Sun 26 Aug 2007
… if you drink too much. Which I did a couple of nights ago. Waking (if we can call it that) in the morning feeling as if several IEDs had gone off in my cranium. I had only myself to blame for several million of my brain cells being carried off in body-bags and being slipped into shallow graves in the Potter’s Field of Hopes and Dreams. Instead of sipping sparingly, sensibly, I just kept pouring shots of Amaro Nonino Quintessentia into my cunningly-wrought and delicate little liqueur glass. Master, as usual, of my own destruction. Of the product itself, I have nothing but delirious praise.
Amaro Nonino Quintessentia is produced by the Distilleria Nonino in Italy’s northeastern-most province of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, hard by the borders of Austria and Slovenia. The company was founded in 1897 and is still family owned, the present members being mother and father Giannola and Benito and daughters Cristina, Antonella and Elisabetta, and a damned fine-looking bunch they are, as you can see in the accompanying image. Giannola and Benito Nonino revolutionized Italy’s grappa industry in 1973 by producing the first single-variety grappa from the pomace of picolit grapes. (Grappa, as the French marc, is distilled from pomace, the residue of grape skins, stems, seeds and pulp left after pressing white grapes or, for red grapes, after fermentation.) This innovation shifted the emphasis in grappa-making, as other distilleries followed the lead of Nonino is making a variety of single-grape grappas.
In 1984, Nonino was the first to distill whole grapes, marketed as a line called ÙE. These single-variety products cannot be called grappa, because they’re not, and are instead designated as “Distillates.” In 2003, the family added a unique line of distillates called “Gioiello,” distilled directed from honeys derived from a number of different fruit blossoms and flowers. I tried several of the Gioiello distillates when they were first released; they’re spectacularly seductive.
But back to Amaro Nonino Quintessentia, which I adore and which taken to excess was my recent downfall. The term “amaro” — Italian for “bitter — refers to any number of liqueur-like digestifs composed of a neutral alcohol base infused with roots, flowers, herbs and spices and intended for after-lunch or dinner sipping to settle the stomach and aid digestion. European monks produced such concoctions for a thousand years, but the notion of making the products commercially emerged in the mid 19th Century. Companies that make amaro place a great deal of value (tradition, on one hand, marketing on the other) on their secret formula. The website for Terlato International, Nonino’s importer (formerly Paterno), gives us some clues. Amaro Nonino Quintessentia, we are told, is made from “cereal alcohol, grape acqua vitae aged five years, roots of gentian, saffron, rhubarb, sweet orange, bitter orange, quassia wood, tamarind, galenga, licorice, cinchona.” The producer’s website, nonino.it, mentions that the base consists of ÙE distillate and prune distillate.
Quassia, by the way, is a tree that grows in Surinan or Jamaica, which is a bitter tonic or “stomachic,” as they used to say, and is slightly narcotic. Galenga (or galengal) is also known as “Thai ginger,” though it is more aromatic than regular ginger. Cinchona is a South American shrub or small tree that is a source of quinine.
Of course we don’t know what proportions of these substances are used in Amaro Nonino Quintessentia, and those mysteries should not concern us. The point I’m making is that being a fan generally I have tried numerous other amaros, Fernet-Branca, Averna and so on, and none of them is as deep, as complex, as darkly resonant, as harmonious, as medicinal yet amusing and gratifying as Amaro Nonino Quintessentia. Most of them make the mistake, to my palate, of keeping the licorice element too high and bright and of emphasizing their amaro’s sweetness over the bitterness, leaving them unbalanced.
Anyway, it’s about 12:30 on a Sunday afternoon. I’m finishing this post. Surely it’s not too early for a nip of Amaro Nonino Quintessentia to celebrate another job well done. Well, it is?