The subtle reemergence of vodka in a sea of whiskey

Vodka Sea

Amidst an unprecedented craze of whiskey and bourbon, vodka has finally taken a back seat for the first time in decades. Originally met with tears of joy from serious bartenders and imbibers alike, we are beginning to see tears of agony welling up their place.

For those of us that have never fully appreciated vodka to begin with, now might be the appropriate time.

Weather you realize it or not, America is at the precipice of its “cocktail revolution”. All of the sudden we find it hard to get our hands on certain whiskey that isn’t really that special.

We see restaurant bar buyers being handcuffed to purchasing a maximum of 2 bottles of mediocre bourbon a week by certain big name vendors, for whiskey that has been readily available on the shelf of your local liqour store since before most of us bartenders first picked up a stick.

The new demand has for the most part, changed everything we have come to expect from our beloved brown liqour. Price, aging, allocations. It’s a whole new ball game.

So what happens when the demand becomes too great? What then. The line for Pappy will undoubtedly wellerpappywrap around whatever building its in 3 or 4 times more than it currently is upon realese date, Weller 12 year becomes an extremely allocated, hard to find product – don’t quote me on that, but my initial impressions lead me there.

Seriously, if the demand became too great, and we all of the sudden end up in some sort of apocalyptic whiskey hell what then? Well, why not give the consumer something it’s craved for generations past…in new reanimated form?

barrel-aged-kit-200x200Why not make it a zombie apocalypse… Why not, barrel age Vodka – Whiskey hell indeed.

Part jokingly and part, well, not jokingly, Pizzeria Ortica has decided that we would rather not be caught behind an insane wave of popularity, but rather explore what the consumers are actually asking for.rye_spotlight_image_10.24.14

If you ask your typical bar guest (mind your location) what they like about rye vs. bourbon, you will more often than not, get a long blank stare or, some rambling attempt to salvage their ego. Mind you, the guest is always right, but I can only hope these kind folk would eventually trust the people that have dedicate their life to this sort of thing.

Generally speaking, consumers don’t know what they want until you tell them. Either that or they get an idea from an outside source via advertising or word of mouth. Actually knowing what you want at a restaurant or bar requires a level of self awareness and education that is usually reserved those that have a relevant passion for food and or drinks. You really have to love cocktails, wine, beer or food to form an educated decision on what it is you actually want to eat or drink when you walk into an unfamiliar restaurant.

It’s not a bad thing to order a Cosmo, lemon drop or a Long Island iced tea if that’s all you know, or just don’t care enough, or simply don’t trust whatever bartender to get your manhattan right. It speaks volumes of your liquid culture and experience to navigate those waters sans pretension or ignorance.

I still order long islands when I go to claim jumper because I know they come out perfect there every time. I know if I ordered a manhattan at Broadway in Laguna Beach it would come out perfect every time.

All that being said. If the general consumer wants fashionable brown liquor, why not give them something entirely different but by no means new, and see how they feel about that? Couldn’t hurt to try.

Enter barrel aged vodka. Granted I’m not one to take a step backward unless completely necessary, but if I’ve learned anything in my studies of wine, its that Americans love the taste of oak. Sure explains the whiskey movement. Being that whiskey is the perfect vessel for delivering the vanillin laden flavor of oak I can see why it has taken off the way it has.

We have been experimenting with barrel aged cocktails for some time at now at Pizzeria Ortica. Not to say we have grown bored with it, but it does lack a certain amount of originality at this point In the game.

With consumer awareness skyrocketing, barrel aged Negroni are unfortunately, just another drop in the bucket in a sea of restaurants eager to cash in on Americas newest craze, albeit a rather delicious one.

With that in mind, we obviously want to give the consumer what they want, but as a man raised in the cultural of hospitality, I understand that also entails providing my guests with that which they didn’t realize they want and/or need – without them having to ask for it.

About a month ago now, after putting our heads together, my mentor, Jason Scarborough, a sommelier from New York, and one of the most level headed beverage and hospitality professionals I have ever had the privilege of working for, came up with an idea that began as a tongue in cheek exercise we both though would be entertaining at the least, revolutionary at best…(hard to keep a straight face).

Now we are happy to finally unveil Pizzeria Ortica’s barrel aged vodka project.

It’s been about 35 days since we filled one of our 10 liter barrels full of vodka, and the result is nothing short of mind blowing.

Within a day we saw a drastic change in color and aroma. The flavor didn’t kick in in until about a week, and even then maintained an awkward bitterness on the palate until about 4 weeks in, where it suddenly rounded a corner in its aging process.

What we discovered is, Vodka, an odorless tasteless spirit happens to be the perfect vessel for soaking up the subtle nuances of anything it comes in contact with, similar to the way chardonnay soaks up oak, It’s like the tofu of the spirit world.

What we ended up with, is a wildly complex version of an otherwise completely boring spirit. Subtle hints of oak, and pretty much every other cocktail we’ve aged in that particular barrel comes out in spades.

Now the real question is, how do we proceed.

New oak will obviously provide a much more linear experience than what we have at Ortica. Our semi neutral barrel has been seasoned with at least 5Vodka in water different spirits so it’s obviously going to provide a much different experience than a virgin barrel ( stay tuned for that ).

But don’t be surprised if you come to find yourself gravitating towards vodka versions of you favorite classic cocktails. Manhattans, sazeracs, old fashioned’s, mint Juleps, even a horses neck is all fair game.

So let the tears flow and the stones fly. But rest your weary head, and jaded mind when you finally rediscover the possibilities of a simple and often misunderstood category of spirit, in a fresh new light.

Cin Cin!


Braulio Alpino Amaro!

Braulio LogoIt may be the definition of terroir, Amaro Braulio is a playfully bitter, pine-driven spirit that speaks of the land from which it came.


The Birthplace of Braulio

The one thing you will hear me say over and over when I speak of amaro, is terroir. Im obsessed, hence my fascination with Amaro Braulio. It screams of its native terroir, Northern Italy, bordering the swiss alps in a town called Bormio, It lies in the Provence of Sondrio in Valatellina, Lombardia. If you’re familiar with Alto Adige its about 2 hours east of Bolzano. This area was once a highly sought after trade route between Italy and Norther Europe.

13_BRAULIO_radiciSimply put, Braulio drinks like carmalized Arolla and Scots Pine, the native trees in that area of the Alps. I’ve heard people say it tastes like a Christmas tree in a glass, for me it is the definition of terroir. A shining example of what Amaro is all about, firmly rooted in its land and surroundings.

Braulio75cl_USA Front

Imported to the States by our friends at Domaine Select


It is unique from most amari for the fact that it the herbs used are macerated in a grape distillate, or grappa as it is known in Italy. This is not the only amaro to use grappa as its base but it lends a naturally deep complexity to the finished product over those that use grain alcohol. After maceration it is typically aged for two years in oak barrels further enhancing its unique properties and depth.


Only four, among the thirteen ingredients used in its preparation are known: gentian, juniper, wormwood, and yarrow. The rest are kept secret.

Braulio Poster

At 21% abv this amaro is rich, with notes of chamomile, sandalwood and pine, predominantly bittersweet front front to back. It was first produced in 1875 and named after Monte Braulio, one of the 23 main peaks of the Livigno Alps.

Braulio giant

Drinking it straight from the bottle crosses my mind almost every time I pick it up. Its great on its own neat, but with a splash of soda water and orange it is equally enjoyable. During the summer try pouring it over crushed ice, zesting an orange peel over the top for a bittersweet and refreshing treat.

If you are  wondering how to employ this fine beverage in your cocktails remember what mom always told you; less is more.

Bars and restaurants around the U.S. are already begining to find ways to properly showcase this powerful amaro.

 Nico Osteria in Chicago has crafted a refeshing twist on the negroni called Nico and Featherweight in Brooklyn has conjured up an alpine twist on an old fashioned called The Saw Tooth.

1 1/4 oz Sipsmith Gin
1 1/4 oz Cocchi Americano
3/4 oz mineral water
1/2 oz Amaro Braulio


2 oz Elijah Craig 12-year
1/2 oz  Amaro Braulio
1 brown sugar cube
2 dashes Fee’s orange bitters


California in a Bottle

California is known for many things, but amaro?

Grand Poppy

While not technically classified as an amaro, Grand Poppy is a genius blend of organic California herbs that gives you everything you would expect from an amaro as far as terrior goes.

This absurdly distinct, bitter-sweet spirit bears the essence of sweet, buried flowers and the unearthed roots of a poppy due to its gentian dominated finish.

Poppy sunset

California Red Poppy

Grand Poppy hails from The Greenbar Collective – a “first of it’s kind since prohibition” Los Angeles distillery headed up by the husband and wife spirit making duo Melkon Khosrovian and Litty Mathew.

This liqueur showcases a cornucopia of California’s bounty including: poppy, orange, lemon, grapefruit, bearberry, California bay leaf, pink peppercorn, dandelion, blessed thistle, burdock, rue, artichoke, geranium and cherry bark – macerated in a rum base, then re-distilled and finished with cane sugar.

156151_671641666198545_1377510484_nGreenbar Craft Distillery is the same family responsible for the line of TRU vodka and gin, as well as IXÁ tequila, Slow Hand White Whiskey, Crusoe Silver Rum, FruitLab Liqueurs and the infamous BAR KEEP Bitters line, making them the largest distributor of organic spirits on the market, and the first carbon negative distillery in the world!

Well Done Greenbar. Well Done.

Come try “The State Flower” cocktail at Pizzeria Ortica:
1oz Grand Poppy
1oz Campari
1oz Nolets Gin

Who Drinks Amaro, Really?


Jack and his favorite Amaro

Jack, relaxing with his favorite Amaro

…And what is Amaro, really? Where did it come from? Why is it so damn sexy ?  For some it’s an acquired taste, for others, they just “get it” because, clearly, they were born with a palate like a boss.

I was not born with a boss-like palate, so when I think back to the first sip of the stuff I ever tried, I remember thinking… what the hell is this!? It was bitter, it was sweet, it was aggressive and just confusing as hell. Dare I say, I was not an immediate fan of the stuff in general. What struck me over time was how big the curve was- how long it took me to get my palate to the point where I actually craved a progressively bitter taste.

Spreti Fred Michael

Boss Palates: Fred Dame MS, Spreti Valente CS and Michael Jordan MS

The more I drank the more addicting it became. The gambit of flavors, sweetness and bitterness level of the amari in Italy and across the world is profound. Hopefully if you are new to this stuff, the information you get here will help you ease your way in so you can appreciate them properly. I know most of us veterans think its cute to drop a rookie off in Fernet-land, for shock value.  It’s pretty hilarious to see the look on someone’s face, but that’s just plain rude… and I’m just plain guilty.

Fernet Branca- Aperitivo or Digestivo?

Fernet Branca– Aperitivo or Digestivo?

Amaro in Italy has a storied history, being born out of apothecaries and touted as a medicinal remedy for everything ranging from upset stomachs to malaria. Amaro, the word itself means “bitter” but there is a lot more to these complex beauties aside from their bitter quality.

Amari are considered aperitifs or digestives depending on the flavor and ingredient profile. Some can help settle a full stomach, while others are geared to crank up your appetite, again depending on the flavor and components of the product.

Typically they are lower in alcohol but can range from 16%-40%.

Some are made from macerating local herbs, flowers, roots in distilled grape pomace, while a majority appear to be based with a neutral grain spirit.

If you’ve drank enough wine in your life, or hang out with nerds like me, you may have heard the french term “terroir“. We use it to explain the connectivity of the land to a wine. For example a chardonnay from Chablis is going to taste a hell of a lot different than a Chardonnay from Napa, wine making practices aside. Since the soil and climate are so vastly different from place to place you wind up with a product that exhibits the qualities of the land in which they were born and connected to.

For the most part, Amaro is very similar when it comes to terroir. Most are made from local plant life so they wind up exhibiting the flavors of the land in which they were produced.  A good example is pictured above, Jacks favorite Amaro  Braulio. Made in the pine tree riddled lands of  Bormio, a ski resort town situated in the northeasten side of the Valtellina district of Lombardia in central, Northern Italy. This area borders the Swiss Alps so the herbs that stand out in this Amaro are very piney indeed –Terroir.


Image courtesy of The Straight Up.

Though the term Amaro is primarily reserved for Italian products, nearly every country creates a similar products or liqueurs. Germany has Krauterlikor, i.e. Jägermeister. France has Amer-Picons among many others, and Croatia produces a lovely bitter by the name of Pelincovac. America unfortunately has been better known for things like schnapps or artificially sweetened liqueurs like Hpnotiq. Thankfully that’s changing quite rapidly. We now have things like Grand Poppy, a 100% organic, California style Amaro made from native herbs like poppy and gentian. Oregon has Calisaya which is based on an old recipe from Italy and Colorado is home to one of the first producers of domestic Fernet.

We are seeing quite a few quality products popping up here at home… at long last. Ill be posting detailed notes on each of these products and many more throughout the world in the near future.

See you Amaro my friends.

Cin Cin!



The Amaro Induction

wine bath ass 335

We’ve come a long way since the days of Jager-bombs, Peppermint Schnapps and Goldschläger. Remember when 99 Bananas actually seemed like a good idea?

Ok, well maybe that was never really the case but none the less, we are in the midst of an educated alcohol revolution.

From craft cocktails to craft beer, wine and spirits to bittersweet liqueurs, we are seeing vast improvements on quality and consumer awareness.

 Maybe not to anyone’s surprise it seems like the United States has been a little behind the palate for most of the gorgeous liquid offerings of the world.

Most still think Fireball is “hot-shit” for lack of a more appropriate term, but some have already begun to explore the vast offerings of quality indigenous beverages throughout the world.

So maybe you haven’t been introduced to the beautiful world of Amari yet , or  maybe you’ve read a blurb about them on Tasting Table online. Perhaps you’ve dabbled with one or two at Pizzeria Ortica in Costa Mesa, maybe you and your hipster friends still think its cool to bust out your Fernet coins at a bar (kinda cool actually), or maybe you’ve been drinking them with your Italian Grandmother since you started walking. 

Wherever you’re at I hope to serve as a catalyst for education and discovery in all things liquid, with of course as much focus on Amaro, and anything remotely resembling this “Italian liquid Gold”.

I am here for the beverage nerd in all of us.  

Cin Cin!

Joel Anthony Caruso