Dragoncello, Herba Luisa, Myrto, Monk’s Secret. The names may read like a compendium of medieval remedies, but they actually represent a sampling of a new line of Italian-style liqueurs made in the present day by Renato Vicario and his wife, Janette Wesley.
Crafted by hand at the couple’s micro-distillery in Greer, Vicario Liqueurs are now available in Greenville. To flavor their libations, the couple uses fresh herbs such as French tarragon (for Dragoncello) and lemon verbena (for Herba Luisa) that they raise in the garden adjoining the warehouse, as well as blackberries that grow wild on the surrounding six acres.
They also use more exotic ingredients (common myrtle, licorice root, Visciola cherries, olive leaves) that they bring back from their frequent trips to Italy. The latter two grow on the grounds of the couple’s eleventh-century Villa St-Andrea in Cortona, Italy, where they spend half the year. They purchased the villa in 1999 and renovated it as a vacation home with six bedrooms, a pool, and a gourmet’s dream of a professional kitchen. The verdant grounds are planted with everything from saffron crocuses and herbs to heirloom cherry trees and grape vines.
Renato comes by his interest in spirits naturally, having grown up in northern Italy helping his grandmother make liqueurs and tending vineyards with his father and uncle. It was at his grandmother’s behest that he picked ripe fruit in the orchard and collected herbs on the mountainsides. And it was at her knee that the young boy learned the subtle nuances of taste and how to combine natural plant extracts with just the right amount of sugar and water to make them palatable.
Throughout generations in Italy, families have made their own liqueurs to offer guests after dinner as a digestif. The type of liqueur depends on the region and what plants, fruit, flowers, and herbs grow best there. From Modena, for instance, comes nocino (black walnut); in Calabria, Italy’s best-quality licorice roots flavor the regional liqueur; while in Naples, limoncello predominates, owing to the local availability of lemons.
Back at the Greer facility, Renato taps into his inner alchemist to develop distillations out of plant material ranging from cinchona bark to pomegranate seeds. Vicario Liqueurs fall into two distinct categories: White Label and Black Label. The former are more approachable for the novice liqueur drinker, while those in the Black Label line are more complex, appealing to “the acute enthusiast” with a more practiced palate. The formulas for many of the Black Label libations trace back to recipes that originated as early as the thirteenth century.
To Renato and Janette, their crafted libations are more than just an after-dinner drink. “A liqueur is a sublimation of tens of thousands of years of history,” Renato contends. The first herbal liqueurs evolved as pharmaceuticals in the medical school of Salerno beginning in the tenth century. Today, these amari (bitters) are being rediscovered by mixologists and others who appreciate their natural flavors and digestive qualities.
Vicario Liqueurs distill the essence of their ingredients. The couple’s Nocino, for example, is made from unripe walnuts, whose young taste captures multiple nuances of flavor. Renato exposes the nuts to sun for 40 days to allow the tannins in the walnuts to oxidize. The resulting liqueur is like a liquid walnut, the concentrated essence of which washes over the palate with a smooth, lingering finish.
When Janette and Renato acquired their property, it came with a grove of some 200 olive trees. This enticed the couple to bottle their own oil from the six antique varieties of olives they hand-pick on their land. In 2009, they purchased two adjoining plots (approximately 15 acres), parts of which were already planted with Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. Renato had always wanted to try his hand at winemaking, so the couple planted more vines and added wine to the growing list of products offered under the Vicario label.
Vicario Wines include Sangiovese, Sangiovese-Cabernet Sauvignon blend, and Merlot. All are robust wines that appreciate red meat or game to complement their high acidity, red berry flavors, and soft tannins. Renato adds no artificial yeasts or sulfites to his wine, and allows time for the wine to ferment naturally.
They also make brandy and grappa, the latter distilled from the must of their wine grapes. And as if that weren’t enough, their gardens, groves, vineyards, and orchards in Italy and Greer are all managed according to biodynamic principles. They source the base for their spirits only from grains and fruits that have no GMOs (genetically-modified organisms) and use no chemical flavors or additives.
This is in keeping with the couple’s commitment to high quality and adherence to the principles of Slow Food, an organization founded in Italy to promote “good, clean and fair” food and sustainable growing practices. “It’s more our way of life than anything,” explains Janette, who serves as the governor of South Carolina for Slow Food USA. “We want to make sure that what we put into our products is the best that we can, both in terms of taste and the environment.”
“It’s a labor of love,” admits Renato, the author of a book titled Italian Liqueurs (published in 2011 and now in its second edition) and member of the board of Slow Food Upstate. Besides the extra time it takes for their wine to ferment and age, it can take up to four years before a particular liqueur is ready. “You have to give nature time to run its course,” he notes.
“We’re starting to get recognition for our liqueurs now,” Renato says. “And that makes us realize that what we’re doing is important.” In fact, Vicario Dragoncello recently made the short list of finalists for the coveted Good Food Awards for 2016. “We are reviving a tradition, and we want to nurture it for future generations,” he adds, “because, otherwise, it is lost.”
Check out Vicario products at salutellc.com. Vicario wines and liqueurs are available at Bouharoun’s Fine Wines & Spirits, Northampton Wines, and Total Wine. Swamp Rabbit Café & Grocery carries Vicario wine and olive oil.