Dazzling yellow with an iconic label, you’ll often see it peeking out behind a horde of other scintillating bottles on the back bar of your local watering hole. An Italian liqueur that’s a veritable witches’ brew of herbs and spices which speak to the complexity of this gently sweet elixir: Strega.
This delicious digestif was first concocted in 1860 by Giuseppe Alberti in Benevento, Campania. Strega gets its name from the Italian word for “witch,” a nod to the old legends which have permeated the region since the 13th century — whispered tales that say that Benevento was once the meeting spot for witches worldwide. It’s said the witches would gather under a walnut tree which once grew along the banks of the Sabato river and perform their secret rites. Some say the name of the liqueur is more than a mere homage to the “city of witches.” The story goes that Alberti was hunting for herbs when he chanced upon a witch who lay trapped by a fallen tree branch. He saved her from her plight and by way of thanks, she gave him the recipe for the drink we know today as Strega.
Like other great liqueurs (think Fernet or Chartreuse), Strega’s exact ingredients are a closely guarded secret. However, we do know that 70 different herbs and spices make their way into this classic digestif: cinnamon, iris, juniper, mint, saffron, and more. It’s the saffron which gives Strega its characteristic yellow hue. After distillation, Strega is aged in ash barrels for a spell before being bottled and released. At 40 percent ABV, Strega is as boozy as most spirits on the market.
With its slightly minty, herbal flavor, Strega can add another layer of complexity to a cocktail. Some bartenders use it as a substitute for yellow Chartreuse while others enjoy experimenting with the liqueur to create their own unique potations. The Apennine juniper that appears on Strega’s ingredients list means it’s a lovely addition to a gin-based cocktail. But it’s not just limited to cocktails. Strega is an essential ingredient in the local torta caprese, a particularly tasty cake that comes from Capri. The Strega company even makes wonderful candies flavored with its eponymous liqueur.
It remains massively popular in its native Italy and with American bartenders’ growing interest in dabbling with new flavors, we’re seeing Strega bottles being conjured into bars from coast to coast. Enjoy it in a cocktail or drink it the Italian way, at the end of a meal. Strega is a bewitching liqueur of great nuance and flavor. Try it and see if it doesn’t leave you utterly spellbound.