We got very romantic here, and we had a library of hundreds of herbal tinctures, individual tinctures
When it comes to blending old world traditions with forward-thinking spirits, Louie Catizone is one of the Northeast’s biggest innovators. He’s co-owner and operator of St. Agrestis Spirits, a Brooklyn-based company that produces aperitivi, cocktails, and their flagship amaro. Louie, his brother Matt (first-generation Italian Americans), and partner Steven DeAngelo purchased the company in 2017, and St. Agrestis’ growth trajectory has been nothing short of monumental since.
They’ve also explored cross-spirits collaborations, notably partnering with Barrel Bourbon’s Private Release program on a bourbon finished in St. Agrestis amaro casks. Borrowing from around the spirits economy is nothing new for the St. Agrestis team, as they age their own tinctures in previously used bourbon barrels.
In addition, their bag-in-box cocktails — which rose to popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic as an at-home cocktail option — utilize specially sourced American rye and bourbon whiskeys. With an expanding selection and numerous collaborations, how are they keeping focused on the brand’s core values and inspirations?
Louie sat down with me to talk about St. Agrestis’ expanding product line and how they work to honor traditional Italian amari with an eye toward modern consumers. For Louie and his team, St. Agrestis is “Brooklyn-made, Italian-inspired,” an ethos he hopes everyone can taste with each pour.
David: Give us a little bit of the history behind St. Agrestis. How long has it been around and what has your growth trajectory been like?
Louie Catizone: St. Augustus was actually started in 2014 by two sommeliers. I am not one of those two sommeliers. They created St. Agrestis Amaro after a trip to Italy where they fell in love with regional amari. It's a nice story where, as we know in the industry, a lot of these wine trips happen for wine professionals, where they get to go to see a wine producing region. They saw wine producers, but just fell in love with regional amari. They came home and created St. Agrestis Amaro.
They produced that until 2017, when the brand was sold to us. They wanted to return to wine. I was in the industry doing import work, distribution work, but when I found out that the business was going to become available, as a first-generation Italian-American here in New York, I wanted the brand. So we reached out, figured out a way to keep the brand going, keep it alive, and moved production here to Greenpoint where we're now located.
David: What are some of these other products that you all rolled out in addition to the trademark amaro?
Louie: Before the sale even closed, we got very romantic here, and we had a library of hundreds of herbal tinctures, individual tinctures. In addition to the St. Agrestis Amaro, what we were really on a road to create was a similarly bitter alternative to Campari. But one that is made with all natural coloring, real herbs, spices, flowers, roots, seeds, and citrus, but that can hold up in a Negroni, as we felt that there were a lot of alternatives that were really good, but they worked in a spritz better than they worked in a Negroni.
So we really went after that, that truly unapologetically bitter red bitter profile, and that's now our Inferno Bitter Aperitivo. And when we nailed it, we decided the best way for us to launch this was actually going to be in a single serve Negroni as a way for folks to be able to discover that it works in a Negroni.
And then from there, we also launched an Aperitivo Spritz, which we put on the market in 2019. We also launched the Inferno Bitter as a standalone product a year to the day from when we launched the Negroni. And the reason behind that is we wanted folks to discover the Negroni, but also have many chances to interact with it. There were some shops here in Brooklyn that had lines waiting at the stores, waiting for the inventory to show up when it first launched.
And then the only other things that we've launched are two limited release bag-in-box cocktails on the market. That includes our bag-in-box Negroni. It was sort of a pandemic related pivot, something that I'd been thinking about for a while, but didn't necessarily feel the right time had come for. We decided to do two limited release cocktails, which we only produced 400 cases of for each: a Manhattan using St. Augustus Amaro and a high-rye bourbon and a Boulevardier (checkout a Boulevardier recipe here). It's the same specs as our Negroni, just replacing the gin with that high rye bourbon.
David: I have to say that in my household, we were big fans of the box Negroni. Is that something that's here to stay? Can we expect that to still be on shelves?
Louie: Yes. 100%. The bag-in-box Negroni far exceeded our expectations as far as the response to it, and it's not going anywhere.
David: I do have a bone to pick because we did a blind tasting between the St. Agrestis bag-in-box Negroni versus the Negronis that I whipped up from scratch, and I lost. you're making amateur bartenders like me look bad!
But aside from that, we've talked a little bit about this product category and how you all have leaned into it during the pandemic. What are some other methods you as a business have used to grow your fan base and to get more of a foothold in retail shops?
Louie: It's a great question, David, because we've been pretty nimble, and that's the beauty of being a small company. And we've changed the way we do this a lot over the years that we've been doing it. Particularly things changed a lot as soon as the pandemic started for us. But let's talk about pre-pandemic. The best piece of advice I was ever given was that liquid to lips is all that matters. Just pour it for people, period. That's all you have to do. Do that as much as you can, and you'll be good. You get a big piece of press, great! Celebrate for five seconds and then go pour for somebody, because that's how you're going to find loyal consumers. If the quality is there, that's how you find people. And I did thousands of hours worth of in-store tastings.
In addition to that, we had a team of people doing the same things. I think social media became really important more recently than it would have been in 2014 as a brand. But one thing that we always did pretty carefully was keeping the social media really, really organic and natural. There are professional photos taken, but everything feels real. And everything was posted with intention, which I think is really important and something that doesn't necessarily make sense for all brands, but you don't need to see St. Agrestis posting three times a week.
I think St. Agrestis posting with intention once a month keeps a really engaged and excited following. We also pull the curtain back a little bit on an industry that's super secretive, generally speaking. There are so many secrets in the herbal Italian liqueur world. We want people to say, "Yeah, okay, cool. But what's in it. How is it made?"
We don't reveal everything, but we reveal so much more than most companies do. Which was also part of our tasting room, which was only open for two months, sadly, before the pandemic started.
The only thing that I'll say post-pandemic is that it's shifted much more digitally. We've been really fortunate to have innovative launches that have inspired folks to organically want to write about what we're doing.
David: I see the spirits world split into two main camps. You have the giant mega multinational brands that want to own everything. And then you have the reformed moonshiners, the backyard distillers, the folks who are taking craft to a whole other level. In Brooklyn, I would actually point to someone like Kings County Distillery, and I've talked to Colin Spoelman from over there. What are some misconceptions you think folks might have about smaller alcohol and spirits companies?
one thing that I think is pretty distinctive about the world-class distillers, even on the smaller scale, is that their goal isn't to be the best amaro maker in New York. We want to make a world-class amaro.
Louie: It's an interesting question. And I think the biggest thing that tends to be a misconception within the small distillers world is that we're a local brand, and the word local is so interesting because we do want support from locals. And we are local to you here in Brooklyn and people in Manhattan and folks in the tri-state area. But one thing that I think is pretty distinctive about the world-class distillers, even on the smaller scale, is that their goal isn't to be the best amaro maker in New York. We want to make a world-class amaro. That should transcend any regionality, and Colin Spoelman over at Kings County is a great example of that because they make world-class whiskeys and those whiskeys aren't just New York local. They sell on the shelves in California as well. And there's a reason there's interest and demand from folks there.
We, as a small distiller, have a lot of challenges. I think the world understands those challenges because they're the same as any startup in this industry. It does end up being a little bit more difficult because the pockets are so deep at these huge distilleries. And it's a little harder to make fat margins as a small company in a world that relies so much on innovative packaging, because at the end of the day, you have to have good quality products, but you have to have a good package at the right price point. Doing all three of those things when you're up against the giants of the liquor industry can be the biggest challenge. Remaining competitive in all three of those ways is a daily challenge that a distiller my size is constantly confronted with.
David: My favorite new way to enjoy amaro during the pandemic has been the Amaro Caldo. It just absolutely blew my mind, nothing better for a cold weather drink, especially if you're hanging out outside in the winter. What might be a way for folks to enjoy amaro — it could be a St. Agrestis Amaro! — in a way that they haven't tried before?
Louie: There are so many ways. Something like heat is super interesting because it is not something that generally would be thought of with amaro, but there's a Northern Italian culture of drinking amaro hot. I like the concept of drinking St. Agrestis Amaro in warm cocktails. It doesn't have to just be with espresso, boiling water from the espresso maker, the steamer. I like the concept of amaro hot chocolate. Especially during this winter, it's something that I've made pretty commonly most winters and share with like our retail customers. If I'm posted up at a wine shop, doing a tasting, I bring for the staff only, usually a little thermos of amaro hot chocolate.
It's outstanding. The herbal nature of it paired with the bittersweet chocolate elements and then balanced out with the right amount of sugar. It can be a super fun way of drinking amaro in a totally unique way that most folks would never think of.
Also, adding hot pepper to it. Like almost Mexican hot chocolate style makes it even cooler depending on which amaro you're using. In St. Agrestis Amaro it works really well. I've tried it with a few others that it plays really nicely with, it's a fun way to make an herbal spicy chocolatey warming delight.
David: Where is the best place for folks to keep up to date with St. Agrestis and to find St. Augustus products, whether it be in person or online?
Louie: Instagram is always a good option and our website is even more informative. The products are always going to be available on stagrestis.com. You can also look at different states and put in your zip code and look up your store that you love shopping in. And we'll let you know if it's available there, or we'll work on helping you find a place that's close enough for you to get to.
This interview was moderated by David Thomas Tao, our resident whiskey and bourbon expert here at Drinking Vessels. If you have burning whiskey questions, let us know and we'll get you the answers from the experts.
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