In a little town in the Italian Alps grow the most flavourful botanicals in the world. When they meet a deceptively simple recipe and a distillation method honed over more than 100 years, they make a tipple that’s been sought after since the turn of the century. Meet Bordiga’s Occitan Gin.
The year was 1888, and Pietro Bordiga was getting quite the reputation.
A simple bartender in the northern Italian city of Turin – famous for its baroque buildings and austere mountain views – his homemade vermouth was the envy of all.
As Lucia Buysschaert of Bordiga Distillery explains, “In that time it was normal that every bartender made his own vermouth. But Pietro was really good at it, and so other bartenders in Turin started asking him to make some for their bars, as well.”
The quality of Pietro’s vermouth was no accident. A keen herbalist, he was fascinated by plants and all of their various uses. As vermouth is, at its heart, wine fortified with infusions of herbs, plants and additional alcohol, it was natural that Pietro, who had devoted so much time to studying and understanding the flavours and aromas of all things green, should produce the best in Turin. But if he was going to stay up all night working, he said to himself, why be tending bars when he could be following his dreams?
And so he did. “He was really interested in plants,” Lucia says of Pietro, “and how to use them, how to combine them, and he started writing many different recipes and travelling the world to discover new possibilities.”
Pietro moved an hour to the south of Turin, setting up in an ancient distillery in the town of Cuneo and calling it his own. And thus, Bordiga Distillery was born.
Pietro didn’t stop there. Driven by curiosity and a quest for perfection, he continued travelling throughout his lifetime, keeping a careful record of hundreds of recipes for new spirits in two big, leather-bound books. His notes have passed from generation to generation, and today – more than a century later – Bordiga’s master distillers still follow Pietro’s notes to the letter.
As one sip of Bordiga's Occitan Gin will tell you, this is a slice of history well worth preserving.
The Gem Of Piedmont
Perhaps the most famous mountain range in the world, the Alps snake through the intersection of three countries: Switzerland, France and Italy. But while the mountain range may be the same, each nation’s slopes are an ecosystem all their own.
“We share the Alps with France,” Lucia explains, “but if you look at the Italian side the mountains are much steeper, which gives the herbs that grow here a very special quality. Our area is very unique, because the alps are also the highest in Europe that stand this close to the sea.”
Tucked in a valley between these Italian Alps is the town of Elva. Here stone houses cling to the slopes, and the people – isolated by twisting roads and steep inclines – still speak the ancient Occitan language that once united this Alpine village with the south of France, Monaco and even as far Catalonia.
While Occitania has never been a nation in its own right, the diverse peoples who spoke the Langue d’Oc emerged as a major cultural force in the Middle Ages. Troubadours and courtly love were invented in Occitan-speaking courts in France, which also produced the famous Eleanor of Aquitaine. A queen of England, her first and preferred language – and that of her son, King Richard the Lionheart of England – was always Occitan.
But starting in the 19th century, the Occitan language started to decline. In France, it was a result of a public policy: called ‘the shaming’, schools began punishing children who spoke Occitan instead of French. Once 14 million people spoke Occitan; as of a 1999 census, that number had dwindled to a mere 610,000 native speakers, with another million exposed casually the language.
But in difficult-to-reach Elva, the isolation proved a blessing of sorts. Here the residents have managed to hold onto their heritage. Occitan is still spoken widely in the town, and the local economy still relies to some degree on the very special herbs that grow nearby.
“All of the local botanicals we use come from the area around the town, where they still speak the Occitan language,” Lucia explains. “That’s how our gin got its name.”
On the windswept and rocky slopes of the Alps, plants have to work hard to survive. In response to these hostile conditions, the plants produce more essential oils than they might in easier climes. Bolstered by the fresh sea air, Lucia says, these herbs and botanicals can’t be surpassed in terms of flavour and character.
It’s these botanicals – hand-picked on the slopes outside the town – that go into each bottle of Occitan Gin.
So how is this gin – named after an ancient language and made using the finest alpine botanicals – actually made? It will come as no surprise that the modern distillery’s methods would have make Pietro himself proud.
Distillato Con Erbe Occitane
For more than 130 years, since Pietro first arrived at his mountain distillery, the Bordiga family has called the distillery in Cuneo their home. And that’s still the case today – the last surviving Bordiga, now 90 years old, still lives there.
“He no longer does the distilling,” notes Lucia with a smile. “But he has passed down the two handwritten books of recipes to our Mario, our master distiller, who has all of the knowledge. He’s actually about to retire himself, and two very talented junior distillers – Nicola and Francesco – are running the show.”
While the names and faces of the master distillers have changed, one thing has stayed the same: the still. The antique copper still in which Bordiga's Occitan Gin was distilled is the same that Pietro found on the premises when he moved in, all the way back in 1888.
“The masterpiece of the distillery is the still,” Lucia says. “It’s a copper pot that was there when Pietro arrived; it’s been there since the 1700s. Using it is different from using modern technology. It has a unique style, and spirits made in it have a unique character.”
Without the bells and whistles of modern technology to aid him, Pietro relied on his still and his own vast knowledge of botanicals to develop the recipes written in his two leather-bound books. For his gin – which at times has had to be produced and marketed under the name Ginepro Secco Delle Alpi, when the very un-Italian word ‘gin’ was banned by Mussolini – he decided to let the flavourful botanicals speak for themselves.
There are just six botanicals in Bordiga's Occitan Gin: juniper, angelica, and coriander from the mountains around Elva, the cardamom that Pietro discovered on his travels and lemon and orange peel from the seaside.
“In that time, gin was gin,” Lucia says. “It wasn’t like today, where there are forty or fifty botanicals in a gin. Pietro Bordiga created a product that felt right for him; it’s concentrated on the juniper berries, which are so special when they’re grown in these mountains. They have an aroma and a taste that’s so unique; he focused on that, and that’s the basis of everything.”
A botanical blend this simple and classic leaves no room for error; for Pietro, and all of the distillers that have come after him, the art is in bringing out the absolute best of every botanical. To do this, the team at Bordiga approaches each element of the gin separately, giving each botanical the time it needs to extract the essence of its flavour and personality.
The resulting gin is a thing of beauty – classic and balanced, refined and unusual. It’s a true gin lover’s gin, perfectly executed and rich with heritage. It’s also, like everything that comes out of Bordiga, completely natural.
“It’s simple but still so refined,” Lucia says of Bordiga’s Occitan Gin. “You would think that it’s just a pouring gin, but when it’s mixed in cocktails it adds an extra something. It’s simple and to the point, but has something special about it.”
Once confined within Italy’s borders, Bordiga’s Occitan Gin is now poised to go global. Bartenders at some of the UK’s best bars – including London’s Freud and Ritorno, both of which have created bespoke cocktails for this issue of Ginned! Magazine – have enthusiastically embraced Occitan Gin. And this gin isn’t the only delightful distillate that Pietro created.
Bordiga creates an entire range of products, from an all-natural aperitivo to limoncello liqueur, a whole range of vermouths and even a vodka.
“Pietro just loved to create things,” Lucia says, “and we’re lucky enough to have the recipes he wrote for everything. Nothing we make is for commercial reasons; we make it because Pietro wrote the recipe in the early 1900s.”
Pietro’s passion, while he may be long gone, is still present in everything that Bordiga’s distillers create. His curiosity and innovation have evolved into a fine legacy; his recipes have become a wonderful way to honour the heritage, history and landscape of this beautiful region.
As Lucia says, “For us the most important thing is to keep the traditions alive. Sometimes we think, ‘Why the heck are we doing this?’ It’s a lot of work and a lot of attention to detail, but we’re convinced that those details make the difference.”
So whether you’re whipping up a bespoke cocktail from one of London’s finest mixologists or enjoying the perfect Italian G&T in the sunshine, let Bordiga's Occitan Gin transport you to the sunny mountainside, where the scent of fresh herbs hang in the summer air. Salute!