Imagine the setting, Rome in the 1970s, a glamorous Fellini-style bar with a terrace full of wrought-iron tables, the infamous Piazza del Popolo as a backdrop and a glass of single malt in your hand. Tom Rigby writes about Italy’s revived love affair with whiskey.
The Italian’s love for whiskey was born after the war. Glamorised by celebrities who lined the bars along Rome’s Via Veneto, it is here that the love affair with single malt Scotch began.
Somewhat surprisingly it’s said that Italy has the greatest collection of Scotch which was started by Armando Giovinetti, an importer with a passion for whiskey and responsible for bringing single malt brands such as Macallan and Glen Grant to Italy in the 1960s. At that time, Italy imported many blends, but Armando wanted to add some diversity to the whiskey scene. The Scots thought Armando was foolish for trying to sell malt whiskey rather than the popular blend whiskey to the Italians, but after the first 100 bottles sold quickly he was soon back for more.
In the 1970s, Lake Como opened eight whiskyteca (whiskey shops), and in Milan, Giorgio D’Ambrosio’s bar became the go-to place for whiskey-based cocktails. By 1979, imports of Scotch had reached 40 million bottles a year making Italy one of the world’s top importers of Scotch.
However, like most trends, popularity began to wane with a generational shift away from an ‘old man’s drink’, and by the 1990s Italy’s love affair with Scotch whiskey was almost over as whiskey drinking went out of fashion.
Today, we are seeing a big resurgence of whiskey in the mixology world, and brave pioneers are bringing the golden era of whiskey back to the country’s top bars. Italy’s greatest revolutionary leader in the distilling world is the rather smart brand Puni.
Located in South Tyrol, Puni is the very first producer of single malt on Italian soil. Established in 2010, Puni Distillery started distilling in February 2012. The spirit was then left to mature in the warehouses for over three years, until it was finally bottled as a single malt and launched in 2015.
Located in the heart of the Italian Alps, Puni takes its name from the nearby river. The pure alpine water, locally sourced grains, traditional copper pot stills from Scotland and bespoke maturation warehouses are the main elements for Puni’s creation. Due to considerable seasonal temperature variations, the whiskey matures much faster than in other parts of the world, acquiring complex aromas even at a young age as a result.
The Puni Distillery itself is worth visiting. Envisioned and designed as a 13-metre-high cube, the eye-catching design of the outer hull with offset red bricks is inspired by the traditional building style of barn windows in the region and reflects the harmonious interplay of tradition and modernity at the distillery.
To showcase the variety and complexity of flavours Puni has created two expressions of Scotch: Puni Nova and Puni Alba.
Puni Nova, described as a wonderfully delicate yet spicy single malt with warming and sweet aromas of honey, banana and vanilla, is matured for three years in American ex-bourbon barrels, then finished in European oak casks.
Puni Alba has a complex bouquet of candied fruits, sultanas and exotic fruits, entwined with warm, reassuring hints of smoke. It is matured for more than two years in Marsala dessert wine casks and one year in ex-Islay casks – creating a harmony of the fruity flavours of Italy and the smoky notes of the Scottish island.
Another company taking innovative steps in the art of Italian whiskey making is the fruit distillers Psenner based in the village of Tramin. The German art of fruit distillation has always been influential in the area. Since starting after the Second World War, the Psenner company and brand have grown, first distilling apples, pears and plums and then grappa.
After the death of his father, Werner Psenner took over the family distillery. Inspired by an experience with Japanese whiskey, Werner decided to go back to his roots and make whiskey where the ancient Retic people used to live.
Using wooden ex-grappa casks, eRètico was born. Psenner, with a deep knowledge of German distillation techniques, decided to make whiskey this way rather than using the more conventional Scottish method.
eRètico is distilled in two German stills (one water bath pot still and one four-plate column still) and in four copper stills with steel water baths for three to four hours. Their whole process of whiskey production only takes place four times a year and they produce just 10,000 bottles, but the identity on the palate and the remarkable technique of Werner makes this whiskey a very worthy tipple.
The annual Rome Whiskey Festival brings together the best suppliers in Europe promoting the contemporary and classic whiskey culture with an interactive, high-profile event that combines both business and pleasure. The festival presents a rich variety of classes, seminars, mixology showcases, whiskey masterclasses, collectors’ fairs, and cigar and food tastings.
The eighth edition of Spirit of Scotland – Rome Whiskey Festival will take place at the Salone delle Fontane 2–3 March 2019 www.romawhiskeyfestival.it