One morning at the McGolrick Park Farmer’s Market last Fall, I had the opportunity to taste a spirit I didn’t know much about. Though, coming from a half-Italian family, I was not a complete stranger to amaro. And living in a bar culture like Brooklyn’s, the spirit turns up every now and then too.
But both encounters were prohibitive. Being a kid at family parties, trying something red in color, you want it to taste a certain way (like Dr. Pepper). Amaro got quickly filed under “gross” and “adult,” which I filed under “boring.” And today, going to a fancy bar, the prospect of a sixteen dollar cocktail sometimes has me looking for the beer list, specifically “cans.”
So, running into the Greenpoint-made amaro brand St. Agrestis on that Sunday in the park cut through my personal red tape.
First off, the label is eye-catching: a simple blue print of a woman holding a branch in one hand, and a small medicine bottle in the other. Then there’s the name. How, after twelve years of Catholic school, did I not know of a St. Agrestis (it turns out St. Agrestis is not real!)? Then there’s the color. It’s a deep shade of red, not quite letting you see all the way through the bottle, but sort of half-way through.
The whole package was intriguing, as was the flavor. Which is on the right side of bitter, and the right side of sweet— it sort of approaches both, and pulls away just before either becomes too much. In any case, I felt it was cause enough to buy a bottle and to later follow up with its maker, Louis Catizone, to find out how this mysterious alcool is made.
After walking into the distillery, which is just off Provost St. on the more industrial side of Greenpoint, we basically followed the loop that the ingredients themselves make, starting with the steel barrel they’re all stored in. Opening its lid, the twenty herbs and spices jump out at you and pointedly introduce themselves: you smell the essence of the amaro itself, up front, in your face, and un-distilled.
About half the spices are used on their own, as is, while the other half are bruised or ground, to get better flavor. They all get tested, too, because as Louis puts it, “botanicals change.” Even if he orders from the same source, there’s no guarantee anything will be exactly like the previous batch. So he sets up a station of “mini-macerations”: small glass mason jars with a sample of each of the herbs soaking in alcohol that he tastes until the right quality in each of them is secured.
“There’s only a few secrets to an amaro,” he says, “and that’s what goes into it.” Once he has the blend right, the spices are combined with alcohol in a giant bin to soak, or infuse, or ‘macerate’ as he puts it, since it’s an active process. A batch usually takes about four to six weeks to soak. The next step is a small press, similar to the kind used to make olive oil. It forces the liquids out, and keeps the solids in.
Then it’s time to barrel. Louis has old bourbon barrels, made of American oak. They help round out the herby flavor, and add a bit of vanilla and toasted notes. The infusion is green when it goes in, with the baking spices more forward and prominent, nowhere near the color and flavor it will reach when it’s time to bottle. Barrel aging is eight weeks minimum. “The biggest change, for some reason, in taste, is from week three to four,” he says.
How does he know how long to age it? “Tasting,” he says, “constantly tasting.” He tastes so much and so often, he gives this example: he met up with a friend, and they drank mezcal. While his friend was taken aback by the high alcohol content, Louis was able to skip past it and get right to the flavor. “I thought it was clean,” he said. “My friend thought I was crazy.”
Then, after being filtered, and having water and organic cane sugar added, comes the bottling. It’s the quickest part of the process, he says, but the most labor intensive. And as an added bonus, there’s a catch, an entirely aesthetic one. It’s the twine tied around the bottom of each cork. “It’s insane,” he says, “but I just like the way it looks.”
Now that it’s bottled up, we start to talk about how all this came about.
St. Agrestis was actually another person’s idea. It was a couple, who came up with the recipe after a trip through Northern Italy. They distilled it in Gowanus, but it was a process: it wasn’t something you could just do on the side, and keep up with another profession. When Louis tried St. Agrestis for the first time, he thought it was fantastic. At the time, he was working for Greenhook Ginsmiths.
He also discovered that the couple making St. Agrestis were either thinking about selling the business or stopping production altogether. He saw an opportunity. “I noticed a rising trend in amaro, and I also just thought the thing itself was so good it’d be a shame if no one was making it.” He was already familiar with amaro from his Italian background—his father immigrated to the U.S. from Calabria, and although his mother is from Greenpoint, her family stems from Sicily and Naples. The idea of agrestis appealed to him, too. It’s Latin, and has connotations of being wild, rustic.
“Basically, if you’re somewhere else, you’re an agrestis. My father, when he first came here, was an agrestis. Over time, you assimilate, but when you first get somewhere, you don’t really fit in with the environment yet.” He sees the idea reflected in the process itself—how making an amaro is about finding a balance, between all the ingredients and flavors. “When the herbs first get here, they’re wild, they’re an agrestis, and the alcohol is, too. But with the right combination of both, and the right amount of time, they can be put together to make something great.”
Louis took over making St. Agrestis in August. By the amount of places it’s available throughout the city, which you can see on their website, people have responded in kind. In Greenpoint, you can find it at Duke’s Liquor Box (170 Franklin St). And it’s on bar menus throughout Brooklyn and the city.
In 2018, St. Agrestis is set to launch some new products in addition to the amaro. So stay tuned, and if you’re not already on your way to Duke’s to treat yourself, right that wrong immediately.