The Witch's Brew

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Strega means “witch” in Italian, so it shouldn’t have been all that surprising that, when attempting to snap a sleek photo of the Liquore Strega bottle (along with some super cool cocktail glasses), my black cat wouldn’t stay out of the frame. As a cat lover and rescuer of the oft-abandoned black Bombay, I generally try to steer clear of all negative stereotypes surrounding these beautiful and loving creatures. However, in this case, maybe there’s something to all that sorcery. Maybe black cats are preferred by witches because of their insatiable curiosity for Liquore Strega, a concoction of 70 different botanicals including cinnamon, juniper, mint, cloves, star anise, and saffron—from which the elixir draws its golden color. My black cat couldn’t keep his paws off of it. He’s never behaved that way about any other bottle I’ve brought home. Just this one.

The story behind the name Strega dates back to 1860 in the town of Benevento, about halfway between Rome and Naples, known at that time as a global meeting place for witches. That’s where Giuseppe Alberti, the son of an apothecary, decided to open a distillery and make an herbal liqueur with the help of his father. Seeking to market that liquid with a name that emphasized the regional origin, while provoking a sense of folklore mythology, he decided to call it literally: “Witch Liqueur.” While that’s the official version of the brand’s namesake, there are indeed more romantic tales that often make their way into the ear of a bartender or booze enthusiast. One of them, written about in this fantastic article from Punch, “begins with Alberti on a search for herbs, when he happened upon a witch who had been trapped under a fallen tree branch. Alberti, upstanding citizen that he was, saved the witch and was given the recipe for Strega as a reward.”

Being a fan of storytelling myself, I like that one better.

While there’s no shortage of lore and legend surrounding Liquore Strega, the brand has never caught fire the way other traditional Italian liqueurs have over the last few years. Campari, Fernet, and Aperol, for example, have all become mainstays in modern drink culture, drawing on historical heritage to help cement their status in the hearts of classic cocktail enthusiasts. Strega somehow got left behind, despite its incredibly versatile profile and long-standing legacy as one of Italy’s oldest living brands. I’ve been drawn back into the herbaceous flavor as of late, mixing up numerous recipes that better fit my current desires. Negronis, for example, have become a bit too decadent as my taste buds continue to search out fresher, drier libations. A Strega gin and tonic, on the other hand, has never tasted better. I simply substitute half of the gin for Strega, and top with Fever Tree Indian tonic water. The minty, anise-scented notes blend perfectly with the quinine and the herbaceous notes from the Beefeater, and the yellow tint creates a gorgeous hue in the glass.

While I’ll always carry a torch for Campari, Strega is much more user-friendly in terms of its utility. Besides the standard Americano, you can make a Strega Mule, a Strega Daiquiri, even a Strega Last Word—take out the Chartreuse and put Strega in as a substitute. It’s sweet enough to be the sweetening agent, yet flavorful enough to hold up a cocktail entirely on its own. I’ve always wondered why Strega never got its due, despite holding fast to the checklist of everything cool in today’s cocktail culture.

Perhaps it’s time to help spread the word a bit.

-David Driscoll