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That's amore

Kate Ennis looks at why the Italians have such a passion for whisky
By Kate Portman (nee Ennis)
The sharply tailored Armani suit, the Rolex watch, the Ferrari sports car… not forgetting the Gucci sunglasses, of course.The Italians are renowned for their instinctive style and good taste and 'Fare la bella figura' (to look good) is an activity they've made a true art form.Within its world of luxury, no wonder whisky carries such great cachet. Ordering a whisky in an bar is all part of that emphatic lifestyle statement.Scotch imports first arrived on to Italian shores during the late 1800s, as people were becoming more cosmopolitan and they desired foreign goods that carried a certain allure.The whisky brands emerging at that time were blends such as Dewar's White Label, White Horse and J&B. Between the World Wars, less travel opportunities meant that the limited imports maintained their worldly glamour.The 1920s saw the creation of legendary nightclub Harry's Bar in Venice and although it may be most famous for the Bellini, whisky was also a popular serve here, with high demand for Scotch and bourbon, Whisky Sours and Manhattans.It was in the late 1950s when Parma-based whisky importer and bottler, Ernesto Mainardi, first discovered whisky.Working in hotel bars in his mid teens he became fascinated with Scotland and its distilleries.He believes whisky was accepted so readily in Italy because: "Italians were used to drinking neat spirits but whisky is mellower than grappa and brandy, which are both strong and hard to digest" he says."With the concept of aperitivo and digestivo already established, whisky became incorporated into every day life as an after-dinner drink." The 1960s saw the emergence of astute Milanbased importer Armando Giovinetti. He revolutionised Italian drinking habits by being the first to introduce single malts into Italy and the reverberations of his pioneering move are still felt today.There is one single malt brand which dominates the market in particular, and that's Glen Grant.It's Italy's No.1 best selling single malt by a mile, accounting for two thirds of Italy's single malt whisky share in 2004.Steve Webb of Fior Brands thinks it's the light, accessible taste that has proved popular "It's an excellent trade-up from premium blends for consumers who want the cachet of drinking a single malt, as they know it's superior in quality," he says.For Giuseppe Ruo, Italian whisky aficionado and manager of the prestigious Library Bar in London's Lanesborough Hotel, Glen Grant was the first dram he drank with friends aged 18, although he admits: "It was all for show!" "Going to the pub after the pizzeria and asking for a Glen Grant made us feel 10 years older!" Giuseppe has noticed that more bars in Italy are stocking a wider selection and believes more Italians are willing to trade up to premium malts.However he feels that much more consumer, and barista, education is needed before he would be able to serve the premium whiskies he does in London.Having succeeded legendary Italian bar maestro, Salvatore Calabrese, at The Lanesborough, Giuseppe is making his own mark by building a 'liquid history' of vintage whiskies.He has also begun to seek out exclusive top quality casks to bottle under the 'Library Bar' label to offer guests at the bar.This exclusiveness is also what motivates Ernesto Mainardi, who bottles the rarest whiskies from closed distilleries such as Port Ellen under his Silver Seal label. He also looks for older whiskies wanting to encapsulate their inimitable sense of place and time while he still can.There are plenty of Italians eager to get their hands on such treasures.Italy has a concentration of respected whisky collectors, such as Valentino Zagatti and Giuseppe Begnoni, who currently owns one of the world's biggest whisky anthologies. In 1996, Begnoni acquired the whiskies of legendary collector Eduardo Giaccone that featured in the Guinness Book of Records. He went on to establish one of Italy's most renowned whisky emporiums, Whisky Paradise in Bologna, which now has a phenomenal list of 40,000 bottles.These collectors show just how all consuming the Italian passion for malt can become. Even for more modest aficionados, a love of whisky reflects the Italians' unabashed enthusiasm for la dolce vita and their impeccable taste, of course.