Prepare your palate for the family-run company making lemon liqueur on the Amalfi Coast.
The popularity of small-batch spirits is well documented but there’s room on the shelf for a well-made liqueur with a sunny story to tell. Staibano’s tale starts on the hillside lemon groves between Positano and Vietri sul Mare in the southern reaches of Sorrentine Peninsula in Campania, Italy. In the 1930s landowner Don Vincenzo Staibano gained a reputation for the decadent parties he threw among his plantations and the cloudy home-brewed lemon liqueur that became synonymous with his name.
In 2015 Staibano’s 26-year-old great grandson Cesco Amodio, based in London, hatched a plan to relaunch his great grandfather’s storied tipple. “I have always felt a great affinity with the Amalfi Coast and wanted to do something that would take me back there,” says Amodio. And return he did.
“The first thing I needed was a supplier; my uncle introduced me to the De Riso family, which has the best lemons,” says Amodio. The young entrepreneur now rents the groves where the lemons are gathered, as his great grandfather lost the family land to gambling. But family ties did help Amodio negotiate the challenges of starting a business in Italy. “The suppliers believed in what I was trying to do; there are always a lot of hugs and kisses when we see them,” he says.
Back on the slopes the heat can be unbearable come summer but spring remains fresh and pleasant for harvesting. The Sfusato Amalfitano lemons that grow here thrive on volcanic soil and the breeze blown in from the Tyrrhenian Sea. The straw-coloured orbs are acidic and have a thick waxy skin that’s key to the flavour. Come 06.00 a team of five pickers gather the brand’s bounty. Each fruit is removed individually with secateurs above its pedicle with a small amount of the branch still attached. When the baskets are full the workers carry their loads (sometimes up to 70kg) along the kilometre-long track that leads to the factory. The lemons that fall to the floor are left to mulch or given away.
The baskets are loaded into a waiting van and travel for about 45 minutes to reach the factory in Minori, a small fishing village on the Amalfi Coast at the foot of the Lattari Mountains. After being washed and examined for quality the lemons are taken to a peeling room where a spinning steel machine removes the rinds in cascading swirls. After stripping the skins from the pulp the lemons are soaked in an Italian-made 90 per cent proof grain spirit for a week before the addition of an unlikely ingredient: pasteurised milk.
The firm makes about 1,000 bottles a week, with two members of staff entirely devoted to bottling. They work alternately to decant the liquid and apply the labels before the bottles are shipped to the city of Salerno for export. The liqueur, served in thin glass bottles designed by Paris-based Verallia, can be found in a handful of restaurants and bars around Amodio’s native London but he’s keen to build on his success and gain new suppliers.
“Its amazing how much people are willing to help if you just ask,” he says. “There are only so many measured decisions you can make. Sometimes you have to risk it and hope for luck and success.” We’ll drink to that.
Fruit is cut from the tree along with a section of the lemon branch. Pickers carry baskets of lemons down a winding path to a waiting van that transports them to the factory.
At the factory lemons are turned and shaved on a peeling machine or by hand. The skins are especially thick, flavourful and sweet – for lemons, that is.
Jugs or steel tanks are filled with Italian grain spirits and the rinds are added and marinated for a week. Batches vary in size – from 10kg to a tonne – depending on demand. The rinds are then bathed in semi-skimmed milk for a creamy taste.
The liqueur is decanted into tall glass bottles and hand-labelled in the factory. Founder Cesco Amodio checks each bottle himself, smoothing the labels and bursting potential air bubbles with a needle.