Distillery Focus

Distillery Focus: Strada Ferrata

The Brewstillers - Two brewers are set on creating a distinctly Italian style of whisky
By Jacopo Mazzeo
The product range from Strada Ferrata
The product range from Strada Ferrata
Two brewers walk into a bar. The first says, “I’d like to make whisky.” The second goes, “I’d love to make some too.” No, this is not the start of an old joke. This is how Agostino Arioli, of Birrificio Italiano, and Benedetto Cannatelli, of Railroad Brewing Company, took their passion for malt and yeast to the next level, by launching Strada Ferrata Distillery and in the process becoming ‘brewstillers’. Located just a few miles north of Milan, Strada Ferrata isn’t Italy’s first whisky distillery (Puni, in Alto Adige, predates it by about 11 years), but Arioli and Cannatelli’s unique, unorthodox approach to whisky making might be set to kick off a real Italian whisky revolution.

“I’ve been considering the idea of getting into distilling for several years,” says Arioli, one of Italy’s, and the world’s, most revered craft brewers. After an initial attempt to launch a whisky project in Montepulciano, Tuscany, Arioli turned to Cannatelli as the ideal partner for his new distilling venture. “He told me that he had some distilling experience, as he worked for a bit with a friend of his who had a micro-distillery in Montana,” says Arioli, referring to Cannatelli’s link to Whistling Andy Distillery in Bigfork.

Arioli explains that, for him and Cannatelli, whisky distilling is a natural extension of brewing. “Whisky is in line with what I’ve done so far: I’ve been making beer, basically creating alcohol with certain organoleptic qualities. At some point, I became curious to understand what those characteristics would taste like once distilled,” he says, explaining that it was this evolution of his work making beer that inspired him to launch Strada Ferrata.

Arioli and Cannatelli’s brewing expertise informs Strada Ferrata’s entire strategy, including the development of its inaugural bottlings, which were officially launched in October 2020. To explore the aromatic potential of malt-based spirits, the duo invested heavily in creating a six-strong portfolio of new-make spirits. Strada Ferrata (which means ‘railway’) is itself a nod to the two brewstillers’ dual goals of creating fresh, unaged spirit and long-matured whisky. The duo view both as the distilled essence of the brewer’s work, running alongside each other on parallel rails.

“Our principal purpose is to make whisky, but that’s going to take at least three years before we release the first batch, so we thought of developing a series of malt-forward, unaged spirits designed to be consumed immediately,” Arioli says, highlighting that the focus on new make is also necessary to ensure the financial viability of the entire operation.

After trialling different washes with a wide range of malts and yeast strains, Arioli and Cannatelli settled on a set of three base spirits: Originale, Torbato, and Füm. The former is a malt-driven wash made with Munich malt sourced from Campania, southern Italy, and fermented with saison beer yeast, a strain that tends to lend the liquid plenty of fruity esters and peppery, spicy aromas. In its raw form (cut down to 45% ABV before bottling), Originale is a delightfully floral and spicy white spirit, with marked cereal and bread-crust aromas. This is followed by richer notes of cocoa, liquorice, yellow stone fruit and honey on the palate. Originale is also used as a base for three aromatised new makes that look to amaro, gin and stereotypical beer flavours for inspiration.

Capparis is the result of Arioli’s love for capers, a popular ingredient in Mediterranean cuisine that is commonly preserved in coarse sea salt. “It originated from an exploration of Originale’s saline element,” he explains. “Initially, I tried to develop a new make by simply add[ing] straight sea salt to Originale, then I realised that salted capers would have worked better as they would have also contributed with their very characteristic flavour.”

Drawing a spirit sample.

To make Capparis (35% ABV), the distillery sources capers from a co-operative in Pantelleria island, Sicily. These are desalted, dried, then macerated in Originale. Once removed from the liquid, the aromatised spirit is added to unflavoured Originale in a 1:9 proportion and diluted. The result is a clean, yellow liquid with green hues and a unique, briny character. The saline qualities are complemented by a touch of biscuit and some herbaceous flavours, alongside an almost ‘roasted’ quality. Capparis offers a rather unusual drinking experience if sipped unmixed, chilled or on ice. Its rightful place, however, is in a twist on a Martini, combined with a splash of dry vermouth and garnished with one or two unsalted capers.

A similar infusion process is employed to produce Levante (40% ABV), where orange blossom, coriander seeds, cardamom and Achillea alpine (alpine yarrow) replace capers to make Strada Ferrata’s most delicately floral and elegant new make. Originale also forms the basis of Cascadian (40% ABV), an ode to the distillers’ brewing soul. Cascadian is infused with hops and aptly named after America’s Cascade Range, a mountainous area that is home to some of the world’s most aromatic hops. The hops’ bold notes of citrus, pine and resin played a key role in fuelling the modern craft beer revolution.

Beer-led inspiration meets whisky’s wood-ageing element in Füm, which means ‘smoke’ in the dialect used in the area local to the distillery. The spirit is made with a percentage of the same smoked malt that’s traditionally employed to produce Bamberg’s peculiarly smoky rauchbier, then left to infuse with heavily toasted staves of Italian cherry and acacia wood.

Torbato departs from the beer theme, instead revealing the brewstillers’ infatuation with whisky. Translating as ‘peated’, Torbato is made with Scottish peated malt that’s fermented with brewer’s yeast, then rested for a few months before release. Despite the crystal-clear appearance, the resulting liquid does not lack depth, with plenty of peaty, earthy, peppery and leathery aromas complementing a certain ethereal quality that’s hard to define.

The Strada Ferrata production area

“I wanted to isolate Islay’s typical peated notes from the ageing in wood,” explains Arioli. Torbato’s flavour profile makes it a suitable replacement for whisky in lighter twists on classic cocktails. Prato’s Squisio bar, in Tuscany, serves a New Fashioned made with Torbato, sugar and Angostura bitters.

Determined to let beer influence the whisky’s maturation process too, the duo is resting some distillate in casks sourced from Arioli’s own Klanbarrique sour beer range at Birrificio Italiano. On top of the recurring brewing theme, however, Arioli and Cannatelli plan to develop unique flavours by maturing whisky in Italian acacia and cherry woods, which are already employed as flavouring agents in Füm. To help newcomers develop an appreciation for whisky and offer conservative drinkers a more familiar flavour profile, a further range will be matured in conventional bourbon and sherry casks.

Strada Ferrata is still working at a limited capacity, as all washes are produced off-site, so priority is currently being given to the new makes.

“We have only 13 casks filled with our whisky-to-be at the moment. Some come from my Klanbarrique series at Birrificio Italiano, while the rest are our Italian woods,” says Arioli. “We haven’t got any bourbon or sherry casks just yet, but, as soon as we get our own mashing and fermentation equipment here at the distillery, we will be able to increase production from two up to four distillations per week, which will give us enough liquid to put into casks and also ample room for experimentation.”

Strada Ferrata’s founders, Agostino Arioli and Benedetto Cannatelli

Bourbon and sherry casks aren’t the only tradition that Arioli is lifting from Scotch. Scottish malt is used for all Strada Ferrata whiskies, and all washes destined for ageing are fermented with distiller’s yeast. Unusually, distillation is undertaken in a column still rather than a pot still, as is required for single malt Scotch whisky and the norm for most other producers of single malt.

“The base takes inspiration from Scotland, including malts and turbo yeast, which allows us to develop good amounts of alcohol. Other than that, though, we are not following any specific style of whisky,” Arioli clarifies. “We just want to create an Italian-style whisky. The only issue is that we don’t know what that style is yet. How can you define it if it doesn’t exist?”

The uncertainty isn’t an issue for Arioli, who is not new to the challenge of creating a whole new industry from scratch. More than two decades ago, he contributed to establishing the Italian independent brewing sector – today one of the world’s most vibrant – in a country that had for centuries been associated solely with wine.

“I think Italian whisky will experience an evolution similar to that of craft beer. We managed [to develop the Italian craft beer industry] by brewing very unique beers, with that Italian touch that has eventually become characteristic,” he says, hinting at his Tipopils, a modern pilsner that redefined the world’s understanding of such a quintessentially Bohemian style.

“We aim to influence the world of whisky as we managed to influence the craft beer revolution. Just like we managed to create an independent beer industry 25 years ago, I am confident we can give birth to whiskies whose styles differ from the Scottish, Irish or American canons.”

With at least three years to go before Strada Ferrata’s first whisky is released, enthusiasts can only turn to the distillery’s delightful new-make spirits for a taste of what’s to come, but the founders are confident that Strada Ferrata’s pioneering vision has the potential to pave the way for a brand new whisky industry.