Italian whisky is living la bella vita

Italian whisky is living la bella vita

Italian whisky may only have a 10-year history, but a prosperous future is in sight, with 20 new distilleries ready to launch their first dram by 2033 and distillers of Italy’s native spirit, grappa, at the forefront


Image: Puni Distillery in Trentino Alto Adige

Regional Focus | 14 Jun 2024 | Issue 198 | By Simone Sarchi

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In Italy, 2023 was good year for whisky. Five distilleries unveiled their inaugural releases, and many others are set to hit the market in the coming years. It signals the arrival of a new era for a country that has always been distinguished by a large number of enthusiasts, but never acknowledged as a whisky-making country.


The European nation has a long-standing tradition of independent whisky bottling — in the 1960s and 1970s, notable figures such as Silvano Samaroli started looking for premium Scottish whiskies, successfully promoting single malts in a market that was dominated by blends — but whisky production in Italy only began in earnest about a decade ago.


Davide Terziotti, co-founder of the Italian Whisky Club and of Craft Distilling, an Italian consultancy company for distilleries and spirits start-ups, confirms, “Almost every grappa producer, an Italian pomace spirit distilled from the leftover of wine making, is ready to get in the game. We expect around 20 new Italian whisky brands by 2033, possibly even more.”


As in neighbouring France, the history of Italian distilled spirits is centred on grapes rather than grain. The production of grappa, distilled from by-products of wine production, likely began between the 14th and 15th centuries. The earliest testimony referencing aqua vitae distilled from wine, used for medicinal purposes, can be found in De Conficienda Aqua Vitae by Paduan doctor Michele Savonarola (1384–1462). Nardini, founded in 1779 in Bassano del Grappa, Veneto, is considered the first grappa distillery. Over the centuries production has spread, primarily throughout the Northern regions of Italy: Veneto, Trentino Alto Adige, and Piedmont. Italy currently boasts about 135 grappa producers, from artisanal producers using traditional steam, bain-marie, or direct-fired stills, to industrial distillers employing continuous column stills.


Psenner Distillery in Trentino Alto Adige was the first grappa maker to move from grape to grain, crafting the first Italian single malt: eRètico. Launched in 2016, the inaugural release was a three-year-old whisky matured in a combination of ex-grappa and ex-oloroso sherry casks. The whiskies in its core range are now matured for five years, and it also offers two seven-year-old whiskies — one matured in ex-grappa and Amarone casks and the other in ex-grappa and Gewürztraminer wine casks.

Werner Psenner manager of Psenner Distillery

Werner Psenner is the third generation of his family to manage the distillery, which was founded in 1947. He explains, “Whisky is a universal product. It is crafted globally, with raw materials sourced all over the world, and it has roots in beer culture. With an employee who studied brewing engineering at the University of Munich and a significant supply of barriques resulting from grappa production, we decided to experiment with whisky.”


As an established distillery, Werner wanted to preserve its heritage by ageing its whiskies in grappa casks and finishing them in casks which previously contained local wines. “There is no point making whisky as Scottish distilleries do. This is why we made very specific and unique choices,” Psenner says.


In 2019 Nannoni, a Tuscan grappa distillery founded in 1973, released a few hundred bottles of Whisky al Focarile, a five-year-old single grain; this was followed by a three-year-old expression matured in Ornellaia red wine barriques. Alongside the al Focarile whiskies, decorated master distiller Priscilla Occhipinti — who claims the title of first female master grappa distiller — also crafts whisky for third parties.


Then, in December 2021, the Poli family launched Segretario di Stato: a lightly peated single malt whisky matured in French oak casks for five years and then finished in Amarone casks for a minimum of eight months. The Poli distillery has been producing grappa for 125 years; its home in Schiavon also encompasses a captivating museum where visitors can learn about the history of grappa and Poli’s origins.

Jacopo Poli

As owner Jacopo Poli explains, the idea for its first whisky came from an unusual source. “The idea of a whisky came in 2013, when our fellow citizen from Schiavon, less than an hour from Venice, was appointed secretary of state of the Roman Curia by Pope Francis. Under the advice of the then mayor, Mirella Cogo, we wanted to celebrate with a spirit that was recognisable and esteemed throughout the world; whisky was the most obvious choice and we immediately got to work.”


Before 2023, only one Italian distillery was founded with the sole aim of producing whisky. Nonetheless, it shares the same territory and cultural background as the grappa makers that have diversified. This trailblazer is Puni Distillery in Trentino Alto Adige, founded by builder Albrecht Ebensperger. After two years of work to build the modern facility, the stills were fired up on 24 February 2012.


Its first whiskies were released in October 2015: Puni Nova, aged in first-fill ex-bourbon casks and finished in new oak casks; and Puni Alba, matured in ex-Marsala casks and finished in casks that formerly held peated whisky. Both were produced with a combination of barley, rye, and wheat in the mash bill.


“Since we founded Puni Distillery, we have made progress in the evolution of our products and worked hard to make Italian whisky internationally known,” says Puni brand ambassador Luca Russo. “Our philosophy is all about combining the Scottish experience with Italian traditions and innovation. Our vision goes far beyond simple whisky production: we want to create a new tradition, rooted in Italian terroir and enriched by an uncompromising commitment to excellence.”


To this end, Russo says the grains used in Puni’s next bottlings will be 100 per cent Italian, adding that the distillery also often uses casks sourced from Italy for ageing. Its special releases, Arte and Aura, will be a focus for future development.


In 2023 alone, Italy went from having four whisky producers to nine. As outlined already, grappa distillers have a strong showing, making up six of the nine distilleries to have released a whisky so far.


Villa de Varda, another distillery in Trentino with 170 years’ experience in grappa making, released four expressions of its new whisky brand inQuota: Dolomiti, a single malt finished in spruce casks; a single malt finished in Amarone casks; a single malt finished in casks that previously held Passito di Pantelleria, a fortified wine from Sicily; and a 100 per cent rye whisky. Two more releases, a rye and a single malt, are exclusively available at Eataly stores in Italy and elsewhere in Europe.


“We consider ourselves as a farm distillery,” explains Mauro Dolzan, a sixth-generation member of the distillery’s founding family and now its master distiller. “We grow our own barley, and also the rye — which might seem a curious choice — is part of our tradition. Our regional culture has always been connected with the high-altitude cultivation of grains, both barley and rye. We also have a long tradition in spirits. We just wanted to combine these two aspects of our heritage, creating a product representing our territory and Italian mountains.” Celebrating its heritage, the distillery keeps a collection of 17th-century tools used for farming, wine making, and distilling on public display.

Tasting Villa de Varda's whisky

In addition to its homegrown grain, Villa de Varda uses spring water from the Brenta Dolomite mountains and sources red Italian spruce for its casks from the same forest where Antonio Stradivari found wood for his violins in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.


The next Italian whisky born in 2023, from another grappa and fruit spirits producer in Trentino Alto Adige, was Roner’s TER Lignum. Italian brewer Forst supplies the distillers’ beer for the whisky, which Roner distils and then ages for five years in barriques made from three types of wood: heavily toasted oak for the staves, and cherry and larch for the heads.


Simon Schweigkofler, head of marketing at Roner, says, “This unique maturation gives a rich flavour and aroma profile that represents our history and our Alpine style. These are in fact woods locally sourced in Trentino forests and which we usually employ for maturing other products.”


Sardinian wine and spirits producer Silvio Carta also released its first whisky last year. The single malt is double distilled in a copper still that was crafted in Tuscany in 1985 according to Silvio Carta’s own specifications. “I don’t really love oak casks,” company owner Elio Carta divulges. “Therefore, the maturation takes place in ultra-centenary barrels made of Sardinian chestnut, exclusively employed for ageing Vernaccia di Oristano, the wine we are famous for. Our whisky reflects our history.”


It is not just grappa distilleries that are getting into the game, but craft breweries, too. Exmu, the brewery-turned-distillery in Sardinia, launched two single malt whiskies last year: one aged in new oak casks and one in ex-bourbon casks, both for three years. In common with Villa de Varda and others, Exmu abides by a philosophy of local sourcing. Owner Alessandro Cossu explains: “We grow the grains we use to produce both beer and whisky. To maintain our tradition, we also use the same yeast employed for the fermentation of our beers. We are certain that if the new make is produced with premium raw materials, the whisky can only be good. If we want to differentiate ourselves from Scotch, American, or Japanese whiskies we need to use our resources.”


Another brewery, Crak in Tuscany, unveiled its first whisky in December 2023. Produced in collaboration with Occhipinti at Nannoni, the single malt was aged for three years in oak casks and bottled at two ABVs, 42% and 55%.

Priscilla Occhipinti, master distiller at Nannoni

Italian whisky fans are likely going to be treated to a surge of new products in 2024. Winestillery, from Tuscany's Chianti region, unveiled its inaugural single grain whisky Florentis at Velier Live 2024 in February, a show organised by Italian spirits importer and distributor Velier. Three expressions were released: one matured in vinsanto wine casks, one in Tuscan wine casks, and a single cask whisky selected especially for the event by Velier CEO Luca Gargano. All Winestillery’s whiskies are distilled in small batches with a 500-litre pot still.


One name that is causing particular excitement is Strada Ferrata, the whisky brand made by Albedo in Lombardy. In January 2024, Disaronno owner Illva Saronno bought a 20 per cent stake, through a capital increase, in the Italian whisky producer. The news was welcomed as encouraging for the entire industry. The first Strada Ferrata whisky will reach the three-year mark by April 2024, with a release likely by the end of the year.


Others that may have whisky ready in 2024 are Pisoni in Trentino Alto Adige and Mazzetti D’Altavilla in Piedmont; both are grappa makers, respectively founded in 1852 and 1846. Bottega in Veneto, which produces a range of sparkling wines, spirits, and liqueurs, and Mulino di Sassello in Liguria, which is already bottling unaged grain spirit as ‘moonshine’, are also tipped to start bottling whisky in next couple of years.


Although it has been viewed with scepticism in the past, the time seems ripe for the Italian whisky industry to blossom. “Our experience in the distillation of grappa is a guarantee since the process is more complex compared to the distillation of whisky, in my opinion,” Jacopo Poli says. “In addition, we are all established and renowned companies in our country. We certainly do not want to ruin our reputation with a mediocre product only to chase market demand.”


The real challenge for new distilleries will be getting noticed internationally — not an easy task, but Schweigkofler at Roner is quietly confident. “The more new Italian producers are born, the more people will start talking about us,” he says. “Competition helps. It will raise the general appreciation of Italian whisky in our country and abroad.”

TER Lignum from Roner

There is ample room for distillers to start establishing an ‘Italian style’ of whisky while adhering to EU regulations, which currently permit maturation in any type of wooden cask (not exceeding 700 litres in capacity) and do not mandate pot still distillation for single malt whisky.


According to Dolzan at Villa de Varda, taking inspiration from the concept of terroir in wine making could be crucial in defining an Italian style, as could the collaboration between Italian whisky, wine, and beer producers.


Puni’s contribution will be fundamental, as the distillery already has international recognition — and the team recognise this. “We are determined to consolidate the reputation of Italian whisky as a product of high quality and elegance, following the example of our country’s gastronomic excellence,” Russo states. “We dream of a future in which made-in-Italy whisky is no longer an exception, but an established category.”


“The Italian products already available have a strong Italian connotation, although each one has its specific features,” says Terziotti, going on to note that the use of locally grown grains and Italian wine casks are already well-established hallmarks.


“What I hope is that a system will be created to increase internal and external consumption,” he continues. “It might be time to think about the birth of the Italian Whisky Association, following the example of other countries. The aim is not to impose further regulations, but to establish a robust and unified communication on the international stage.” 

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