My first introduction to chinato was in a Martini at Brooklyn’s Sauvage. This wasn’t your standard gin and vermouth, stirred-with-a-twist Martini. It was liquid gold.
I asked the barman, “Excuse me, just what is in this drink?” The barman responded, “It’s three ingredients: Gin De Mahon, a gin from Spain, a couple dashes of orange bitters, and instead of vermouth we use this Italian chinato.”
It is completely understandable if you haven’t heard of chinato—I hadn’t either until that moment. Chinato, I thought. What the hell is chinato?
The barman psychically understood my plight (like any good bartender would) and poured me a cordial glass of the honey-colored liquid. He set the bottle on the bar. It was a tiny, dark green bottle with a wax seal and a beautiful oval-shaped label. I committed it to memory: yellow background with red scripted font. It read Luli Moscato Chinato.
Then I took my first sip of the straight spirit.
Writer’s note: At this point in the story, it might be best if you drive to your nearest liquor store and buy a bottle of chinato so you can sip a glass while you read this and understand the glory that is this unknown Italian aperitivo. If your liquor store doesn't carry it, get them to order it for you. They will thank you later. Oh, when you ask for it, it’s pronounced key-nah-toe, not chi-nah-toe.
The chinato tasted like the nectar of the gods, like the most perfectly ripe apricot drizzled in honey, dropped into a glass of 1967 Château Rieussec Sauterne, and dosed with some sort of bitter aphrodisiac.
That first sip of chinato did me in and sent me down the rabbit hole.
Chinato, as I found out, is an aromatized wine, somewhere in between a vermouth and an amaro, almost exclusively from Piedmont, Italy. Unlike vermouth makers, chinato producers use high quality wine as their base. We’re talking DOCG, the highest classification for Italian wine. While Moscato Chinato—like the one I tried—is a popular option, chinato is traditionally (and most commonly) made with Barolo, a much-lauded Piedmontese wine made from Nebbiolo grapes.
Producers infuse botanicals like cardamom, juniper, coriander, citrus rind, clove, ginger, vanilla and bay leaf into neutral spirits or grappa before adding the spirit to wine and aging it in oak barrels for up to a year.
I searched my local liquor store for the bottling I had tasted, but the Luli Moscato Chinato spot on the shelf was empty. Obviously someone else had just discovered chinato too. Adjacent to the empty space on the shelf, though, I found Cappellano Barolo Chinato. At $50 it was a hefty price tag for something that I had never tried, but I was intrigued and wanted to know more about this mysterious chinato.
If the Luli Moscato Chinato is the nectar of the gods (which it is), then Cappellano Barolo Chinato is the nectar of the devil. It is dark, earthy and bitter, with a richness that translates to velvety viscosity. Its taste can only be described as this: Imagine you’re drinking a fat pour of the most extravagant Barolo while smoking a Marlboro 27 with a Ricola cough drop in your mouth. It’s really good. In fact, if Satan rose up from hell and offered me the last bottle of Barolo Chinato in existence in exchange for my soul, he would have himself a deal.
After tasting it straight, I took some blended scotch, homemade orange bitters and the Barolo Chinato and whipped up a Rob Roy variation.
I won’t explain how amazing it tasted because it will just make you jealous. I think the best thing to do is make yourself one and experience it first hand. Right now. Didn’t you go to the liquor store already?