With stunning views of Tuscan hills, the warmth of a family home and a fragrant botanical garden, life at the Italian villa where January's Gin of the Month was born is truly la dolce vita. Discover the gin featured in this month's box, designed to transport you to this remarkable place, and meet the family for whom the hills of Cortona will always be home.
There are many beautiful places in the world, but few have the magical allure of Tuscany.
This northern Italian region – home of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, to name just two of the many geniuses who were born and worked here – was the centre of Italian political and artistic life for hundreds of years. But its blessings go deeper, to the very ground, and show themselves in the richly flavoured herbs that blossom on the green hillsides.
As Ugo Sabatini, elder statesman of the family behind Sabatini Gin, explains: “This is the cradle of the Renaissance, which led to the production of an astounding quality of masterpieces in practically every artistic realm – and this is where the key botanicals of London Dry gin, like juniper, orris and coriander grow.”
Ugo lives on his family’s Tuscan estate: a beautiful construction of golden stone and green shutters, where the gardens burst with lavender and lemon verbena all through the summer. Originally a hostel for pilgrims making the journey across Tuscany and Umbria – a major route for Franciscan monks at the time – the villa’s chapel dates back to the 1700s. But since the turn of the century, Ugo’s family has called this beautiful place, perched high on a hillside outside the town of Cortona, home.
“Our family roots have been set in Tuscany for generations,” says Ugo’s son, Enrico. “Despite our professional lives forcing us to live across the world, Cortona is still a common catalyst in our lives.”
Scattered across continents, the Sabatini family – father Ugo, his sons Niccoló and Enrico, and his cousin Filippo – wanted a connection to their family’s historic slice of land. That connection would take the form of the Sabatini Gin in January's Gin of the Month box, rich with the flavours of an Italian cucina, distilled with botanicals plucked right from the villa’s garden. One sip, the Sabatinis say, is enough to transport you to Tuscany.
Lavender, sage, fennel, thyme – these flavours and scents suffused the summer weeks brothers Enrico and Niccoló, along with their uncle Filippo, spent in their family’s Tuscan villa. Surrounded by olive terraces and gardens bursting with herbs, it was hard for the trio not to fall in love with the bright aromas of their happy family home, especially since their day-to-day lives were so far removed from the villa’s easy Italian elegance.
In fact, the Sabatinis were a family of long-term expats: Ugo’s grandfather had lived and worked in South America and Australia, while Filippo grew up in Argentina, where his father worked. It was a legacy that carried on into adulthood. Filippo worked in the City of London for a time, while Enrico decamped to Asia and Niccoló built a career in Switzerland. But the lure of their land kept calling them back.
As Filippo says of the hills above Cortona: “Those are special places – our legacy is closely connected to this area, and the places where our ancestors were born, lived, played as kids, married and now rest in peace.”
“The new generations see the value of the family legacy,” adds Niccoló, “and still enjoy coming over to Cortona with their friends to meet the family and reconnect to what we call ‘our unique place’.”
Even spread all across the world, the Sabatini family stays connected – both to one another, and to their ancestral land. Every year, much like the monks to which their house once played host, they make a pilgrimage back to the hills of southern Tuscany, where they can live la dolce vita for a few weeks at a time, spending their days walking the hills together and their evenings sipping G&Ts in the villa’s incredible gardens.
“Summer is the only time of the year when the family can gather together in Tuscany,” Enrico says, “and the aperitivo at the end of the day, when the countryside is at its most beautiful, has become a ritual.”
Gin, Filippo says, always played a central role in this ritual of the evening aperitivo. He says, “Gin and tonic has always been our favourite drink. Enrico started introducing us to new gins, and we discovered a whole new world!”
As the Sabatinis got to know more about gin, trying the best spirits from around the world, they started seeing connections between the botanical flavours they loved in their G&Ts and the scents and flavours they remembered from their childhood breaks on the estate. Slowly but surely, an idea came to them.
Niccoló says, “During one of our ‘aperitivi’, while sipping our gin and tonic, we said, ‘Why don’t we do our own gin?’”
“The idea didn’t seem absurd,” laughs Enrico, thinking back. “The best juniper grows in Tuscany, and our property is filled with the wild herbs that make our land so unique, and appreciated worldwide.”
It was the perfect project. Not only would creating a gin together ensure that Ugo, Enrico, Niccoló and Filippo stayed connected to one another, but it would give them the opportunity to introduce the world to the place that meant so much to them.
But it was also a daunting task: how could they create a gin as beautiful as a Tuscan sunset, and so rich with the flavours of Cortona that it would transport the drinker straight to the sun-soaked terrace of their family villa? They looked to their own gardens for a place to start.
Taste of Home
The goal of Sabatini Gin was clear from the beginning. As Ugo explains, “It’s not only about the flavour. Our gin tells a story.”
It’s the story of the Sabatini family: their lives, loves and losses, told through the bounty of their land. Whatever flavour profile they chose, it was clear that Sabatini Gin had to be a truly Tuscan gin, just as they were a truly Tuscan family. So, they took inspiration from the classic Italian flavours that had made their childhood summers at the villa so magical.
“Think of Tuscan dishes: they’re very simple,” Niccoló explains. “What makes the difference is the freshness of the ingredients.”
Enrico continues, “Once we decided to keep it simple, all we had to do was walk through our gardens to check which botanicals were available.”
A stroll through the gardens revealed the bounty they’d always known was there. Sage and lavender, thyme and lemon verbena, aromatic fennel flowers and the olive trees for which their region is so famous – all grew right outside the villa doors, bursting with flavour under the warm Italian sun. The Sabatinis collected them and began to play with flavour combinations. Very quickly, they narrowed the garden’s plenty down to the flavours and aromas they knew needed to be in their namesake gin.
Filippo says, “We knew that we wanted to give our gin the taste of our family. All of those flavours that bring back childhood memories – the lavender used by our grandmothers to keep bed sheets fresh, the taste of thyme in roasted chicken, the wild fennel used to season the potatoes on Sundays and the lemon verbena we would rub on our skin in the summer, to keep away mosquitoes.”
In the end, the Sabatinis decided on an evocative blend of Tuscan botanicals: coriander, sage, lemon verbena, olive leaves, thyme, orris, wild fennel, juniper and lavender. But, even with the botanicals decided, the Sabatinis had a long way to go. Over the course of a year, they tried a dozen recipes to find the key to their perfectly-balanced Tuscan gin. Keeping the entire family involved was a challenge at times, but the Sabatinis made the effort.
“We were shipping every sample to Cambodia, where Enrico was living at the time, so that all of us could be included in the process,” says Ugo.
And, thanks to Filippo’s London connections, the family had a key ally early on. Alessandro Palazzi, the legendary barman at Duke’s Bar at Duke’s Hotel in central London, home of the capital’s most famous Martini, was eager to help fellow Italians develop a gin that paid tribute to Tuscany.
Alessandro, who’s sometimes called 'The Godfather' for his impeccable mixology skills, tasted every iteration of Sabatini Gin. Also key to the gin’s development was Mariantonietta Varamo, a fellow Tuscan and incredibly talented bartender. Mari had already made history as the first female bartender ever to mix the perfect Martini at Duke’s Bar. She loved the gin so much – its versatility, its classic structure and its truly Tuscan flavour profile – that she joined the Sabatini team, making it her mission to introduce Sabatini into London’s tight-knit network of supremely talented bartenders.
The final product, it’s safe to say, is a triumph of Tuscan flavour – one you can experience in its homeland, if you’re willing to make the short trip to Tuscany.
Spectacular anywhere you sip it, the Sabatini Gin in this month's box takes on a whole new dimension when enjoyed in the very garden its botanicals grow. Fortunately for lovers of this ginny masterpiece, you can visit the Sabatinis’ villa to see for yourself the spectacular place where this gin was born.
After launching their gin, Niccoló, Filippo, Enrico and Ugo converted the villa’s old lemon house – where valuable lemon trees used to be cultivated behind high walls – into a bespoke gin bar.
As Ugo, who lives full-time at the property and manages the twice-weekly tours, explains: “The Gin Room is set in front of the garden where the botanicals are cultivated. Our guests can enjoy their cocktails amongst the fragrant garden, preparing their own drinks with help from a professional bartender and selecting a special mix of botanicals to complement their cocktails.”
Guests can also stay near the property, in beautifully maintained holiday villas run by Ugo and the Sabatini family. It’s an exquisite introduction to the world that inspired Sabatini Gin – and a perfect addition to your 2018 bucket list. But you don’t need to make the trip to Italy to experience the beauty of Tuscany. Just whip up a Sabatini G&T.
As Filippo says, “The gin is a tribute to our homeland. Everything started there, and this gin brings us there.”
By launching their gin, the Sabatinis have also become part of a proud Italian tradition: small, family-run businesses founded in Italy that have gone worldwide.
As Ugo says, “Italy was built on the success of family-run businesses, some of which have gone on to be leading, international brands. Our aspiration is to do the same with Sabatini Gin – to establish it as a leading, premium brand that can connect people around the world with the wonders of Tuscany.”
Whether you choose to enjoy a Sabatini Gin aperitivo in the hills of Tuscany or on your sofa at home, this beautiful gin will bring you right to the terrace at Villa Ugo – and there’s no better place to start a bright, new year.