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Even the most novice of drinkers will be able to tell you what sorts of spirits hail from Mexico, or Jamaica, or Russia, or the good ol’ US of A… but how about that storied bastion of gastronomy, Italy? The mythical peninsula churns out far more than great wine, fast cars, and spicy meat-a-balls—it’s also the source of some of the most complex and sought-after spirits and liqueurs on the planet.
With summer (a.k.a. “Spritz season”) in full swing, it’s time to stock up your bar with the best booze the boot can boast. Here are our industry experts’ top picks for the must-have Italian spirits and liqueurs.
Best Overall: Cynar
Region: Molise, Italy | ABV: 16.5% | Tasting Notes: Vegetal, Toffee, Quinine
The diversity of Italian spirits and liqueurs can’t possibly be overstated, but if there’s one bottle that encompasses all of the definitional Italian traits—versatility, the balance between sweet and bitter, and utilization of unique botanicals—it has to be Cynar. The beguiling liqueur with the artichoke on the label (yes, artichoke is one of the 13 herbs and plants that compose Cynar’s unique flavor) works equally well as an aperitivo, a digestivo, and a cocktail ingredient, and thus has become a favorite among today’s generation of enterprising bartenders.
“[Cynar is] low-ABV, and it has a complex structure that’s the perfect harmony of bitter yet slightly sweet. It’s an amazing addition to any cocktail as a modifier, shot, or even a base spirit. It’s truly a plug-and-play amaro.” — Chris Amirault, beverage director, restaurateur, owner of Parm Boyz and Equal Parts Hospitality.
Best for a Spritz: Italicus Rosolio di Bergamotto
Region: Calabria, Italy | ABV: 20% | Tasting Notes: Grapefruit, Bergamot, Rose petal
By this point, we’ve surely all enjoyed our share of Aperol Spritzes. (And why not? They’re delicious, and oh are they grammable.) To take your Spritz game to the next level, however, try a Spritz made with Italicus Rosolio di Bergamotto. Introduced in 2016, Italicus is a rosolio, an ancient style of Italian liqueur based on the flavor of rose petals—and this example can claim extra complexity due to the integration of zest from the lime-like bergamot fruit. Tracing its origins to the rural province of Calabria (the toe of Italy’s boot), Italicus boasts gorgeous bitter grapefruit notes that will mingle perfectly with your well-chilled prosecco.
"Italicus is such a special liqueur. It's as versatile as St. Germain, the bottle is gorgeous, and it's like sipping on the flavors of Italian history." — Prairie Rose, Editor
Best Aperitivo: Cocchi Americano
Region: Piemonte, Italy | ABV: 16.5% | Tasting Notes: Quinine, Citrus, Herbs
As the tipple responsible for stimulating your appetite before a sumptuous meal, a good aperitivo should be bright, mouth-watering, and flavorful without being heavy. Cocchi Americano, the low-ABV aperitif wine from the city of Asti, has been performing this function admirably since its introduction in 1891.
With its moscato wine foundation and its pronounced quinine tang—derived from its infusion with cinchona bark, along with citrus peel, gentian, and other botanicals—Cocchi Americano works wonders as a delicately bitter chilled pour before dinner, but also really shines over ice with a splash of soda and an orange peel. If it’s a special occasion, tip it into a glass of dry sparkling wine, perhaps a nice franciacorta from Italy’s Lombardy region.
Good to Know:
If you like your pre-dinner drink a little stiffer, Cocchi Americano is a must-have in classic cocktails like the Vesper and the Corpse Reviver No. 2, in which it’s rumored to have the closest flavor profile to the now-discontinued Kina Lillet that appears in both recipes.
Best Digestivo: Liquore Strega
Region: Campania, Italy | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Anise, Lemon, Spearmint
The whole “after-dinner” category (French: digistif / Italian: digestivo / American: antacid) is sometimes tempting to resign to those big, brown, bitter liqueurs that smell like they’re about to clean the tartar off your teeth while you swish them around. But the digestivo realm features some lighter options as well, and one of the most iconic is Liquore Strega.
Hailing from Benevento, just outside of Naples, Strega is an herbal liqueur based on a 150-year-old recipe that is said to include up to 70 different botanicals—chief among them being saffron, which gives Strega its signature yellow color. Strega (the Italian word for “witch”) is fascinating on its own, but try this enchanting inebriant in your after-dinner coffee for a truly bewitching experience.
Best Amaro: Montenegro Amaro
Region: Emilia-Romagna, Italy | ABV: 23% | Tasting Notes: Orange, Nutmeg, Coriander
An amaro is an Italian herbal liqueur featuring flavors derived from botanicals like herbs, flowers, roots, and citrus peels, and while a good amaro will always feature a characteristic bitterness—the word amaro means “bitter,” after all—they’re extremely varied otherwise, with differing levels of sweetness, texture, and mouthfeel. Montenegro is an iconic amaro featuring notes of orange, nutmeg, coriander, and clove. “I love Montenegro first and foremost for its versatility,” says Danny Natali, bartender at Ronan in Los Angeles. “Because of its dominant orange flavor and viscosity, I’ll often substitute it for triple sec in my margarita recipe. I’ll also use Montenegro as a substitute for Nonino in the modern classic the Paper Plane.”
Like many amaro, Montenegro also loves to play the lead role in simple preparations, where its well-balanced interplay of herbal, bitter, and sweet can really shine. “Serve it in a highball with a grapefruit twist, on the rocks, or simply neat,” says Natali. “All are great options to imbibe this wonderfully crafted Italian spirit.”
Best Limoncello: Meletti
Region: Le Marche, Italy | ABV: 30% | Tasting Notes: Lemon, Sweet, Acidic
No meal on the Amalfi coast is complete without the requisite local digestivo: a pour of ice-cold limoncello, ideally served in chilled ceramic shot glasses. Sourcing their lemons from the coastal groves in Sorrento, Meletti produces a bold, integrated limoncello that balances the natural tartness of the lemon peels with the perfect quotient of sweetness.
If you’ve ever considered making your own limoncello (and with only three ingredients, why wouldn’t you?), Meletti provides the perfect benchmark against which to measure your homemade effort.
“I enjoy limoncello from established amaro houses. Meletti produces limoncello in the traditional way and does so without the unnatural bright yellow or green colors. I look for natural flavors and colors, plus high alcohol content to balance the sweetness.” — Paddy Daniel, bar manager at The Amaro Bar at Osteria Mozza in Los Angeles.
Best Grappa: Luigi Francoli Grappa di Nebbiolo
Region: Piemonte, Italy | ABV: 42% | Tasting Notes: Hazelnuts, Mushrooms, Dark chocolate
Grappa is an Italian brandy made from fermenting the grape pomace—the skin, pulp, seeds, and stems left over from the winemaking process. Historically hailing from Italy’s northern provinces, grappa is often enjoyed after dinner as a digestivo and is typically served in shot glasses (although elegant stemmed grappa glasses are also popular). Another option is to order a Caffè Corretto—literally “corrected coffee,” an espresso with a small amount of liquor added, most often grappa.
In eras past, grappa was almost always bottled as an unaged spirit, but today’s distillers may choose to barrel-age their brandies in order to soften the edges and add flavor, and one of the most interesting aged grappas is the Luigi Francoli Grappa di Nebbiolo. “It's made from Piemonte’s most acclaimed grape varietal, nebbiolo, and it's aged five years in Slovenian oak barrels, giving it an incredible depth of flavor and complexity that eludes many other grappas,” says wine merchant Daniel Hess, owner of Convivium Imports. “It's perfect as a little liquid warmth to cap off a nice meal."
Best Vermouth: Carpano Antica Formula
Region: Lombardia, Italy | ABV: 16.5% | Tasting Notes: Cherries, Figs, Vanilla
Ok, you got us—vermouth isn’t technically a “spirit”. It’s a fortified wine, i.e. a standard table wine that’s had its alcohol content fortified through the addition of a neutral alcohol (usually grape brandy or grain spirit) as well as flavoring agents such as herbs, spices, and other botanicals. Vermouth can be red or white, sweet or dry, but the offerings that Italy is best known for are its sweet, red examples—and the standard-bearer among those is Carpano Antica Formula.
Based on an original recipe from 1786, Carpano boasts assertive notes of cherry and fig and is a natural in any cocktail that calls for sweet vermouth (Manhattan, Brooklyn, and all of the many variants therein). But it’s also a winner when it’s front-and-center—try it neat, on ice, or with soda for some late-afternoon, low-ABV enjoyment.
Related: The Best Vermouths to Drink in 2021
Best Most Versatile: Campari
Region: Piemonte, Italy | ABV: 24% | Tasting Notes: Grapefruit, Quinine, Cherry
Your typical Italian spirit will probably only make appearances in one or two popular drinks, but Campari is that rare unicorn featured in numerous notable cocktails you’ll likely encounter on menus far and wide. It plays a starring role in the ubiquitous Negroni and its many variant cousins (the Boulevardier, the Old Pal, etc.), as well as in Italian classics like the Americano and the Garibaldi, and even the Jungle Bird of tiki lore. It also performs well in a spritz, and pairs beautifully with seltzer or pink grapefruit soda.
“Campari can be the star of the show or take a supporting role,” says Amirault. “It adds literal bittersweet flavor and a stark contrast of color that makes it undeniable in any drink no matter how much you’re using.”
Best of all, you’re likely to be able to find it in pretty much any watering hole worth its salt, from the airport bar to the sketchy dive (even if zero other fine Italian spirits inhabit the back bar).
Best for a Negroni: Malfy Con Limone Gin
Region: Piemonte, Italy | ABV: 41% | Tasting Notes: Lemon zest, Juniper, Coriander
Remember the ingredients you used the last time you stirred up a batch of delicious Negronis to impress your friends? The Campari was from Italy, and there’s a fairly good chance that the vermouth you used was from Italy as well. Next time, why not complete the trifecta by using a gin from Italy? Malfy is a newcomer on the Italian spirits scene, but production takes place at a decades-old distillery in Torino, and only Italian lemons are used in the fabrication of its signature flavored gin, Malfy Con Limone.
Served neat, the bright citrus notes mingle harmoniously with the requisite juniper (it is a gin, after all), but it’s in cocktails that Malfy Con Limone’s fresh lemon notes really assert themselves. Liven up your next Negroni with this zesty Italian spirit.
With hundreds of contemporary offerings (not to mention centuries of history) to pore through, the totality of the Italian spirits realm is certainly daunting. (Deliciously daunting, sure, but daunting nonetheless.) However, as long as you always keep both an aperitivo like Cocchi Americano (view at Total Wine) and an amaro like Montenegro (view at Drizly) close at hand, you can be confident that any meal and/or cocktail hour over which you preside will be assured of some true Italian authenticity.
What spirit is Italy most famous for?
Outside of wine, Italy’s most notable contribution to the realm of alcoholic beverages has to be amaro. Ubiquitous in Italy and fast gaining popularity in the US, amaro’s herbaceous and brooding flavors align perfectly with the trend of increased interest in bitter, complex beverages.
Is all Italian vermouth sweet and all French vermouth dry?
No, but it’s a fair question—certain older cocktail guidebooks will use “French vermouth” as shorthand for “dry vermouth,” and “Italian” as shorthand for “sweet.” But don’t be misled by this outdated nomenclature, as each country produces examples of the opposite: the French are responsible for the delicately sweet Dolin Vermouth de Chambéry Blanc, for example, while the Italians can take credit for the bone-dry Contratto Bianco. (And other vermouth-producing countries, such as Spain and the U.S., also boast plenty of respective sweet and dry offerings.)
What do Italians drink after dinner?
The sipper enjoyed after supper is known as a digestivo, and several different classes of beverage can check this box: amaro, limoncello, grappa, and even vermouth are all appropriate selections for the lingering-at-the-table-and-arguing-about-Rossellini portion of the meal. (Of course, espresso is also a popular post-dinner option, but it’s no coincidence that certain digestivi work very nicely in espresso as well.)
Why Trust Liquor.com?
Jesse Porter is a Certified Italian Wine Specialist with the North American Sommeliers Association—and, more importantly, is a lover of all things bitter. (His Italian friends call him Amarone, “the big bitter one,” though not to his face.) Jesse has worked with some of the finest Italian wine and spirits programs in Los Angeles, and does his best to avoid ending any meal without a requisite pour of digestivo—and yes, a shot of Jäger to wash down a plate of nachos at the sports bar 100% counts.
Read Next: The Best Italian Wines to Drink in 2021