back in his chair by the fire. “When I was young and worked in the high pastures, there was no TV and no women, so we drank.”