When I was a kid, I was scared of Tomie dePaola. I'm not entirely certain why, but something about the thick line-drawn characters and heavy-handed, morality play narratives in his children's books was deeply unsettling to my 8-year-old self. Strega Nona, in particular, terrified me. Even the words, first read to me by the Italian grandmother of a family friend, had an air of menace. The rolling, aborted t-r sound; the elongated oooooo ... I shivered a little bit even when merely pronouncing it in my head; those languid sounds seemed like witchcraft. Maybe that's why it took me so long to come around to Strega.
Liquore Strega (Italian for "witch") has been produced in Benevento, Italy, since the mid-1800s, and is typically regarded as a digestif. An herbal liqueur, it's easy to lump Strega in with others of its ilk, like Benedictine and Chartreuse. That being said, the more I drink of each, the more I notice how different they are. With its flavors of mint, juniper, and fennel, Strega comes across with a cooler profile, while Chartreuse is aggressive and hot and Benedictine smooth and warm. You can substitute one for the other in recipes, but the character of the resulting drink will change somewhat substantially.
Don't let the "cool profile" thing fool you, though; Strega is powerful stuff. At 80 proof, it packs a wallop, matched by its heady herbal flavors and significant, slightly bitter finish. Unlike a lot of liqueurs, it contains enough flavor to match its sweetness, allowing it to stand up in a drink as a proper ingredient, rather than just as a sweetener, so long as you balance its sweetness.
Because of its aggressive character, Strega can go in a lot of different directions. You can embrace its dark magic, pairing it with big bold flavors, or you can lighten it, with citrus, for example, both taming and highlighting its wily charms. With some consideration, you can do both of these at once, and that's what I did with the
Last Call for More Witches
1.5oz Mezcal .75oz Strega .75oz Lime Juice .25oz Maraschino Liqueur
Combine all ingredients in mixing glass, add ice, shake, and double-strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a wide strip of lime peel.
With its strong herbal notes, Strega helps to highlight the vegetal character of the Mezcal, and provides a nice framework for its smoky undertones. Mezcal is a big flavor, and can easily dominate a drink. Here, the Strega is no second fiddle, each one of those 70 herbs and spices making its intriguing presence known. The lime juice keeps things from getting too heavy, lightening and brightening all of those assertive flavors, while the Maraschino just adds a touch of funky richness. I didn't really think about it at the time, but this is kind of like a theoretical Mezcal-based Last Word variant (thus the name), which makes perfect sense, even if it was accidental.
As I was settling on a "classic" take on Strega, I came across Portland bartender Junior Ryan's Strega Sour. I suppose it's not really fair to call it a classic (thus the quotes), but it's certainly a classic take, and a damn delicious drink. As with my creation above, Ryan makes use of both approaches to Strega cocktails, allowing it to stand on its own, and offsetting it with a hefty dose of acidity. The inclusion of honey syrup and egg white add a luxuriously rich texture to the drink, and the Earl Grey's floral and citrus notes are highly complementary to the Strega.
Junior Ryan's Strega Sour
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1.5oz Gin .75oz Strega .75oz Lemon Juice 1tsp Earl Grey Honey Syrup* Egg White 4 drops Angostura bitters (for garnish)
Add all ingredients but Angostura to a shaker and dry shake (without ice), then add ice and shake again. Double strain into a coupe glass. Add four drops angostura in a square pattern, and drag a pick through them to create an attractive swirl of color.
*For the Earl Grey Honey Syrup: prepare a strong tea and combine (hot) with honey at a 2:1 ratio of honey to tea. Allow to cool. I've been getting a lot of mileage out of the resulting syrup; it's delicious and versatile. Make up a batch and use it for Old Fashioneds with varying base spirits for a fun game. Yes, I have a somewhat strange idea of fun.
All this talk of Strega has me wondering if Tomie dePaola sat down with a bottle when he was sketching those terrifyingly tubby characters of his. I like to think that he did, and I'd guess he had his neat. A crackling fire, a glass of Strega, and the horror of millions of children, suddenly terrified of spaghetti. Witchcraft, I tell you.