“When a distiller gets married, you want to bring some special things,” says Todd Leopold, “because that’s what your family and friends are going to expect.” The wedding he’s referring to was actually his own, and the special thing that he brought was a bitter, scarlet-colored aperitif that he distilled specifically for the occasion. On May 1, Leopold, head distiller at Denver’s Leopold Brothers Distillery, released the liqueur he named Aperitivo to the public.
“I’ve since changed the recipe around a little bit,” Leopold says, “but basically this is us having a little fun.” The initial run included 300 bottles and debuted at DSTILL, a spirits showcase held in Denver in April. “It’s been a great reception,” Leopold says.
“The nice thing about this is that it’s grain-to-glass very quick,” he continues. Leopold is currently making more of this new spirit — the 22nd spirit available from his distillery — with a turnaround time of about three weeks per batch.
Aperitivo is a liqueur that will be most easily associated with the other well-known aperitifs — Campari and Aperol, for example. It’s similar in color, aroma and taste to both of those, but with more complexity. “The concept behind it is sweet and bitter, with a citrus overlay,” Leopold says. “To me, it’s a lot more earthy and floral than the other aperitivos on the market.”
Aperitivo’s base spirit is vodka, which Leopold distills from wheat, potatoes and malted barley. He then re-distills the vodka in two separate batches: one with grapefruit peel, the other with coriander, saving only the best parts of each of those distillations. In a mixing tank, the grapefruit and coriander distillates are blended, then allowed to macerate for two to three weeks with cane sugar and a blend of botanicals: hyssop, petite wormwood, gentian root, vanilla and sarsaparilla root.
“You’ve got quite a bit of sweetness balancing out the gentian root,” Leopold says of the herb that gives Aperitivo its distinct bitterness, a principal quality of an aperitif. “We’re very particular about the various sugars that we use,” he continues. “We use cane sugar, specifically. It has a nice candied flavor to it, so that was important. It’s because of that dance between the sweetness and the bitter that makes it kind of a complicated spirit.”
All of the botanicals are sourced from France and Italy. One of them, sarsaparilla root, was added to make Aperitivo an ‘American’ liqueur. “It’s kind of a nod to my dad,” says Leopold. His father loves root beer, which is made with the sarsaparilla root. Leopold has ‘Americanized’ other spirits he’s made based on European classics: Fernet Leopold, his version of Fernet Branca, contains spearmint; his Michigan Tart Cherry liqueur contains the traditional Marasca cherries but also Montmorency cherries from Michigan.
Aperitivo’s scarlet color comes from cochineal, a beetle that produces a red substance called carminic acid to deter predators. “It’s something that’s been used in textiles and cordials for several hundred years,” Leopold says. What makes it valuable as a coloring agent (it’s used in lipstick, and to dye fabric, too) is that it’s odorless and tasteless.
“The coloring is a purpose unto itself,” Leopold says. “When you steep all our botanicals, it gives the spirit a copper-yellow tint, and that color doesn't reflect what you're tasting.” The addition of cochineal, he says, allows people to more accurately pick up the flavors, particularly the grapefruit.
The cocktail-friendly Aperitivo is an obvious addition to a Negroni, that classic of equal parts gin, sweet vermouth and Campari. “I’ve just always been a big fan of Negronis,” Leopold says. “It basically mirrors Aperitivo: a little bitter, a little sweet, a little floral.” Leopold likes to enjoy his version made with products from his distillery: equal parts Leopold’s Navy Strength gin, Aperitivo, and his Michigan Tart Cherry liqueur. “That’s one of my favorite cocktails, so that’s how I really enjoy it.” he says. “To me, that’s really tasty.”
It’s not an accident that Aperitivo was released this month: Negroni Week will take place at several bars and restaurants throughout Denver from June 1 to 7. “It just seemed like it was as good a week as any to come out with this stuff,” he says, adding that it could also be used in cocktails such as the Boulevardier (with whiskey and sweet vermouth) and the Americano (with sweet vermouth and club soda).
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“The way that people have described it to me,” he says, “is that it’s a little bit more bitter, and little bit more sweet at the same time.” He admits that Campari and Aperol have sweet, bitter and floral components, but they lack the depth of Aperitivo. “The earthiness and the floral quality is what separates if from the rest of them,” he explains. “It’s more simple. There’s a floral overlay, with the grapefruit dancing above it.”