Podcast

Haley Forest from Italicus

We talk to Haley Forest, the US brand ambassador for Italicus about Aperitivo culture, botanicals and the cocktails to make with this Italian liqueur

By: Tiff Christie|July 24,2019

Aperitivo hour is thought by Italians to be the most magical of the day. But it’s not only Amaro liqueurs that Italian have been drinking in the twilight hours. Historically, Rosolio liqueurs were once extremely popular but went out of fashion with the rise of Vermouth.

Giuseppe Gallo wanted to bring this style of liqueur back and recreate it for modern taste. He, therefore, created Italicus. Promoted as a sip of Italy, Italicus is made from Italian Bergamot and selected Italian Botanicals in the style of a Rosolio.

We talk to Haley Forest, the US brand ambassador for Italicus about the importance of Aperitivo culture to modern cocktails, the botanicals in their Rosolio and what it was like to win Best New Spirits Cocktail Ingredient at Tales of the Cocktail on the liqueurs release.

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[00:01:12] – Italicus is defined as a Rosolio liqueur. What exactly does that mean?
[00:02:10] – Italicus is basically based on the bergamot orange. How is that flavour different from a normal orange?
[00:02:57] – You talked about it having a little bit of bitterness. It’s not as bitter as what people are used to with Italian liqueurs.
[00:08:40] – Can you run through the botanicals that you would find?
[00:10:44] – Now talk a little bit more about where you found the recipe. You were saying that it was in an old cookbook.
[00:11:56] – It’s interesting that roughly at the time when Italicus was first released, it was just the moment when the Aperitivo trend was starting to take off. Did he assume that this is the way cocktails would go? Or was it just a happy coincidence?
[00:13:37] – Now Gallo claims that Italicus has captured Italians’, arts, architecture and poetry in liquid form. What exactly does he mean by that?
[00:14:36] – Now, the liqueur won Best New Spirits Cocktail Ingredient at Tales of the Cocktail two years ago. What exactly has the reaction of bartenders been to the spirit?
[00:17:34] – If someone would to buy a bottle of Italicus or smuggle it, for the first time, how would you suggest that they use it?
[00:19:22] – Now in that vein, I mean obviously citrus lovers would work very well with Italicus. What other flavours work well?
[00:20:32] – Well speaking of olives and nutty flavours, what foods would you be looking to pair with Italicus?
[00:21:12] – Now, talking about the Amalfi Coast, we’re thinking very much sort of spring and summer. Can Italicus be used in winter? Are there winter applications?
[00:22:40] – How important is Aperitivo culture to modern cocktails?
[00:23:55] – Speaking of experiences, you were talking earlier about the way that Italicus had been released. I assume there’s a story behind the bottle and the story behind the name.
[00:27:38] – Italicus is available pretty much across the US at the moment?
[00:27:51] – And what about internationally?
[00:28:27] – Thank you and website
Read Full Transcript

At its root, Aperitivo Hour is a simple idea, that of sharing pre-dinner drinks and some snacks with friends and family at that golden hour before sundown. Before Vermouth and Amari, all Italians used to share that time with one particular type of beverage, the Rosolio. Reviving that tradition is Italicus. We are here today with the US Brand Ambassador for Italicus, Hailey Forrest. Thank you for joining us.

Thank you so much for having me.

Now, Italicus is defined as a Rosolio liqueur. What exactly does that mean?

So it's actually pronounced a Rosolio, which when I first started working for the brand, I called it Rosalio because I'm from California originally. And we kind of make all of our A's a bit broader I guess you could say.
So a Rosolio, what it technically is, it really depends on what Italian you ask. It is a neutral grain base, so it's not a wine derivative. And from there you'd have different flavors, depending on where in Italy you are actually trying this particular product. So back in its heyday, if you were further south maybe, it would have particular types of citrus. You'd always see that there would be rose. There generally would be some kind of gentian, Roman chamomile, things like that that would give it a little bit of a bitter edge. It's more, the idea is what meant to be like the light and floral and refreshing, but also still have that little bit of bitterness that the Italians love so much.

Italicus is basically based on the bergamot orange. How is that flavour different from a normal orange?

So, a bergamot is a specific subset of the citrus family. The way I kind of describe the flavours, it's bit more kind of almost perfume-y. So bergamot is sometimes considered or called the Yuzu of Europe. So, if you've ever had a Yuzu, it has this much more, almost candy-like aroma to it. And a bergamot is similar in that regard. Our bergamot in particular, it comes from Calabria, which is a UNESCO site. So it's a cultural heritage site specifically in regards to the bergamot fields, or orchards rather, that they have. And we have a partnership with them. So it's a really special fruit.

You talked about it having a little bit of bitterness. It's not as bitter as what people are used to with Italian liqueurs.

No, not at all. So, with the history, it very much ties into how it was all first created. So, when we think of Italian liqueurs, I mean if you're thinking like Campari or Aperol, there's definitely a bitter kick to it. Our recipe is based on the 1906 recipe, which is actually from the King of Savoy's cookbook. So when we first were developing Italicus, we replicated that exact recipe. But unfortunately, modern palettes and methods, it didn't exactly taste what we wanted it to, so we kind of played around with the recipe a bit more just to update it to a modern standard, I guess you could say. In terms of the sweetness level, we were going for a little bit of a different direction and actually what's fascinating is in its original form, Rosolio wasn't sweet at all. It was before sugar was really accessible in Europe. I mean if you look back to the 1400's, sugar was really only for the rich. It was honey that was the primary sweetening agent that you'd see used. Others are very, I always think of, there's a scene from Shakespeare in Love, where Gwyneth Paltrow's character tries chocolate and it's incredibly bitter and she's like, this is disgusting, why would you eat this? And I think that's a really great sign of what's sweetened, like sweet flavours were at the time. When Rosolio kind of disappeared, which we'll get to later, I'm sure, a lot of that actually had to do with an influx of cheap sugar and how palates and uses for sugar change.
So, I mean it was, when it was in its heyday, it was referred to as the Liquor of Kings. It was something that everyone would drink. The name Rosolio literally translates to morning dew. So it was something that if you were a noble or you had the money to do so, whenever you'd welcome guests to your house, you would give them a little sip of Rosolio. If you are sending somebody out in a journey, you would also give them a little sip. It was kind of my, I guess my romanticized view of it, is morning dew, you think of first new step in a new direction. Anything is possible. When you wake up in the morning and you open your shutters and you can see the dew hanging in the sun, like on the grass, it's a brand new opportunity. And so I think that drinking Rosolio really, it kind of connected to that idea of something new and exciting. So back in the mid-1850s... kind of like 1852 or so, there was a large... I mean the best way to explain it, there was an overstock of wine, and especially in the Piemonte region. And, have you ever had it where you've had a bottle of wine that's been open maybe a little bit longer than it should have been. And you try it and you're like, yeah, it doesn't taste like it's supposed to, but it's good enough that I can still drink this. They had an entire... They had many warehouses. They had overstocked all of this wine, that wasn't moving to the best that it was really supposed to be. As well as, they didn't really have the preservation methods totally figured out yet. And the king of that region, he realized that by adding sugar, which for the first time really was coming in in cheaper quantities, really due in part to the discovery and colonization of the Americas. Suddenly, they had sugar cane, and sugar cane was really the first time that they had cheap sugar, that could be used for the masses. And they realized that sugar itself could be used as a preservative. So they actually started a … I mean today we'd call it a campaign, where they realized if they added sugar to this wine and added a bunch of other spices, it turned it into an entirely new and very drinkable product. Today, we know that product to be Vermouth. I mean, this is very much the Reader's Digest version of the history of Vermouth. But as an incentive, the king offered the producers to pretty much focus on Vermouth as opposed to Rosolio. So the people who had once made Rosolio, they were being given more money to basically change the wine that was not great into something new and drinkable. And the king himself, he also said, I will no longer drink Rosolio, I only drink this new thing called Vermouth. And of course, the nobles wanted to be like the king, and the peasants wanted to be like the nobles. And Rosolio basically disappeared to the point that it missed, I mean, a few generations. So Giuseppe Gallo, who is the founder and creator of Italicus, when he was working with Martini Rossi, he was the global brand ambassador for seven years and he was going through the history of Vermouth, and he came across Rosolio. Even as a born and bred Italian, he had never heard of it before. He had no idea what it was. And when he approached his father and said, what is this apparently very Italian thing? And his dad was like, ah, nobody drinks it anymore. Your Grandma has a recipe. And he was just completely surprised. And when he spoke to his grandmother, it was something that, it became a generational recipe. So it would be passed down from grandmother to daughter to… And that's how they would keep the spirit essentially alive, but nobody would make it in any sort of mass production. A few times there was somebody in the 80s who... a larger company tried to make it and it didn't go very well. So it didn't get done. And to the best of my knowledge, there's only one other commercially made Rosolio available in the world, and that is solely distributed within Italy.

Can you run through the botanicals that you would find?

So in Italicus in particular, we have obviously bergamot, which is our citrus that we get from Calabria, as well as there's a secondary citrus in there called cedro. Cedro is also called citron, and another name for it is etrog, which is the Jewish name for it. It is like a big ugly lemon, is the best way to kind of describe it. It is, yeah. It's very kind of, not wrinkled but very textured and it's all pith. The actual fruit inside is about the size of a golf ball. It's not used for its fruit value, it's generally used for its actual essence. So we do a cold extraction on that to get the flavour. You also see this fruit sometimes candied, and it ends up being kind of bright green colour, but it's not something you see very commonly. So we've got bergamot, citron, as well as there's lavender, rose, lemon balm, Gentian, Roman chamomile. So the Gentian and the Roman chamomile, those are both bittering agents. So the Roman chamomile is a bit of a larger flower. It's still about the size of, I don't know, I'd say a dime, but you know, less than an inch. I'm trying to think what is the best like universal measurement of size. So it's about the size of a dime and it's a bigger flower, and it's much bitterer. It's not something that you'd use for calming tea. It's a much more mature flower in itself. And you see both of those botanicals a lot in Amari. That's really where they're predominantly used. I mean it's one of those things where these are all flavours that are very familiar, which is part of, I think the success of Italicus. But together and used in this way, it makes it very unique.

Now talk a little bit more about where you found the recipe. You were saying that it was in an old cookbook…

He was researching kind of various different ones, but he found this one that he thought... At the time, he was also looking at what flavors were really kind of entering the public perception, and he kept coming across bergamot specifically. When he was in his previous role with Martini, he spent a lot of time traveling because he was global. And during that time obviously, he'd be wandering through the duty-free shops in the airport. And inevitably that's what we all kind of do when we're stuck in airports for large periods of time. And he kept seeing bergamot used in perfumes. I mean you see it in Aqua di Parma, you see it in Tom Ford. And he also was eating in fantastic restaurants, another perk of the job. And he was seeing that chefs were using bergamot as a thing. And so when he was looking for recipes to kind of help revive the category, he was looking at what things... He liked idea of bergamot, and he liked the idea of other flavours that would go well with that, and that's how we stumbled across this particular recipe.

It's interesting that roughly at the time when Italicus was first released, it was just the moment when the Aperitivo trend was starting to take off. Did he assume that this is the way cocktails would go? Or was it just a happy coincidence?

I believe it's a bit of both. I mean, I think in terms of drinking trends, especially because he had been working on a Vermouth, he was seeing that people were doing lower proof life anyway. And then, the fact that Aperol, I mean... It's very funny, I lived in London for eight years and I've only lived in New York now for three, three and a half, and when I first moved to New York I was quite surprised that, while Aperol Spritzes were available, they weren't nearly as ubiquitous as they were in London. And Giuseppe is based in London as well. And over there, Aperitive have already been a thing for the last 10 years or so. So I think for him if you think about releasing an Aperitivo product in the UK back in the end of 2016, beginning 2017, was just really riding that wave. But it was perfect timing for here in the US where we've only just discovered the glory that is Aperitivo Hour. That idea of session drinking, where all of a sudden now... I worked at a bar, one of the first bars I worked in, we had an Aperol Spritzes on tap. We would have old fashions, and Aperol Spritzes. And pitches of Aperol Spritz. That is now a thing. But if you think about 2016, it wasn't quite yet. Yeah. So I think it's a really happy coincidence in terms of how the rest of the world has started. You see that trend. But yet, in the UK it was really riding the wave.

Now Gallo claims that Italicus has captured Italians', arts, architecture and poetry in liquid form. What exactly does he mean by that?

So Italians are very romantic. And when I say romantic, I mean the capital R sense, not the hearts and flowers and Cupid sense, although they have a bit of that as well. What Giuseppe always like to say is that if you are from Italy, anything you do becomes essentially an advertisement for Italy of itself. So to be Italian is to be an ambassador for your country. And with Italicus in particular, every detail was so thoughtfully created: the way the bottle is, the way that the imaging is, the branding. He really wanted it to be something that was very iconically Italian, yet approachable for everyone. And I think that's really what he means by that.

Now, the liqueur won Best New Spirits Cocktail Ingredient at Tales of the Cocktail two years ago. What exactly has the reaction of bartenders been to the spirit?

I mean, it's been awesome. What's really funny is we won that award really straight out the gate. I mean obviously, it was Best New Product of the year. So we were kind of catapulted onto this very global stage when we were still so much in our infancy. I mean, even today, people assume... I was just at BCB in Brooklyn, and there I had people be like, oh well you're owned by Diageo, right? I'm like, no, no, we're still privately owned. One dude, he owns 92% of the company and the rest of it has been for the board because he couldn't pay them because startup. When I tell people that there are two full-time people in the world working on this brand, everyone's very surprised because they're like, oh, but you won this big award, and everyone knows who you are. Like, we have this huge footprint, but we're still essentially a mom and pop shop. That there's very few of us and we all talk every day and we all are trying to, I always say take over the world, but doing it from a very small standpoint. What's great is if you look at, because of that award and because of how we've been able to progress, I mean, we're in pretty much in every top bar. All the cool kids like us, which is kind of half a joke that this product is way cooler than I will ever be. It's something that I will say, oh yeah I'm Haley, I work for Italicus, and someone goes, oh yeah, Italicus! I'm like, oh yeah, cool, great. But if you look at the top 50 best bars in the world list, we are in, I want to say we're in 39 of the top 50. I think the remaining 11 is because we're not available in that market. And then you hear stories about people. If, for instance, we're not technically available in Mexico at the moment. We haven't figured out our distribution deals for down there. And when I was down in Mexico City last year, I kept finding the bottle on back bars and I started asking. I was like, where are you getting this from? And it turns out there's some person who's, I mean, I can't say importing, but he wanted the product.
Smuggling, perhaps.
Yeah. He's essentially smuggling it in from California. It's super cute. It's just, I'm sitting here with a huge grin on my face, just even telling the story because it's incredible to be part of a brand that inspires people to do that, even though we are still so incredibly small. So it's great. It's awesome.

If someone would to buy a bottle of an Italicus, or smuggle it, for the first time, how would you suggest that they use it?

So the easiest thing, I mean, I really say Spritz life is the best life. So Prosecco with Italicus, I mean the recipe that we kind of suggest a one-to-one ratio of Prosecco and Italicus. For Myself, I do about a two-to-one Prosecco to Italicus, and then as a garnish, we always recommend green olives. So by using olives, it gives a little bit of salinity because there is, I mean technically Italicus is classified as a liqueur, and although it just scrapes into the category in terms of sugar content, it still has a certain amount of sweetness on the front. And so by adding a savoury element such as the olives as the garnish, you get the salinity that really balances it out. The way that I drink Italicus primarily is actually with tonic. So I do Italicus, tonic, with olives, and that bitterness that you get from the quinine also very much kind of boosts the savoury elements that you can get through. I mean those are probably the easiest. Something else that if you're kind of looking for more of an easy like brunch-style cocktail, we have the Italicus Cup, which in the UK, a cup is really kind of a style of a cup would be think like a Pimm's cup, kind of almost more of a punch. Here in the US that terminology is not as common. I'm not sure a cup is used in the same context, but... So we have Italicus Cup, which is really just grapefruit juice, Italicus, and a splash of soda just for a bit of effervescence. And that's just super bright and breezy, and it just adds... It's almost like if you were to take a Paloma, just make it lighter, that same kind of idea.

Now in that vein, I mean obviously citrus lovers would work very well with Italicus. What other flavours work well?

I mean for myself, I think I really like the savoury element. So going back to the idea of kind of a Paloma, I think my favourite drinks that I've ever had cocktail-wise with Italicus, have almost always had Mezcal or Tequila, have those agave flavours.
Really? Okay.
Yeah. Oh totally. Yeah. The savoriness that you get from that kind of almost earthiness is kind of shots that we do. We call it a Mezc-alicus. You get one guess what that is. And it's against the idea of having, like with Mezcal you have that earthy, smoky, vegetal elements that just goes really, really well. Also, I've had some fantastic drinks with kind of Pisco and Calvados. Obviously, Gin is easy. I find Sherry is a really great one, especially dry Sherry's because you start to get kind of that like nutty flavour. And I find that that's with the Italicus as well. It's just a really nice pairing.

Well speaking of olives and nutty flavours, what foods would you be looking to pair with Italicus?

So, I mean it's very much the flavours of Italicus is very much kind of like the Almafi Coast and that kind of seaside. So obviously seafood goes really well, so like a really nice kind of Crudo, because then you get that again, that citrus hit as well as a bit of salt and the fish makes it all very bright. How those types of flavours... I could also imagine going very well with like sushi, kind of getting those bright kinds of citrus flavours that would go so well. It's just brightened up like a nice [staditoro ???] or something like that. I can imagine that going really nicely as well.

Now, talking about the Amalfi Coast, we're thinking very much sort of spring and summer. Can Italicus be used in winter? Are there winter applications?

Absolutely. Yeah, so one of the drinks that I had this last winter that I absolutely loved was with St. George. They have a spice pear brandy, like brandy liqueur type thing. That is phenomenal. I'm from the bay area originally, so St. George is like hometown pride. But they have the spice pear that someone made, an autumn spritz that was the spice pear, Italicus, Prosecco, and then they had a cinnamon stick as the garnish. And that was just really kind of a nice way of getting those autumnal flavors coming through. Another really great drink that was on the menu at Jack Rose, which is a phenomenal whiskey bar in Washington DC. It had honey and Glenmorangie and some lemon … it was kind of like a whiskey sour type thing but used Italicus in there as well and that was phenomenal. A great one that one of the bartenders at del Posto, which is the Michelin Star restaurant in New York, they did a drink that was the Red Breast Irish whiskey with … I want to say a Manzanilla Sherry and Italicus, and that was just stirred down, served up with kind of orange bitters. Really light and easy, but at the same time, very much these darker, cooler winter type flavours. That was just delightful.

How important is Aperitivo culture to modern cocktails?

I think it's very important to be perfectly honest. I think we have entered a time in public drinking, and it's of course starting in the major cities and it will continue to expand out where people are being a bit more conscientious of what they're drinking and how much they're drinking. And maybe it's also because, I mean at least myself, like we've hit an age where we don't just want to go and get blackout drunk anymore. Like that's, the recovery is harder and it's less fun. And now much more of imbibing culture is about hanging out with your friends and having a good time. Having an occasion where you can all just sit around for several hours and if you're just pounding drinks, that's not going to be a very long time. But I think Aperitivo kind of culture is that idea of lazy Saturday afternoon, where you're sitting around with your friends and you're having a pitcher of something or several small drinks, that you're eating food. It's the full occasion. It's essentially a dinner party, but something that can happen in the afternoon. It's that kind of idea.
So it's almost more about the experience?
Oh 100%.

Speaking of experiences, you were talking earlier about the way that Italicus had been released. I assume there's a story behind the bottle and the story behind the name.

Oh, there are so many stories. So the bottle itself, every detail has been meticulously considered. The colour is actually a patented colour. It is Italicus Aqua.
Oh really?
Yeah! I've told Giuseppe that when I get nominated for brand ambassador of the year-type thing, I want to dress in that colour, very specifically. He goes, yeah yeah yeah, okay, okay. We'll see. We'll see how it goes. Then the bottle shape, it's meant to represent a Roman column, so it's got 20 lines which are the 20 city-states of Italy. And then when you look at the actual colour of the bottle with liquid in it, just to go back to the colour, it's meant to represent the Mediterranean Ocean. So when there's actually liquid inside, it's more of a green which represents the colour of the water when it's shallower. And then when the bottle's empty it's a much darker blue, and that is very much like the water when it's of a deeper volume, which is just really fun. Like if you tilt the bottle on the side, it's just, I mean it's so picturesque. Then if you look at the very bottom of the bottle, there's a divot on the very bottom, which is structurally meant to be there as support, but with us … it’s about the size and shape of a half bergamot if you look at it. That little bit of detail.
Oh really? Oh how funny.
Yeah, and then the lid itself, so we often joke that's probably the most expensive lid in the business because most people don't really think about the lid, but we very much did. So the black and white marble along the sides of the lid, it's meant to kind of represent the old Basilica churches that they have in Italy. Which, it's very much an influence from when kind of the... I mean at that time frame it would have been probably the Turks came across. Like you see some interesting... like if you go ever go to Spain, you'll see a bit of the Moroccan influence in some of the old churches. It's the same type of thing in Italy, where you'll see those black and white arches, like these mosaics that almost don't, I mean now we just take it for granted as that, as part of Italian culture. But if you look at where it came from, it's from the various invasions through history. Very famously Catherine de' Medici in Florence, she'd go to the Basiliscus Saint Maria. And when she'd leave, she'd give little bits of Rosolio to the peasants. And so that was our little kind of nod to that, of kind of that old way. And then on the very top of the bottle, on the top of the cap is a Cherub, which is Bacchus who was the Roman god of wine. Bacchus is traditionally depicted holding grapes, in our case holding citrus, because obviously bergamot is a citrus. And then Bacchus is standing in the shape of the Vitruvian man, which is the di Vinci perfect human form sketch. And the Vitruvian man was actually voted to be the most iconic Italian symbol. So these things are all very much considered. And then the last fun little detail is that the face of the Cherub is actually modelled after Giuseppe's youngest daughter Gloria because it was released on her second birthday. I'm super sceptical. I think all children look the same, but I've actually seen the picture that the sketch itself was based on. So if you ever hear any of us referring to Gloria, we're talking about either the daughter or the Cherub. It's the nice little way to bring it all together.

Italicus is available pretty much across the US at the moment?

Yeah, so we are in, I believe we are in 40 states now, which is incredible considering we are just over two years old here in the US.

And what about internationally?

Internationally, I think we're in 35 countries. Something like that.
That's huge.
Yeah. And you know, we're continually opening up new markets. I know we are now available in Australia as of ... I think the last six months or so. Definitely this year. I think we're now available in Hong Kong. Singapore has been a recent thing as well, across a great deal of Europe, of course. Nowhere in South America yet, but we're working on it. That's the next step.

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us this afternoon, and if people want more information, the website address is?

So the website address is rosolioitalicus.com. So that is R-O-S-O-L-I-O-I-T-A-L-I-C-U-S.com.

Excellent. Thanks again.

An absolute pleasure.

For more information on Italicus, go to rosolioitalicus.com

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