Search & Distill: Don’t Neglect the Yellow Witch

Use Strega to switch up your old standards.

Nothing irks me more than to see a stellar spirit selection that fails to find representation on a bar’s drink menu or in a bartender’s imagination. Use it or lose it, I say. In a continuing effort to give love to the neglected beauties of the back bar, I celebrate one of my all-time favorite Italians, which is neither Campari, nor brown like Fernet Branca or other amaros: Liquore Strega.

A bottle of Strega (Italian for “witch”) ranks as one of the sexiest pack jobs in spirits. The lithely tapered bottle, its clear glass showcasing the magical, phosphorescent yellow of the spirit inside, looks straight out of a parfumerie, complete with raised sundial detailing and 19th-century script. That color comes from the addition of saffron, one of the dozens of herb and spice components in Strega, including fennel, mint, and numerous bittering agents. Like most herbal-liqueur makers, the Albertis of Strega spout the legend that only two people know the complete recipe.

Strega hails from Benevento, south of Rome, and is incredibly popular in its home country. (The company also makes quite a few dessert and candy products, just like many amaretto producers.) Strega’s flavor is hard to define. It echoes some of the sweeter Scandinavian aquavits and definitely has their hint of candied fennel, but it also gives off an earthy note that’s part green and part vanilla. After the initial hit of sweetness and its clinging texture, a complex herbal and bitter flavor unfolds that’s less medicinal than most Italian herbal liqueurs and far more sumptuous.

You can chill Strega before you sip it, as you would aquavit, and it will slip down the tongue like liquid gold. Strega on the rocks with lemon juice and a big splash of soda makes for a nice change from the standard highball or gin and tonic. If you can get your hands on some Schweppes bitter lemon, nothing pairs better with it.

Strega can replace absinthe, anisette, or Galliano in just about any cocktail, but works especially well in a Sazerac. The witch allows the rye to dominate, and adds a certain softness that absinthe or Herbsaint can’t provide due to their minty and mentholated edge. I use Strega in place of flowery orgeat syrup to de-tiki-fy drinks and achieve more balance with less sweetness (and more octane). My favorite substitution for the historic Japanese Cocktail (brandy, orgeat, and bitters) is simple enough to order out on the town: Just ask for a brandy rocks, with a splash of Strega and a few dashes of bitters. Since all these drinks are really inbred cousins, you could also request a brandy Manhattan with Strega instead of sweet vermouth. The result tastes less fruity, is a little boozier, and comes alive with a squeeze of lemon.

If you want a cocktail and an atmosphere appropriate for Strega, try Il Bistro (93 Pike St.) after dark. Ask the bartender to coat your flute with Strega before adding prosecco for an out-of-sight champagne cocktail. Order it straight and take in the bar’s subterranean-cavern vibe and candlelit accents while you sip a glass alight with 150 years of alchemy—and maybe just a little magic.