When one imagines traditional Italian amari and liqueurs, one probably doesn’t imagine small farms in rural South Carolina. Nonetheless, husband and wife Renato Vicario and Janette Wesley have been making such spirits between properties in Tuscany and Greer, S.C., since 2014.
The Vicario catalog includes a staggering lineup of products, from gin, grappa, and brandy, to olive oil, wine, and over 15 varieties of liqueurs, including expressions of lesser-known products such as herba luisa and olive leaf.
Renato Vicario developed a love of liqueurs early in life, during his upbringing in Piedmont, Italy, where his father and grandfather were winemakers. He recalls memories of making liqueurs in the kitchen with his grandmother from the age of 6: “It was tradition,” he says, “especially in well-to-do families, to have your own liqueurs at the end of the meal, for guests. And I’ve been doing it ever since.”
After leaving the family home, and prior to moving spirit and liqueur-making from a hobby to a career, Vicario’s primary work as a travel wholesaler increased his interest in liqueurs, as his travels around the world brought him in contact with more and more varieties of fruits and herbs with which to experiment at home. It also brought him in contact with Janette Wesley, an art historian from South Carolina who had studied in Italy, and who, after their marriage, would ultimately help steer him toward selling his own.
Through Wesley’s encouragement, Vicario authored a comprehensive book on his lifelong passion, “Italian Liqueurs: History and Art of a Creation,” which was first published by the Aboca Museum of medicinal plants in Tuscany. The museum organized various publicity events for the book and encouraged Vicario to bring some of his homemade, small-batch liqueurs with him to demonstrate the recipes. “Everyone wanted to know, where can we buy this liqueur?” says Wesley. “So we started doing some research to see if there was a market for this. We researched tax laws and all of that, and it favored the U.S., and that’s why we pursued it.” Vicario’s book was published in 2011, and by 2014 the couple had established the micro-distillery on their property in Greer, S.C., with both parties still working independently in travel and art history.
Both Vicario and Wesley were extremely involved in Slow Food before the liqueur business began in 2014, and so sustainability was at the heart of their operation in both of their trans-Atlantic homesteads in South Carolina and Italy. Vicario’s sustainability practices almost read as a “how-to” guide for similar operations: Everything from ingredient sourcing and plant preservation to shipping and bottling weight to electricity used in the tasting room is subject to eco-conscious scrutiny.
The objective, however, all comes down to flavor. “Our primary goal is just an outstanding taste experience,” says Wesley. “For somebody to come in and try things, even if they have no idea what liqueurs are, to go, ‘Wow…’ That’s very satisfying.”
Vicario and Wesley recently sat down for a chat on Zoom to share with VinePair readers the principles that power the heart of their garden-to-glass operation.
1. When I met you in person I was amazed at your extensive botanical knowledge. Can you tell us a little about your background in that area?
Janette Wesley: One of my first jobs was with a German lady who opened a plant shop, and I worked with her for five years. She taught me a lot about plants, about growing them, about disease. So that just translated later on into doing my own gardening, and researching my own info about how to grow various things. You can kind of look up anything you want to grow now; it used to be a lot harder. Renato would always ask whether we could grow various fruits or herbs, and I would look them up to see if they could be grown here in South Carolina, or in Italy. Since the business, I changed from growing a lot of decorative flowers to growing produce, herbs, whatever he wanted to put into the liqueurs.
Renato Vicario: And from my side, after the Second World War in Italy, there wasn’t anything to eat, so all the kids were taught to go out and look for food. So we went out and were foraging for everything, and that was the beginning of the learning experience for me, which became a passion as well. So everywhere I went because of my work in travel, I was able to learn even more — Thailand, China, Brazil, Costa Rica, Africa, everywhere. So that increased my knowledge of certain plants because you are able to see them in their original environment. You can see what mace looks like, because you see [local farmers] picking it, vanilla beans. … But Jan is the one with the green thumb.
JW: I don’t know, sometimes not. So his forte, in my opinion, is his ability to taste. He can distinguish such minute details about a taste of something. And has a great vocabulary around that, and can really describe that to me, and I can really see what he’s talking about. I guess his knowledge of learning how to taste probably also goes back to his father and grandfather who were in the wine business. He told me this story that his dad used to pick up the dirt and say, “Taste this.” This is how you know whether this is going to be good wine or not. So he started out tasting dirt, literally, and learning how much ecology, minerals, and all this contributes to the taste.
2. Can you speak a little about why you think sustainable farming practices are important to the spirits industry?
JW: It’s just really common sense that you should do it this way. We spent a lot of time working with Slow Food — both of us were board members in our local chapter, and then I became the chapter leader and a regional governor for the national chapter here — way before we started the liqueur business. Through that, you kind of get a self-education in how you can do things sustainably; how not putting insecticide and herbicide around stuff affects the taste of the product and outcome.
RW: We started saying if we start to do something like making spirits, we want to do it really biologically pure. We realized how well we need to know the soil, and what lives in the soil, and what the differences are in the soils around the properties.
3. What is involved in saving rare and endangered plants?
JW: First of all, depending on what you’re trying to save, you have to have the perfect environment in order to save it. Our sour cherry trees, visciole di cantiano, turned up on the Ark of Taste — basically a catalog of rare and disappearing plants that Slow Food works to save. And it turns out that we had this one section of our land that was no good for grapes, because it was right by this riverbed, but it was perfect for cherries. We were introduced to Isabella Dalla Ragione, from Archeologia Arborea, who helped us try to cultivate more cherry trees from the wild ones we already had on our property. She’s a guru who, with her father, has been saving these very rare fruits around Italy by going around to all these old monasteries that had these really old trees, and grafting pieces onto something else to try to restart them.
RV: At one time in Italy, we had more than 3,000 varieties of apples. Charlemagne had pushed every monastery to preserve what was noble to grow, and what was sustainable for them, and that’s why these plants were found around monasteries.
JW: We also took some of the sprouts coming off of our trees and kept them, and little by little you get some that are reproducing. So, how hard is it? It’s not that hard if you really work at it and you have the proper work ethic. Stuff dies, so you’ve got to keep replanting it.
4. Many of your liqueurs are not blends, but a pure expression of a single plant. Can you talk about why you made these choices?
RV: What I wanted to have was not a cocktail, I wanted to have a pervasive sense of taste.
JW: As far as business choices go, we knew what we could grow well, we knew what we liked, and we knew that every time we had a dinner party and we served this or that, people would love one thing or another. And then we had to just find our way a little bit. We tried various things, and a couple of them went by the wayside. We started off making a blackberry liqueur because we had wild blackberries on the property, but it just didn’t taste good.
RV: We didn’t want to make coffee liqueur originally because I always thought there were so many coffee liqueurs, so what was the point? Then our distributor in New York asked if we could make a good coffee liqueur…
JW: …And it’s turned out to be our best seller. We’re playing it by ear in a sense. We started with some, and accepted that some didn’t quite do as well as others, but we didn’t know what the market was going to hold. The liqueur business was barely just starting out, with Campari and things like that. And with American-made liqueurs there was very little on the market.
5. What has been the most challenging liqueur to make?
RV: Probably so far, the most difficult is the chocolate, as one of the reasons is everybody who makes chocolate liqueur uses integrators in order to blend it together and make it smooth. They use substances that, even though they’re natural, are not really part of what chocolate is, like carob or lecithin. And I really didn’t want to do that, so that was a challenge, to get an integrated product that was only made from chocolate. I’d prefer not to make a liqueur than come to terms with what I don’t want to use.
6. Talk us through the process of crafting a liqueur. How do you know when you’ve hit the ultimate flavor? Are adjustments made in the maceration process, or in the garden, or both?
RV: You can probably do both, but usually the adjustments are minor. First and foremost, everything comes from a recipe, which I have already developed over the years, but we are using natural products, so every year is going to be different. It’s like wine. One year it rains more or less. One year it freezes or it doesn’t. So the products will have differences. For instance, one year you cannot use fresh mint, because it rained too much, it’s too watery; so we actually had to dry it first in order to use it. So it’s a combination.
JW: And a lot of it is trial and error.
7. On your website, you indicate a commitment to education. Can you speak about this aspect of your business?
JW: It’s kind of required by the state of South Carolina, for a micro-distillery license and open tasting room. Your primary mission must be that you have to have an educational component to it, to educate the public on how you make your spirits. This is completely the base of our tour and tasting. Whenever we do the tour, it’s all educational: We talk about the plants; we talk about how we use them in the liqueurs; why this particular variety; why this one grows better here than other types. We talk about what we’re looking for in the various chemical components in the plants; for example, the French tarragon and its estragole, or the components in the cardoons. So yeah, the whole tour and tasting is educational.
RV: And historical as well. Sometimes a few thousand years back in history, to talk about the tradition behind these liqueurs.
8. Do you both have a favorite flavor among your extensive catalog of liqueurs and spirits?
JW: Of course. Mine is the Quintessence, most of the time. And sometimes I like the Mirto the best. And then it depends, if I want something sweet I’ll have the Cherry. OK, that’s three favorites. And then Renato…
RV: Well, it really depends on the period of time…
JW: No, I can tell you, he’s lying. He prefers the grappa.
RV: As a Northern Italian, my favorite is the grappa. But then of the others I like very much the Mirto.
JW: Your go-to is the grappa.
RV: Grappa and brandy, mine especially.