Before my visit to the Varnelli distillery, I venture into Civitanova Porto (the part of town near its Adriatic port) to taste Varnelli’s Anice Secco at Renzetti Aperitivo&Bar. It is a bit hard to find – only a small sign high on a wall – but I know I am in the right place when I see the napkins!
I find a seat on the breezy and shady side of the corner establishment and explain that I am here to taste Anice Secco. I learn that anice (anise in Italian) is pronounced ah’nichay. No wonder no one has understood when I’ve said I was here to learn about liquors made of ah-knee’-say.
When ordering my Varnelli Anice Secco, I am asked if I want aperitivi. “Of course!,” I try to say in Italian. That’s what the experience is in its essence – friends and family at ouzeries with meze in Greece or raki table with mezzes in Turkey. I’m missing only friends and family.
Aperitivi and Anice
First, I am served an abundance of aperitivi and notice that (in keeping with what we learned at the tasting) they are savory and/or salty including: cauliflower with tuna, anchovies on focaccia with added sea salt!, marinated carrot curls, and ceci (garbanzo beans) with rosemary. Later, when the table next to me orders what look like a sweet drink – rossini (strawberry puree’ and prosecco) – I notice that the aperitivi they are served are slightly different.
Then arrives the Anice Secco served properly with water so cold that droplets condense on the pitcher and ice cubes in a separate vessel – not already in the liquor. I’ve been curious about the types of glass that are used with anise-flavored liquors. So far all are of the highball variety, but this one is radically different. “Do they,” I wonder, “serve Anice Secco in a tipsy glass so when one gets tipsy, the glass looks upright?”
Sip and Savor
Enough of the looking, on to the tasting! My current process:
- Smell the undiluted drink. Having been repelled by the scent of gasoline/ethyl alcohol with the cheap raki in Istanbul, I attend carefully to the scent. Here, only anise and a bit of sweetness – something floral? Varnelli, describes, “The strong, persistent aromas of aniseed develops into a fragrance of wild fennel, dill and cumin, enriched with floral scents.” My nose – which is so good it has saved me from death once – isn’t up to picking up the dill or cumin at all!
- Taste the undiluted drink holding it in my mouth to see where the taste buds are triggered. Again, wary of any overt taste of ethyl alcohol. I discern none, but experience a familiar tingle on my tongue and lips. Powerful stuff at 46% alcohol. Varnelli’s notes on taste, “All-enveloping, full-bodied, medium dry, it recalls the same strong, persistent aroma found in the bouquet: aniseed, cucumber and wild fennel. The finish is harmonious, which is a sign of excellent quality, and very pleasant.”
- Check for “legs.” Looking carefully, you can see in the photo to the left, the way that the anice secco clings to the side of the glass. During our tasting party we noticed that some of the liquors had these strong legs and some not. In addition to scent, taste and aftertaste, I added to the Tasting Template a place to note color and legs.
- Dilute the drink with the icy water. I wish I could show you the time lapse video of the drink turning cloudy (louching), but the file is too big. Perhaps elsewhere. It’s a joy to behold.
- Sip and savor. Again, to the tasting notes: aniseed – yes, wild fennel (well, isn’t that like aniseed?) – yes, cucumber – really, cucumber! Such a subtle flavor. My palate – while it tastes an undertones of spice (I thought cardamom), doesn’t get the cucumber at all. No matter, it is delicious!
- Take a nibble of the aperitivi. Savor each distinct flavor to the extent possible with a somewhat numb tongue (no really, after diluting the anice that doesn’t happen). Consider whether I can create the same for a tasting party at home. How can I pair the cauliflower with tuna and make it taste so good? Rosemary and chickpeas – I will remember that. Focaccia with anchovies – easy to prepare, not to everyone’s taste. Marinated carrot curls – can’t quite get what’s in the marinade.
- Repeat 5 – 6 above until at or below tipsy – after all there is a windy road ahead.