With a storied history of spirit production that stretches back to the Middle Ages, Italy is home to some incredible spirits and liqueurs. But did you know that this extends to Italian gin?
Some of the best juniper in the world grows wild across Italy, but for years most of this was exported to gin makers outside of the country. Now, a new breed of Italian gin brands are taking ownership of Italy’s abundant botanicals to put the Italian gin industry back on the map.
Italy now boasts hundreds of gins and distilleries, and Italian gin cocktails – from classics like the Negroni to refreshing gin spritzes – are booming. In fact, Italy even has a claim to being the birthplace of an early precursor to gin. Read on for a deeper dive on Italian gin, including its history, some Italian gin brands to look out for and our recommendations for pairing gin and food.
Does gin come from Italy?
Gin might be a British favourite, but it didn’t originate on our shores. Holland is often credited with being the birthplace of gin; the Dutch were making genever – the juniper-infused spirit from which gin evolved – as early as the 13th century. But gin’s roots can be traced even further back, all the way to the 11th century, and the southern Italian city of Salerno.
Here, in a monastery surrounded by juniper shrubs, a group of Benedictine monks first distilled an alcoholic liqueur from wine and juniper berries. Although it was made with medicinal intent, the juniper-infused spirit they created was arguably the first primitive form of gin.
These liqueurs were tweaked as Italians began to drink them for pleasure, and by the 16th century Italians were documenting recipes for juniper and botanical-infused spirits, some of the earliest documented forms of what we’d now call gin.
Where is gin made in Italy?
Despite Italy’s illustrious history with juniper spirits, by the end of the 20th century the Italian gin industry was more or less gone, with very few Italian gin producers left. This is despite the fact that Italy is renowned around the world for the quality of its juniper, without which (by law) you can’t make gin.
Juniper grows all over the world, but the highest-grade berries (with the greatest oil content) grow in warmer conditions. With its Mediterranean climate, Italy has long been a source of extremely high-grade juniper, particularly in the regions of Tuscany and Umbria. Here, juniper shrubs grow wild at altitude, with local foragers still harvesting them by hand.
Thankfully, the 21st century has seen a new generation of Italian spirit producers making gin in Italy once again. Italian gin production was initially focused around northern and central Italy, but this has now spread across the country – to southern Italy and the islands of Sardinia and Sicily.
The best Italian gin brands
Just as each Italian region has its signature dishes – from tagliatelle alla Bolognese in Emilia-Romagna to a classic Roman carbonara – each region also has its own evocative botanicals. As a result, many Italian gin brands choose to focus on their immediate surroundings when flavouring their gin, giving each bottle a profound sense of place.
With over 300 Italian gin brands, there’s plenty out there to discover. To get you started, here’s three of the best:
Best for a Negroni: Malfy con Limone Italian Gin
Distilled in: Piedmont, Italy | ABV: 41% | Flavour: Citrus zest, juniper
Distilled in Torino, but inspired by the Amalfi Coast, Malfy con Limone makes the most of two emblematic Italian botanicals: juniper berries and Amalfi lemons. The result is a zesty gin that works well in a gin and tonic, but really shines in that classic Italian aperitivo: the Negroni.
Best for a G&T: Engine Italian Gin
Distilled in: Piedmont, Italy | ABV: 42% | Flavour: Juniper, sage, liquorice
Born amongst the rolling hills of Langhe, in Piedmont, Engine takes inspiration from the Piedmontese countryside, where the traditional digestivo recipe combines sage and lemon. An aromatic gin with a distinct natural bitterness, Engine is ideal with a light tonic and a slice of lemon. Engine by name, engine by nature; this gin comes ‘canned’ in a replica motor oil can.
Best on the rocks: Gin David Luxury Italian Gin
Distilled in: Tuscany, Italy | ABV: 40% | Flavour: Floral, vanilla
Continuing the theme of artful presentation, this Tuscan gin comes in a glass bottle shaped like the head of Michelangelo's David sculpture. But it’s not all style over substance, the gin itself is heady with the finest Tuscan juniper, along with 11 other botanicals. The result is a poised gin, smooth enough to enjoy on the rocks or neat.
Our favourite Italian gin cocktails
The quintessential Italian sharpener, there’s nothing like a ruby-red Negroni to kick off an Italian dinner party. Combine gin, Campari and vermouth for instantaneous transportation to the ornate streets of Florence. Follow along with Chef Roberta in the video below, or check out our Negroni recipe.
Italian gin & tonic
Sure, a gin and tonic isn’t necessarily an Italian cocktail by definition, but the Italian gin in our recipe will conjure images of a sundowner on the Amalfi Coast – and that's good enough for us. Get the lowdown from Chef Roberta in our video.
What food goes well with gin?
When it comes to pairing gin and food, the key is to match your dish to your gin’s dominant botanical. Citrusy gins work well with lighter seafood dishes – think seafood tagliatelle or a classic spaghetti vongole – while juniper-heavy Italian gins work better with cured meats and other salty antipasti.