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Assorted infusions and bitter liquors at Lo Sverso.
Assorted infusions and bitter liquors at Lo Sverso.
Coral Sisk

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Florence's Craft Cocktail Revival Blends Traditions Old and New

When it comes to cocktails, Florentine bartenders are looking back to look ahead.

Florence has long held the reputation as Chianti-land, the wine in round straw fiascos resented by most Italian oenophiles for its mediocracy up until a couple decades ago when the region decided to clean up its act. Albeit a new and improved wine supply from the neighboring Chianti hills, Florence's wine culture has some quaffing competition with the rise of local craft cocktail bars.

The city first saw the shift towards improved intoxicants about a decade ago when bartenders began to experiment with fresh ingredientswhile intermeshing Italy's longstanding (medicinal) tradition of bitter liquors (amaro, vermouth)in reaction to the saccharine tipples which had plagued bars until that point. But, over the last three years, Florentine bartenders have started to embrace classic, pre-Prohibition cocktails, while continuing to honor Italy's bitter history.

The Italian diet, after all, is intuitively premised on balancing bitter flavors in order to achieve digestive zen. Italians begin a meal with a bitter vermouth-based aperitif cocktail, and the bitter botanicals infused into the wine stimulate gastric juices and improve digestion. Red wine is generally consumed with food, a simple green salad functions as a palate cleanser, and amaro, grappa or espresso serve as a final digestif.

... Florentine bartenders have started to embrace classic, pre-Prohibition cocktails, while continuing to honor Italy's bitter history.

In the world of drinks, Florence’s hometown hero is the Negroni: a bitter-based cocktail premised on a local character, Count Camillo Luigi Manfredo Maria Negroni, who, a regular Americano aperitif drinker, one day demanded less soda in his cocktail, and instead topped his drink with a heartier provision, gin. Circa 1919, this drink was born thanks to the obedient barkeep at Café Casoni and nearby Caffè Rivoire.

Florence's signature aperitif cocktail was yielded from the Americano which, itself, was based in Campari the bitter herb and citrus liqueurbalanced with a sweet Torinese vermouth and topped with club soda. Meanwhile, the Americano itself was born from the Milano Torino, a drink built from the same ying and yang of bitter and sweet minus the soda.

Coral Sisk

Mayday Club's Tuscan Vermouth cocktail. All photos by Coral Sisk.

Up until the last few years, aside from a Negroni, finding a distinctive aperitif cocktail in Florence was nothing short of disappointing. The city’s slew of bars were geared towards students and unsophisticated palates, chugging out glucose-heavy syrup-based "Cosmopolitans" in which bartenders disguised any whiff of alcohol better than a Berlusconi scandal. Sadly, the city's cocktail culture had been swayed from the tradition of what an aperitif was originally intended to be, and that was: bittersweet.

However, in the last few years, as bitter liquors and homemade products have become more desired, Florence has experienced a quiet, slow sneaking, staggered invasion of craft cocktail lounges focused on classic cocktails and modern fresh fruit libations.

Marco Arduino, proprietor of Florence's Mayday Cluba destination for distinctive drinkshas been concocting potions, perfumes, essences, tinctures and even house-made vermouths since 2001, before it came cool. The city's original cocktail slinger balances botany, chemistry, creativity and craftsmanship, while selecting quality ingredients down to whole vanilla bean. Arduino believes in the importance of respecting tradition and methodology, and thinks that being a "mixologist" is not just about making syrups, homemade bitters and designing vogue vermouths.

"The problem with these bars ... making their own bitters and liquors, is that some of these herbs and botanicals like geranium are poisonous if not prepared correctly" he says of Florentine bartenders' experimentation. "I wonder if these people have studied chemistry, alchemy and botany when extracting these delicate properties." Marco's lab is fit with pH strips, among other science lab equipment. He explains that cocktail flavors need to be balanced, and that a drink isn't just about mixing different liquors and bitters together.

In addition to science, Arduino is also keen on creating cocktails based on war stories, as it the case for his "Taxi for Marna," named after France's Battle of the Marne. As legend has it, 600 taxis brought soldiers from Paris to the frontlines of the first battle of WWI. So, the drink unites Cognac and Arduino's own vanilla cream-flavored liqueur di pastore, made from the milk protein casein, and a splash of house-made Tuscan cigar liquor.

Lo Sverso's Vodka Beat with house-made cacao bitters. Above: Lo Sverso's assorted vermouths.

"Florence is experiencing its Golden Age in the drink scene and has the potential of becoming the next Milan or Rome in terms of ... cocktail culture ..."

Another excellent example of Florence's craft cocktail culture can be found at Caffè Florian, an eccentric period-style bar that first opened in Venice in 1720, but three years ago the Florence location fittingly launched a bar program based on vintage classics with a modern twist. While Florian's "Insane Old Fashioned" is built with cigar-infused rum and craft bitters, the Spiced Negroni involves a house-made spice blend-infused vermouth. Head barman Julian Biondi, who also prepares bacon-infused bourbon and dill-infused tequila, sees a positive future for Florence’s place in the "Italian cocktail movement," as he calls it. "Florence is experiencing its Golden Age in the drink scene and has the potential of becoming the next Milan or Rome in terms of having a cocktail culture of a higher level" Biondi notes. "In a matter of a year or two, Florence will become an optimal playground for artisanal cocktails and craft mixology."

And newbie artisan beer and cocktail bar Lo Sverso, which debuted earlier this year, is only substantiating Biondi's prediction, with drinks like a smoked black tea syrup-spiked Old Fashioned. Here, intoxicants adhere to Jerry Thomas' principles and incorporate house-made infusions, simple syrups, a few bar bitters, plus original spirits and vermouths from historic distilleries. Head bartender Mose Giordani is well-versed in the history behind the world most iconic cocktails and he's passionately involved in experimenting with menu development. At the moment, Lo Sverso is seasoning drinks with cacao, lemon and lime bitters, and he explains, "We only offer a few because to make a comprehensive bar bitter, it takes countless high quality herbs, barks, botanicals and roots." Still to come are house-made Angostura-inspired bitters and signature vermouths.

Apart from vintage bitter-based cocktails and speakeasy-style bars in Florence, many quaint caffes are getting into the craft cocktail game. The last decade has seen a wave of vegetarian and vegan-friendly bistros which also offer natural cocktails made with fresh fruit plus herbs and spices. For example, Quello in Santa Croce is known for natural cuisine and drinks made from seasonal ingredients in place of the long-favored flavored syrups.

The wave of craft cocktails in Florence has bittersweet undertones. While locals are cheering their arrival, trade originals question bartenders' preparedness and expertise. Regardless, the recipe for success seems to follow taste, creativity and a remarkable ability to marry flavors. While Florence is still inundated with garbage bars, the craft drink scene is pleasurably improving, one bitter beverage at a time.

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