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Strega is an old brand with traditional values at its heart – and that’s how Antonio Savarese intends it to stay, finds Hamish Smith


ANTONIO SAVARESE, with his chiselled contours, angular build and granite-grey hair, could have been carved from the south-westerly Italian coastline where he was born. A traditional, family man, running an alcohol business – there aren’t many left of his kind. Savarese and his cousin Giuseppe D’Avino are fourth-generation owners of Strega Alberti – the company that for 156 years has produced the fiendishly yellow herbal liqueur Strega. This is one of the last old family-owned – but globally distributed – drinks brands not to have become part of someone else’s portfolio.

When Savarese speaks of his career battling to keep the brand alive in 40 markets (and succeeding) it is not through sharp-suited hyperbole of percentage gains and new marketing campaigns, but of relationships. “We are not a big company, we are not a very important company but we are considered gentlemen in the way we do business,” he says with pride, sitting in the office built on the proceeds of doing things in the right way.

“To be considered gentlemen of business is important to us. We have family-to-family relationships with our importers that have continued from generation to generation.” His way is manners over money-making, break-bread tradition over dog-eat-dog competition, and he won’t change. To him a handshake is more a contract than an email.

Perhaps that’s because Savarese was not brought up on the mean streets of marketing. Really he is a man of Italian hospitality, running his parents’ hotel on the Sorrento coast for 15 years. His father had built the hotel and when he passed away a 20-year-old Savarese was plunged into managing the operation. In his mid-30s he followed in his father’s footsteps by restoring an old building in Tuscany and opening his own hotel. It was a retreat to a simpler life, but his biggest challenge was yet to come.

In 1996 Savarese was asked to join Strega – the famous old company on his mother’s side. In traditional families in Italy, the reins of business tend to be handed down from father to son. But at Strega there was a break in the chain – along the vertical there were only daughters. So two nephews were asked to start the generational transition, Savarese and his cousin, D’Avino.

The boom for Strega was about a century before they took charge – their job was one of managing markets, keeping the brand visible and buoyant above water.

“When Italians started to emigrate to the US, Latin America – such as Argentina and Brazil – and Australia people bought products such as Strega with them because it was a flag of Italy; they identified with it,” says Savarese. “That set the tone for the brand.” The early family members recognised that a redistribution of Italians opened the way for global distribution of the brand. “People would offer it for Christmas. It became popular in international bars and hotels,” says Savarese. “Really our generation found an open road. In Brazil and Argentina it was so popular they made imitations.”

So the brand was known, but keeping old country traditions in the minds of the Italian diasporas that eventually became second, third and fourth-generation, was an increasing challenge. The memory fades, traditions dilute. Even back at home aperitifs and liqueurs no longer have the tradition they once had.

Savarese may have a traditional inclination and is certainly travelling less than he was, but he knows the wind has changed for the small liqueur business.

He is prepared to do something about it. Last year Strega appointed its first global brand ambassador, the insatiably social bartender and Americanophile Matteo Zed. Then came its first cocktail competition, which, in its second year (a few months ago), took in Italian competitors stationed outside of Italy (mini ambassadors for the brand, is the thinking). This year at Tales there will be two activities put on by Strega. These are all small endeavours but they go to the heart of the bartending community.

“Bartenders will be a good way to develop Strega in the future,” says Savarese. “Strega is appropriate for cocktails – it has a strong, complex character, it spends six months in spices and six months in oak. Before people would drink it with water or tonic water but now I see the best way is mixing it in cocktails.”

The thinking is sound. Chartreuse, Galliano, Benedictine, Suze and Becherovka have all grown in popularity in recent years – somehow garnering a bartender buzz from a void. Along with Strega, what these ancient liqueurs have spewing out of their maceration tanks – and what new-to-market brands can only fabricate – is a history, story and authenticity. Strega, for example, means ‘witch’ in Italian. It was named after the legend of witchcraft that took place around the town of Benevento from Roman times. The liqueur has been in Benevento since it launched. Not bad for the press release – throw in handcrafted production, unbroken family stewardship, Campari-esque vintage art (see above left) and you have a quintessential – almost iconic – Italian liquor brand. “In the world there are not so many authentic values – people imitate the past,” says Savarese. “But we are authentic.”

With younger generations around him, you get the feeling Savarese has one eye on preparing the business for succession. Perhaps not for a while – he and his cousin have several years left in the tank – but if there’s one thing he believes in, it is that Strega Alberti’s strength is in its family.