Italicus Prepares to Go Global
Last September, Giuseppe Gallo arrived at London’s Savoy Hotel to launch his first liqueur: Italicus Rosolio di Bergamotto. The former Martini brand ambassador certainly made a splash in the bar scene: the launch event was a bar geek’s dream. There were unique cocktails created by bartending luminaries and P(our) Symposium founders, Alex Kratena and Simone Caporale. Best of all, Italicus wasn’t just a new product, but the resurrection of a forgotten traditional spirit, rosolio.
Six months on, Gallo is gearing up to take Italicus into Germany, the United States, and Asia. For Gallo, the focus is on creating an “engaging story, a beautiful packaging, and a clear business plan” for the product, without which, he’s convinced even a good liquid “isn’t going to work.”
There’s a temptation to compare almost any new liqueur with St-Germain, the radically successful elderflower spirit that Robert Simonson believes “almost single-handedly invigorated the moribund liqueur category.” After 10 years, St-Germain is still a high watermark for the category. Of course, looking for a successor to St-Germain is a fool’s errand, but at times Italicus almost seems to invite the comparison. Although the two are very different drinks, Italicus certainly follows the St-Germain marketing playbook closely.
Italicus Rosolio: Design matters!
For a start, there’s the eye catching custom bottle design. Where St-Germain uses a sharper Art Nouveau style bottle, Italicus opts for the rounded look of a classical column complete with a sea green tint. Despite superficial differences in style, both bottles are aiming at the same thing: they ensure you can spot them across a crowded bar room without a second glance. Shape is a very effective branding technique for beverages – try thinking of Coca-Cola without its signature glass bottle – and it benefits busy bartenders as well as enticing customers. The easier a product is to locate on a shelf, the more likely a bartender is to reach for it when making their next experimental combination.
But it’s not just a distinctive shape these products have in common. From the bottle to the brand name, St-Germain evokes France in the Belle Époque, particularly Paris. Even in the most modern bar, it looks like a relic transported from an old absinthe salon. And what St-Germain does with France, Italicus does with Italy. As Gallo says, “we want every single Italian to be proud of Italicus and I think we are close by.” If the Venetian glass and Italian-style bottle aren’t enough to bring Gallo’s homeland to mind, the bottle itself trumpets that Italicus is “grown, harvested, and made in Italy.” Even the bottle cap is decorated with a reference to Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.
Where Tradition and Innovation meet
Embracing Italian themes and history makes sense for the product. After all, rosolio is a traditional Italian aperitif, once favoured by the House of Savoy – the Italian royal dynasty. Although the upper class lost interest and moved on to vermouth in the 19th century, rosolio remained a drink everyday Italians used to celebrate special occasions. According to Peter Schaf, co-founder of boutique spirit brand Tempus Fugit Spirits, historical mentions of rosolio consider it the equivalent of French crème liqueurs. Like those liqueurs, traditional recipes make use of local ingredients, so rosolio has come to encompass flavours from rose and lavender to citrus and wood, depending on its region of origin.
This variation is a risk for Italicus, since rosolio means different flavours to different people. Meanwhile, thanks to its international obscurity, rosolio is likely to have no associations at all for drinkers outside Italy. Gallo acknowledges the challenge, saying that even “most Italian bartenders don’t know about” rosolio. And unlike Aperol with bitter orange, or St-Germain with elderflower, summing up the taste of Italicus in a single flavour isn’t so easy.
As the subtitle “Rosolio di Bergamotto” suggests, Italicus has obvious citrus notes from bergamot. Yet this is more than just a bergamot liqueur. The initial sharp tang of citrus gives way to a sweeter, more aromatic note with a hint of lavender. A bitter bergamot finish chases the sweetness away just before it becomes cloying. There really is a lot going on in a single sip of Italicus – perhaps too much. It’s certainly an acquired taste.
Bergamotte and Citron instead of Rose and Lavender: Recipe reloaded
On the question of flavour, Gallo says he initially recreated a historical rosolio recipe, but it was heavy on rose and lavender: “it was like drinking soap.” He decided to use the 300-year old recipe as a base, bringing in bergamot and citron to add bitterness and make sure Italicus could “appeal to the modern taste profile.” Going bitter is a smart move for a product which clothes itself in all things Italian. Thanks to the rise of amaro, bitterness is increasingly seen as a hallmark of Italian spirits.
At Tempus Fugit, Schaf says the Italian-style Gran Classico Bitter is his best seller, while the Fernet del Frate amaro has acquired “a small, but passionate cult following.” Bigger brands are seeing an increase in popularity too. Premium Italian aperitifs like Aperol increased sales by 18.5% worldwide last year, while less ubiquitous brands including Averna saw double-digit growth in Europe and the United States. Even Fernet-Branca – the traditional amaro once considered a secret handshake between bartenders – is moving into the mainstream. Sales have gone up yearly since 2011, and last year saw the introduction of the consumer-focussed “Life is Bitter” ad campaign in Europe.
Italicus can ride this wave of enthusiasm for all things old, bitter, and Italian, so long as it can convincingly present itself as those three things. The branding and backstory add all the Italian history the drink needs, but Italicus may just be too complex to fit with its far more bitter compatriots.
Of course, those bitter liqueurs see more action as mixers than as straight serves. Gallo has similar ambitions for Italicus, saying it’s “designed to be the ultimate cocktail ingredient.” He recommends adding Italicus to a range of popular drinks, from Gin & Tonic and Vodka & Soda to his personal favourite, an IPA beer. But the signature serve is a combination of equal parts prosecco and Italicus over ice, along with a suggested garnish of three olives. The key to this drink is its dryness. The sparkling white wine rounds off both the citrus and sweet notes of Italicus, bringing the bitter, slightly zesty finish to the fore. If you haven’t got prosecco on hand, a brut champagne will work, too. Gallo is right; Italicus comes into its own when mixed with other things
What worked for St-Germain might work for Italicus
The signature Italicus cocktail inevitably evokes another similarity with St-Germain, bringing to mind the once ubiquitous St-Germain cocktail: champagne, liqueur, and soda water. There’s more than a passing resemblance in the ingredients and simplicity of both. Using an easy recipe to tie the liqueur to a popular sparkling wine indelibly associated with the spirit’s home country is another good piece of marketing. It worked for St-Germain, and it could work for Italicus, too.
In any case, it seems to be working well so far in the UK, Spain, and Greece, which Gallo says are the countries with the highest demand for Italicus. In addition to those three, Gallo has released Italicus in Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. Italicus is currently only available to the on-trade, with limited availability to consumers at high-end specialty stores. Since launch, it has sold 2.000 cases or 25.000 bottles, and Gallo expects to reach 40.000 bottles by September this year. In London, where Italicus held its official launch party, the liqueur has been decorating the back bar at high profile cocktail venues, including Oriole, Swift, and The Gibson. Those are the bars likely to create recipes which can influence bartenders elsewhere.
The biggest test for Italicus, however, is still to come. In April, the liqueur will launch in France and Germany before moving beyond Europe into the USA, Australia, and Hong Kong. Gallo says there’s been a lot of demand in the latter three markets since last year, with particularly strong interest from the USA. Italicus’s performance there will have a significant impact on its future plans and prospects. Once again, it seems Gallo has picked his moment well. In the face of an overall decrease in US liqueur sales last year, super-premium liqueurs including Campari and St-Germain saw strong growth. Moreover, the brands which sold best represent a range of flavour profiles, so the fact that Italicus isn’t a straightforward bitter liqueur may not count against it there after all. As Schaf points out, “for so many decades, the most popular exported Italian liqueurs have been very sweet products” like Sambuca and Galliano. He doesn’t think American consumers “expect Italian-style liqueurs to be bitter at all, just the opposite.”
Ultimately, the success of Italicus will come down to its success in capturing the imagination of bartenders. They’ll be the ones experimenting with its complex flavour and encouraging customers to try it. Italicus doesn’t have the easy consumer appeal of St-Germain, but in the current bar world, where what’s old is new again, there’s a niche for just about everything – even a spirit as difficult to categorise as Italicus.