This July I visted the town of Saronno, Italy, and the blending and bottling house where they make Disaronno liqueur (formerly known as Disaronno Amaretto).
So The Legend Goes
Disaronno, as with many brands, is based on a legend involving a beautiful woman and a secret manuscript. We visited the chapel where the story begins.
In the 1400s, the Sanctuary of Our Lady of the Miracles was founded in Saronno. For a later addition to the chapel in 1525, a painter named Bernardino Luini found a model for the Virgin Mary in a local widowed innkeeper, and used her face in the paintings in the chapel.
As a reward for this honor, the innkeeper gave the painter a present of a flask of liqueur, which was what would become Disaronno. The brand claims that this was the first amaretto liqueur, “amaretto” meaning “a little bit bitter.”
In the 1600s, a member of the Reina family supposedly rediscovered the old recipe, and it was commercialized in the early 1900s. The Reina family still owns the company.
The Company Today
Today Disaronno is one brand from a big company named ILLVA. A big part of the company is a flavor company called Real Aromi. This part makes the flavors that go into the liqueurs. Other spirits made in the facility include Zucca, Tia Maria, and an amaro called 18.
How Disaronno Makes Bitter Almond Oil
Probably the most important ingredient in Disaronno is the essential oil made from bitter almonds.
Bitter almonds are illegal to sell as a food product in the US, because they contain a chemical that converts to the poison cyanide. Sweet almonds is what we crunch on. Neither type of almond is a true nut; they are pits of fruits.
As I understand it, there are many varieties of both sweet and bitter almonds, and both share the same botanical genus as the peach. While sweet almonds (as well as the tree) are just called almonds , bitter almonds can be either a particular almond tree/nut, or (as is the case at Disaronno) the pits of related stone fruits. The folks at Disaronno seemed to say that no matter if the pit comes from cherries, peaches, or apricots, it's still a bitter almond.
According to Wikipedia, "The fruits from Prunus dulcis var. amara are always bitter as are the kernels from other Prunus species like apricot, peach and cherry (to a lesser extent)."
For Disaronno they purchase 300 tons of bitter almonds (apricot pits) annually. They only use their oil for their product; they don’t sell it to other companies.
So, bitter almonds, which here are the kernels of apricots, are first crushed in a machine that grinds them into a flour. This flour is then soaked in hot water, which separates the flavor components from the sugars in the pits.
This is similar to making scotch whisky, in which ground malted barley is heated with hot water to separate the sugars from the solids. The sugary water is used and they leave the solids behind. For Disaronno, though, they don’t want the sugars and they do want the flavors.
The sugar and heated almond flour mix is then distilled under pressure (which allows you do to it a lower temperature), so that they don’t cook the bitter almonds. The run the still at a max of 50 degrees Celsius. Note that this is a water distillation, not an alcoholic one.
As is typical in distillation, the lighter components boil over and leave the heavy ones behind. This includes not only the almond solids (which are sold to make biscuits and other Italian treats), but also the poisonous arsenic that is contained in pits. (At ArtOfDrink, Darcy O’Neill studies the problem of cyanide in pits.)
The result of the distillation after condensation is oils and water. These are kept in a tank and left to naturally separate. They then pull off the bitter almond essential oil to use to make Disaronno, and save the water to use in the next distillation.
We smelled the raw essential oil - it has those high orange/cherry notes, sweet nuts, and marzipan notes typical of Disaronno, but also a bit of a marker smell that thankfully doesn't show in the final product. The essential oil is not bitter from the bitter almonds, as those aromas are heavier and don't pass through their distillation.
The Blending and Bottling Facility
The production and administrative offices for Disaronno, Real Aromi, and the ILLVA are in an industrial office park of sorts in Saronno. We were the first group of press ever allowed into the facility, but alas, no pictures were allowed of the production part.
While the office building is decked out in modern style with gray and white backgrounds with red accents and modern art on the walls, the rest of the facility seems to hold anonymous buildings in which all the magic happens. We visited a chemical analysis lab, the bottling room, blending room, and the areas where they make the almond essential oils and other flavors.
We started in the herb storage room, which was full of big sacks of things like Chinese rhubarb (which smells like smoky curry and I later tasted as a note in Campari), ginseng roots and vanilla beans, along with things like Glucinex, propylene glycol, and dextrose monohydrate.
The extraction room was filled with all different sorts of stainless steel vats and tubs, with a few older machines scattered about. (The flavoring part of the company only relocated to this spot a year ago – before that it was in southern Italy.)
Some of the vats were soaking vats, where water and/or alcohol is combined with a flavor to extract it. In front of one row of vats was a centrifuge that runs sideways, like the one I’d seen at Cointreau.
Other tubs rotate slowly sideways to keep liquids and solids mixing.
A set of cool-looking stills that basically hang from the ceiling perform distillation under pressure for the purpose of concentrating ingredients. So while in a typical alcohol distillation we distill over the parts we want and throw out what’s left in the bottom of the still, here they keep the reminders and discard or recycle what comes out of the still. They were making ginger and guarana concentrates when we were there.
Another room was filled with a single giant machine for making powdered flavors. The flavor components are combined with starches and the liquids are flicked around the inside of a big diamond shaped box. When the liquids hit the sides of the box (I think it is heated), the liquids evaporate and the starches and flavors remain together. The solids then fall to the bottom of the diamond and into a collection bag below.
Putting It all Together: How Disaronno Is Made
Bitter almond essential oil is one of the two main flavoring components of the liqueur. The other is vanilla. These flavors (and probably others, the recipe is a secret) are combined with water, sugar, alcohol, and coloring.
First water and sugar are combined to make a weak syrup. Alcohol and the flavorings are combined and added together. Then the coloring comes after the mixture has rested for 2 hours. The flavored oils are added with alcohol, as aroma molecules are soluble in alcohol (we learned more about this at that Mixing Star Lab), and with this method the water won't blow off the aromas.
Disaronno is then bottled. In most parts of the world it is bottled at 28% ABV but in Spain and Australia it is bottled at 20% (because apparently you can only advertise alcohols under a certain percent), and it is bottled at that same lower ABV for Ohio and Alaska due to bigger tax rates at higher strengths in those states.
The alcohol base is dervied from either sugar beets or sugar cane (they say it's the same once it's distilled up super high), and the sugar used to sweeten it comes from sugar beets.
Thanks to Disaronno for a peek inside the process.