Until very recently, the only aperitivo British people could name was the dusty old bottle of Martini Rosso at the back of their grandma’s drinks cupboard. However, our thirst for Italian before-dinner drinks has grown and grown, and sales of Aperol, Campari and vermouth have soared. Now, Londoners like Rob and Jim Asterley, of Asterley Bros, are getting in on the action, and making their own aperitivo from scratch. We travelled to their Forest Hill workshop to find out how they got mixed up in it all.
La famiglia Rob inherited the amaro recipe when he married into his wife’s family, who live in Palermo. They thought it was fascinating that a young English boy was so intrigued by something that was so Sicilian.
Side-hustle to sole-hustle We were both working in drink during the week, so we were perfecting our recipe after hours in Rob’s kitchen, then his shed, then his basement and finally found this space in Forest Hill.
Shell out About half of our experiments haven’t worked. We tried to make an oyster-based aperitif once, so we tried macerating raw oyster shells, roasted oyster shells, oyster leaf – lots of complex elements. Every time was a failure. It just tasted disgraceful.
In the mix It’s relatively simple to make Italian amaro. Traditionally, you take the must (the pressed grape skins that still contain alcohol from the fermentation) from the local winemaking industry and make an eau de vie. Then you add local botanicals: roots, barks, flowers, herbs, citrus. Chuck it all in, wait for a few months, scoop it all out, add some sugar and Bob’s your uncle.
Twisted tradition To make our amaro, we make three macerations starting with a 75 per cent ABV organic grain spirit, to which we add our hard botanicals (milk thistle, angelica and burdock) for a month. We then take a molasses-based spirit (at a less abrasive 65 per cent ABV) and add orange, lemon, ginger, lemongrass, lime leaves, raisins, sultanas, apricots and dates, and leave that for a month so we have a bitter, intense liquid. We take all the raw materials out of both those and we wash them in pinot noir from the Gusbourne vineyard [in Kent] for another month, so we have a spiced wine base. Then we combine all three liquids, add some brown sugar, clarify it and you have our Dispense Amaro.
Try, Try Again We probably make about 50 versions of the products before they even go out to testers. And then we refine them about four or five more times until they go live.
Palate cleanser In the development process, we’d never usually taste for more than 20 minutes per day. After that your palate gets distorted and you make some really serious mistakes.
Own it We didn’t want to create ‘a brand’, we wanted to get our hands dirty making something. We’d like to build it to a point where we could get our kids involved in the same way that Fratelli Branca has built its empire on the back of a bitter Italian liqueur. We’d love to create something British that, in 100 years’ time, could rival that.
Asterley Bros’ new spirit, Schofield’s Dry Vermouth, is out now, asterleybros.com