On this “Next Round” episode, host Adam Teeter chats with Giuseppe Gallo, the founder of Italicus Aperitivo. Gallo begins by detailing his background in the beverage alcohol space and how his upbringing inspired him to eventually explore Italian liqueur.
Gallo explains his efforts to resurrect the category of the historic Rosolio aperitivo, how Italicus’s bottle is inspired by the Amalfi Coast seaside, and why he concocted the recipe for the liqueur with cocktails in mind. Finally, Gallo shares why focusing on the U.S. market is imperative to any spirit brand’s success.
Tune in and visit https://rosolioitalicus.com/ to learn more about Italicus.
Or Check Out the Conversation Here
Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter, and this is a “VinePair Podcast Next Round” conversation. We bring you these conversations between our regular podcast episodes to give you a better picture of what’s going on in the alcohol beverage market. Today, I am really excited to be joined by Giuseppe Gallo, the CEO, owner, and founder of Italicus Aperitivo. Giuseppe, thank you so much for joining me.
Giuseppe Gallo: My pleasure, Adam. Hello, everyone.
A: Giuseppe, first of all, where do we find you today?
G: Today I’m in my lovely office in London, England but when possible, I’m trying to be at home in Italy.
A: Thank you again for joining us. I’d love it if you could start the conversation by telling us a little bit about Italicus and your background.
G: Yes, of course. I have always been working, breathing, and living in the hospitality industry. I’m originally from the beautiful Amalfi Coast, the south side of Salerno, to be more precise. I studied hospitality. My family has always been involved with gastronomy work. My mom used to make homemade limoncello when I was a kid, and I was sitting next to her and helping her.
A: Oh, wow.
G: In my 20s, I finished school and I started to travel across northern Italy and then different countries in Europe. I’ve been to the U.S. as well and studied at the Montclair University of Hospitality Management. Then, I landed in London, U.K. in 2005, and 16 years later, I have a wife, two kids, and a mortgage. I don’t think I’m going to move out of the U.K. soon. From a very humble background working as a bartender, I became manager of the Sanderson Hotel, which is part of the Morgans Hotel Group in London. Then, I joined Bacardi Global Brands as a Martini Rossi Global Brand Ambassador for almost 10 years. In 2015, I started my own consulting company called ItalSpirits. Then, in 2016, I decided to launch Italicus Rosolio di Bergamotto, the quintessential Italian apèritif.
A: Where did the idea come from to launch Italicus?
G: It was a combination of factors. The first one was that I identified that in the alcohol industry, mainly in Italy, there was no super-premium aperitif.
G: I always look at what France did, which was to establish a regulated category like Cognac, Armagnac, or Champagne and focus very much on building the category and value into it. Looking at the Italian perspective, if you think about the two top aperitif brands well known across the world, they both range between $10 and $15 per bottle.
G: Then I said, “Why? We have so much more to offer from Italy.” First of all, we have probably the most powerful brand that any other country has, which is Made in Italy.
A: Yes, I agree.
G: When I think about Italy, I think about Ferrari, Ducati, Armani, Dolce & Gabbana. Those are the brands that Italy wants to export around the world. On top of it, as I mentioned early on, I was always involved with some family food making or processes. I learned the craft of how to make limoncello with my mom. My mom also owns the recipe made with orange bergamot citrus fruits, which is very characteristic of the southern region of Italy.
G: The specific orange citrus that is usually harvested across the Christmas period is winter citrus. I thought, “Why not bring bergamot into the cocktail world?” Anyhow, Italicus became a brand.
A: Interesting. Obviously with aperitivo culture growing around the rest of the world, coming out of Italy, people have started to get to know some of these liqueurs. One of the things I think was interesting about yours is that most of these liqueurs that especially American consumers are getting to know, and I would assume probably British as well, are some hue of red. You have Aperol and Campari which, as you said, are two of the most famous. There are not many that are or that Americans know of as being clear like yours as a yellowish hue. Did you think about, when you were creating the liquid, what color it should be? Were you concerned about Americans recognizing this as a liqueur that’s similar to those in terms of its use in an aperitivo? What went into your decision-making process as you were creating the liquid?
G: Yes, I did. Absolutely. We took into consideration all the different factors. First of all, the U.S. is the most important spirits market in the world. I always say to everybody that if you want to be a truly global brand, you must be relevant in the U.S. market.
G: We took the U.S. into consideration from day one. The other point is the U.S. is the most complex spirits market in the world because of the three-tier system that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. Therefore, with any small producers or craft products, they are always available in the U.S. or they are available everywhere in the U.S. Most American consumers are familiar with the big, more commercial brands which have the power and structure to actually get into the U.S. market. With Italicus, the aim from the beginning was to innovate and not duplicate. Making another red aperitif was more like duplicating something, not innovating. The red is duplicating the color of the liquid and the color of the bottle. There was actually a very specific study behind it. With Italicus, the main BVI color is inspired by the Amalfi Coast seaside coastline, so this blue, turquoise aquamarine color. When you look at the seaside and the water of the sea is green, not blue. Yet, when the sea is reflecting the color of the sky, it becomes blue. What does that mean? When the bottle is empty, it is green. When you put the liquid in, it’s yellow-ish. Together, they’re making this Italicus blue-aquamarine color.
A: Ah, very cool. In terms of the creation of the liquid, what went into that process? Obviously, I’ve never made an aperitivo before. I would assume a majority of the people listening have not. What was that process like and how long did it take you to create the liquid that we now have in the bottle?
G: The overall process to make the liquid took almost two years. Then, you need to allow the liquid to rest, to marry together in order to have a proper taste of what the liquid will be as a final result. It’s impossible to make a fresh liquid and then taste it immediately. You have to wait a week, two weeks, or three weeks before you taste it. You have to refrigerate it. Thus, it takes several steps to get there. First of all, I was lucky enough because as I mentioned, working for the Bacardi company with Martini & Rossi. In my experience there, in 10 years, we launched seven new products. I already had the experience of how to design, how to craft a liquid with the master distiller. In this case of what I did, I started from a historical recipe. The historic recipe is taken from a historic liqueur book called “Liquorista Pratico.” There are only two copies in the world, and I found one at the University of Turin.
G: The book calls for the recipe of Rosolio di Torino. It is believed that the first king of Italy was drinking these during his royal parties.
A: Oh, that’s cool.
G: The five key ingredients are five botanicals: Roman chamomile, yellow roses, gentian root, lemon balm, and bergamot. Out of those five botanicals, I went to the master distiller and I tried to make this liquid, and guess what? Undrinkable.
G: It was too sweet and had no balance. Of course, we do not drink and eat as people used to 100 years ago.
G: Back then, they would drink something much sweeter. It was much more unbalanced. It was less defined. I said that we needed to take those five ingredients and rebalance them to start with.
G: Most importantly, I wanted to make a liquid that bartenders and mixologists can work with — a liquid that the modern consumer can drink as a simple aperitif.
G: That’s how we brought my family experience with the orange bergamot fruit to create that overall taste profile that will be appealing for more consumers. On top of the five key botanicals from the historic Rosolio di Torino, we added the giant Cedro citrus from Sicily that are rich in lemon oil. Then, the top notes in the liquid are the orange bergamot juice from the Calabria region in Italy.
A: OK, now this is something that I’ve always wondered about. Since it is a new liquid and as you said, you wanted it to be used by bartenders and at-home mixologists, etc., how much were you not only tasting the liquid on its own but also mixing it as you were involved in creating it? Were you already thinking about, “Huh, this needs to make a good spritz? Maybe the liquid’s great on its own, but I need to taste it in a spritz but the spritz is not great so we need to keep changing the formula.” How much of that was happening?
G: A lot. You are absolutely correct. One of the main mistakes I see in a lot of brands and new products is they’re focusing only on the pure tasting of the liquid on its own. When you are using the cocktail or your goal is to be using the mixology world, you need to ensure that your liquid brings something extra into the cocktail’s final result.
G: I was focusing on exactly that. The reason why I used Cedro citrus and the bergamot fruit is that they both reach essential oils. Obviously, when you make your nice vodka-gin Martini at home and then you squeeze a little bit of lemon peel, lemon skin on top?
G: You see all this beautiful lemon sitting on top of the dry Martini. It is exactly the same process but in a much bigger way. With those essential oils, if you’re going to add something sparkling with the CO2 — and it can be soda water, Prosecco, or Champagne because they’re light in weight — you have this explosion of flavor in your nose, even before you sip your glass. That was my ultimate goal. To make sure that the liquid that was crafted, would work in a cocktail and not on its own because I challenge everybody to have a single sip of bitter Campari or Aperol and say, “Oh, this is very nice.” They are not designed to be drunk on their own. They are designed to be mixed in cocktails, and with Italicus? It is the same role.
A: Right. It can be but the ultimate idea is in cocktails. Speaking of cocktails, I think what’s really interesting is you’ve developed some cocktails for Italicus that are very different from ones that I’ve seen before. However, the one I want to pick up on, which I’m sure you might guess, is the one you’re doing with IPA. Obviously, I don’t think a lot of people would think about adding an aperitivo to beer. Where did that idea come from, and why IPA?
A: Very good question. First of all, the IPA beer and Italicus is probably the best combination of my Italian roots and background with my current English lifestyle because, as you know, in England, there are a lot of pubs. On weekends, if you’re going to the pubs, you would enjoy brunch or a pint of beer in England. Being Italian, I love IPA because we love that bitter taste.
G: In Italy, we grew up with Negroni and Americanos, so we really love these bitter tastes. I’m a huge fan of IPA beers, and I’m there sitting in these beautiful pubs in the garden with my wife, and I have all the small tastes and bottles of Italicus because we were still developing the liquid. I have my half glass of IPA, and my wife says, “What are you doing there? This is the latest liquid so how about you taste it with your beer?” I said, “No, come on, I don’t want to waste this tasting with a beer.” After a few years with your wife, you know you can say no once, but the second time you need to follow her request and I say, “OK, fine, let’s taste it.” I’m putting this in a small miniature bottle of Italicus into the IPA. No ice, no mixing, and I gave it a sip. You know those types of cocktails where they completely blow your mind immediately? I gave it to my wife and she’s Russian. She tasted it and said, “Wow, this is amazing.”. From there, I took the cocktail to some friends who were proper mixologist bartenders. I said, “Do you think this cocktail would work? What can we do?” All of them loved the idea. They love to mix beer with cocktails. They’re both low-ABV. Then I said, “Why not? Let’s see if some restaurants and bars give a different spin to the beer offering or they can give a different spin to the aperitif offering.”
A: That’s super cool. Does it matter what type of IPA? In the U.S., we have the East Coast IPA. We have the West Coast IPA, which is much more bitter. What do you look for in the IPA when someone would use this for the cocktail?
G: Personally, I go for a more West Coast-style IPA because it has a more bitter aftertaste and a bit more hoppy so definitely that style. I wouldn’t name one brand or another because I think there is such a huge range out there.
A: Yes, totally.
G: Now, I would avoid a soft, milky, honey IPA. I will go for a more dry, sharp style of bitter IPA.
A: That makes a lot of sense. Obviously, as you’ve started the business and we’ve had Covid in the last year, what have you started doing to come into the American market? What have your strategies been in order to get the brand known stateside?
G: Well, in the first few weeks to the first month, there was a little bit of panic because Italicus is a very much on-premise brand. Overall, our initial strategy and our main focus were mainly being in New York, Florida, California, Texas, and Illinois.
G: We wanted to work with bartenders and mixologists. When we started to open some national accounts such as Total Wine and BevMo in the U.S., Covid kicked in and they shut it down, so it was a little bit of panicking at the beginning. It was not easy but we managed to shift most of our business to e-commerce. We started to sell more and more online, even in the U.S. in each of those states. Then, we expanded that in other states. The response has been very, very positive. I think we have been lucky that we’re going to close in the U.S. to about 34 percent up this year versus the previous year, despite a lot of on-premise stores closed and despite the restrictions.
A: Oh, wow.
G: The bottle design and the study of the brand really made a huge difference between online and e-commerce channels because that’s what consumers actually look for today. They’re looking for a brand that has a story and it means something to them.
G: Plus, it’s a beautiful bottle that they can have at home and they can keep it for other usages.
A: I’m glad you brought that up. I think the bottle is just very striking, and I can see it performing very well because of that. As you said, you have bottles that you keep in a cabinet, but there are bottles that people keep out in their homes, in the living room, on a bar cart, or in a special spot in the kitchen. This is one of those bottles that really looks very premium and beautiful especially against, as you were saying, the aperitivos that are much cheaper and aren’t the bottles that you would necessarily keep out.
G: I always like to describe Italicus as Italian art and poetry in a liquid form. The bottle had to reflect that vision. It is inspired by the Roman column, as you can see, the color is the seaside color of the Amalfi Coast with this aquamarine, turquoise blue. The cup is black and white with a marbled gold inspired by the Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, where Rosolio was served back in the Second Renaissance. Actually, the Italicus logo is inspired by the Vitruvian Man designed by Leonardo da Vinci in the shape and form of Bacchus, the god of wine.
G: Instead of harvesting grapes, he starts harvesting bergamot. Every single detail, every single input into the bottle has a reason to be there.
A: That makes a lot of sense. Look, it’s just really well done. When I had the liquid, I was very impressed. It plays really well in so many different cocktails. It’s an easy sub-in for anything that would have citrus, but it gives it an elevated lift. I also think in a White Negroni, it’s really great. I think for people who haven’t had White Negronis before, it’s such a nice, welcome change. It’s just really delicious, and I’m very excited about this liquid. I think it’s going to do really well here in the United States, and congrats on all your success so far.
G: I usually make it at home, and it is a very interesting spin-off to the classic Margaritas. Try it with a blanco tequila, simple syrup, lime juice, Italicus, shake it up, and then serve it straight up. If you try that, you will see it works very, very well.
A: Interesting. For your White Negroni, you recommend olives as the garnish instead of citrus. Why?
G: Always olives, because being an aperitivo, for Italians, means that with your drink you always have something to eat. A little snack. If you go to a piazza, order a glass of wine, a glass of Prosecco, or a Negroni, you’re going to get your crisps, your olives, your pistachios, and some salty stuff. You’re always going to get something there. That is the aperitivo experience. It’s about one bite, one sip, one bite, one sip.
A: I love it.
G: That’s the joy of aperitivo from Italy.
A: I love it.
G: All our cocktails are designed with three olives. The spritz, the Negroni, they’re all served with the three olives. You have one olive with the first sip so you have a full taste of the cocktail. Then, you eat another olive, so you’re adding some saltiness to your taste profile. Then, you have another sip, another olive, and another sip. Then, the last olive, another sip, and the cocktail is gone. You now have the quintessential experience of aperitivo.
A: Amazing. Well, Giuseppe, thank you so much for joining me today. This is really great to learn more about Italicus, and I assume a lot of listeners will start seeing it in stores around them very soon. Again, I really want to thank you for your time, and congrats!
A: Thank you very much for this opportunity, Adam. I really hope I’m going to be able to visit America very soon so we can spread the Italicus love.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, then please give us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits, VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and in Seattle, Wash., by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who is instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.