The revolution in cocktail making has had a number of side effects: fresher ingredients, greater understanding of what creates balance in a drink, an interest in reviving and reworking classic cocktails, and a desire to recreate some of the old ingredients. Many have fallen by the wayside, so today’s bar chefs are recreating bitters, vermouths, syrups, and more on their own. However, they haven’t really gotten around to Barolo Chinato.
There are reasons; reasonable reasons. First of all, Barolo Chinato never found a place in any of the classic cocktails. It’s expensive to make: the base ingredient is legitimate, by-the-book Barolo, not cheap jug wine or spirits distilled from leftover grapeskins (grappa). Barolo is not a cheap place to start, but it means that a Chinato has a completeness that makes it more enjoyable on its own than say, vermouth, its nearest relative. To make it, a producer needs to give up some of their regular Barolo to an extra aging period with an infusion of quinine (“china” in Italian, from whence the name “chinato”) and any number of spices and herbs–sometimes dozens.
Like some bitters and spirits, Barolo Chinato was first developed for its supposed medicinal qualities. In the 1800s a chemist named Guiseppe Capellano (read “pharmacist”) in Serralunga d’Alba–one of the villages that make up the Barolo wine region–thought the wines had natural therapeutic qualities, which he decided to supplement with a reach of similarly endowed botanicals. It’s a bit fortified as well and, anticipating Mary Poppins’ advice about a “spoonful of sugar” by many decades, Capellano sweetened the recipe with cane sugar. According to some, all he was really trying to cure was a full stomach, yielding a digestif that would make an appropriate ending to a rich Piedmontese meal. Nonetheless, its curative reputation quickly expanded to include colds, flus, headaches, and other ailments.
By the middle of the 20th century Barolo Chinato was almost a memory, its space on most shelves filled by cheaper, distilled bitters. Some producers have held on, and today renewed interest here and back in Italy means Barolo Chinatos are becoming easier to find again.
As a digestive, Barolo Chinato normally appears at the end of the meal, where it does well on its own or in the company of nuts or chocolate (especially chocolate: that spice and power do well at balancing with cocoa’s intensity without losing any of their own character). On the other hand, with soda and ice, it can make a good start to a meal. Bar chefs are starting to play with it, too; it works well in places where you might think of using sweet vermouth or an herbal liqueur. Try it in lieu of Drambuie in a Rusty Nail, for example. I thought I was committing sacrilege when I tried warming it up into an instant mulled wine, but have since found historical precedents…and for that matter, it was really good; garnish it with some citrus or orange so it doesn’t get too heavy. If you’re a restauranteur, it’s a good idea to develop a specialty cocktail that uses your Barolo Chinato, to ensure turnover. Since it doesn’t have the higher alcohol of a spirit, its shelf life is shorter. At home, well, if you take a shine to it, shelf life probably won’t be a problem.
Michele Chiarlo A full-bodied, fairly dry take, and very smooth; Chiarlo is a sizable wine producer, and can afford to let his infusions age and meld for several years before release. Baking spices of clove, cinnamon, and nutmeg dominate alongside the wine’s inherent dark cherry, lavender, and earthy notes.
Marcarini Medium-bodied and somewhat sweeter, with darker fruit touches and light menthol, “alpine herb” notes, some lavender aromas, and a touch of anise.
Capellano The first, still in business. There’s less fruit, but instead it offers up rich caramel and toffee aromas, supplemented by fruit cake and orange zest notes. It’s intensely aromatic, but smooth and full-bodied on the palate.