Oranges today are commonplace, but they were once among the rarest and most highly prized of culinary treats. Blood oranges, a natural mutation of the sweet orange, have always occupied a special place in the world of citrus. While they may have first appeared on the scene in Asia, they migrated to the Mediterranean shortly afterward, and today are the primary variety of orange grown in Italy. Connoisseurs and botanists alike will tell you that Sicily has the best climate for growing citrus, and that the island is the source for the finest blood oranges.
The Sanguinello is considered by many to be the most distinctive of the blood orange cultivars. Originally found in Spain in 1929, it is now grown throughout Sicily. It is a small orange with a seductive perfume, deep crimson flesh, a perfect acid balance, and deep pink juice with overtones of raspberry. Given all that, it’s surprising that no one thought of turning it into a mass-market liqueur until recently.
Solerno Blood Orange Liqueur ($35) launched in 2010. It is made from oranges grown on Mount Etna and processed at the Agrumeria Coroleone, where five generations of the Coroleone family (no relation, presumably) have extracted essential oils from citrus. It is blended with neutral spirit, Italian lemon and natural sugar, and produced by master distiller Lesley Gracie, best known for Hendrick’s Gin.
When you pour Solerno, the first thing you notice is that it’s clear and colorless---which is a bit disorienting, since it’s packaged in a scarlet-tinted glass bottle. The nose is redolent with rich, tart citrus and enough acidity to make your mouth water. Tasted neat, the liqueur offers sweetness on entry, followed by intense orange flavors in the mid palate; the sugary texture comes back full force on the finish. While not particularly complex, the flavor profile is charming.
Of course, few people are going to drink Solerno neat. The very nature of the spirit lends itself to designer cocktails, and intricate ones at that. There are a few interesting recipes on the website (solernoliqueur.com), but I decided to experiment. After a few tries, a 4:1 proportion of vodka to Solerno, embellished with three or four dashes of Regan’s Orange Bitters, made a very appealing Martini.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, published by Lyons Press (Globe Pequot); for more information, go to iconicspirits.net.