Up a steep dirt road in the tiny village of Santu Lussurgiu in central Sardinia is Distillerie Lussurgesi, where Carlo Pische makes mirto, the tangy bittersweet myrtle liqueur ubiquitous on the island as the go-to digestivo.
The building used to be his garage until Pische, 60, went from being an auto mechanic to a distiller. Now it’s crammed with mostly hand-operated equipment, bottling and packaging materials, samples for his laboratory and the other accouterments of an artisanal spirits business.
The common myrtle bush (Myrtus communis) grows wild through the Mediterranean and can be found all over Sardinia and Corsica. Sacred to Aphrodite and Demeter, myrtle was worn by Athenian judges and woven into the wreaths Greek and Roman Olympians wore.
The word even has its roots in Greek mythology. Myrsìne was a young girl transformed by Athena into the shrub because she dared to beat a male competitor in the games. As a token of peace and love, myrtle was part of bridal decorations (including Queen Victoria’s bouquet), and its many medicinal uses date to antiquity.
There are three types of mirto: mirto rosso, made from the purple berries; mirto bianco, which come from white berries; and a variety of mirto that comes from the leaves. Pische concentrates on mirto rosso, which he bottles under the brand Judu.
While many people make mirto for local or home consumption, there are only a handful of official small producers on the island. Each has trade secrets—the type of alcohol used, the proportion of myrtle berries to alcohol, the infusion time, the sweetener. But the basic process is the same for all of them.
Pische starts with berries he buys by the kilo once a year from the raccoglitore, experts who harvest them from November to February in the hills using a special tool. He then puts them through a giant fan to separate out the leaves and twigs before infusing them into a 96-proof neutral-grain alcohol. For up to 60 days, they sit in special rotating containers, where they’re tested frequently for the right infusion.
Pische then strains off the liquid, removes the fruit and presses it to extract the pulp, which is mixed back in with the liquid. He says the pressing is an important step because it determines the strength of the finished product.
The mixture is allowed to rest for 10 days before it’s put through a special filter that uses flour and silk to remove impurities. A complex formula is applied to adjust the level of alcohol—32 to 34 percent—with the addition of a solution of sugar and water.
The finished mirto has a deep ruby color, herbal and spicy overtones, and a lingering bittersweet finish that leaves a slight burn. Finally, it’s bottled and labeled by hand. Everything is done on-site with the help of three employees.
Pische says his annual production of mirto is 15,000 bottles, up from a few thousand when he started in 2003. Besides the Italian mainland and a couple of other European countries, he exports to the U.S., especially Chicago, where his distributor is Buon Gusto.
Judu can be found in more than a dozen Chicago restaurants, including Monteverde, Spiaggia, Avec, Spacca Napoli and Piccolo Sogno. At Monteverde, it’s combined with Death’s Door gin, absinthe, egg white and lemon in a cocktail called the Sardinian Bandit.
“Derived from the myrtle plant, mirto has a lovely profile that’s a mixture of fruit (berries) and herbs (rosemary and juniper),” says Hannah Grossman, the beverage manager and sommelier at Monteverde. “We pair it with gin and top it off with rosemary to encourage its aromatics. The cocktails at Monteverde are similar to the savory menu as they’re inspired by Italian but with small twists here and there. We love to use this, since the mirto is from Sardinia, to give the cocktail some authentic Italian essence.”
Two years ago, Pische introduced Eya, a mirto-and-soda aperitivo, packaged in cute little bottles at 7 percent ABV, and he’s currently working on a low-alcohol version of mirto.
Scott Crestodina, the owner of Chicago’s Independent Spirits, has been stocking mirto since his time at the late Fine Wine Brokers almost a decade ago and has seen a slow but steady uptick in interest. “I don’t know if mirto is about to have its moment,” he says. “But it deserves to. It’s great stuff.”