The partnership between Bordiga 1888 and Velier began with the rediscovery of the Cuneo-based distillery’s old traditional recipes for Mulassano vermouth and aperitifs. Today, Bordiga products play a central role in Velier's portfolio. History, philosophy and utmost attention to ingredient quality is what makes this Italian distillery truly exceptional. This is why we decided to take you on a tour of Bordiga and its products.
The Bordiga distillery and its uniqueness
We arrive on a beautiful late winter day, the sun shining on the Maritime Alps.
These mountains could be defined as an ingredient - and indeed an essential one - of Bordiga's work. The influence of the marine climate combined with the extreme temperatures and thin air of the mountains creates a unique microclimate where botanicals thrive and, as we shall see, it allows them to take in and concentrate the essential oils that make Bordiga products one of a kind.
The distillery is located in a traditional building enclosing an inner courtyard. This is their historic site, today listed by the national cultural and artistic heritage authorities as a protected building. This is where the history of the distillery started and has been continuing ever since its foundation in 1888.
We are greeted by Riccardo, sales manager; Maria Chiara, marketing officer; and the distillery boys Andrea, Alessio and Mario, all coming out to welcome us.
To start with, Riccardo tells us the story of the distillery.
The adventure began with cavaliere Pietro Bordiga, originally from Val Grana, a valley in the Cuneo area not far from the village of Pradleves. At the time he was married and living in Turin, where he created his own vermouth recipe in the late 1800s. At the height of Risorgimento and in the heart of what was then the most influential city in Italy, Turin vermouth was an immediate and, indeed, long-lasting success. Today Caffè Mulassano, one of the oldest historic cafes in Italy, still has its own vermouth produced according to Bordiga's exclusive recipe.
The excellent quality of his products soon brought cavaliere Bordiga a large number of requests from several important cafes in the city. And so it was that the cavaliere started his business as a spirit producer, opening his distillery in Cuneo.
Pietro Bordiga had almost certainly been employing local craftsmen in the Cuneo area to make his products even earlier, which would push the actual origins of the distillery further back in time. Regardless, Bordiga was officially founded in 1888. This means the philosophy and product quality that originally inspired the founder have remained unchanged for well over a century.
Bordiga still uses carefully selected, top quality raw materials for its products. What makes it truly unique is that botanicals are strictly hand-picked by the residents of the valley, with the utmost respect for tradition as well as for natural, authentic ingredients.
For Pietro Bordiga, the choice of this site was anything but random. In addition to being his birthplace, the Maira Valley was also ideally and strategically located.
To start with, it is thickly wooded and a primary source of unique, superior quality ingredients. Its proximity to the Langhe region meant, and partly still means, that wine supplies were readily available, though at the time the Piedmont vineyards were much more extensive and closer to the valley than today. Also, the nearby mountains are a handy source of wild herbs, which are hand-picked for Bordiga products and, as we mentioned, are also among the most interesting in the world, as the area's closeness to the Mediterranean results in a high concentration of essential oils. It is the combination of the two climates - marine and alpine - that makes plants grow naturally luxuriant and rich in essential oils, including for example a unique variety of genepy found nowhere else in the world.
In addition to the great availability of exceptional botanicals, proximity to the Mediterranean and easy access to Piedmont wine, another key feature of the Occitan valleys is that they used to be a major thoroughfare for trade.
Located on the main route connecting Turin to Genoa and Marseille, in the past the region was a transit place for a large variety of goods, including valuable spices from the East. This made it easy to source exotic ingredients that further boosted the quality of Bordiga's products.
What does it mean to pick botanicals by hand?
Something that cannot be emphasized enough - and that we can see for ourselves on our tour - is that at Bordiga production is entirely performed in-house.
Botanicals are hand-picked and brought to the distillery by the pickers themselves - local farmers or herdsmen who gather herbs as independent workers and sell them to Bordiga.
The botanicals are dried at high altitudes, then combined with other carefully selected ingredients and processed here, each step carried out with an almost religious respect for the land.
Another of the distillery's fundamental values is treasuring Italian ingredients - not just the botanicals of the valley but also, for example, almonds from Apulia or chinotto from Savona, as part of Italy's heritage of premium food specialties.
Hand-picking is also an Italian custom, a way to keep a precious mountain tradition alive while also helping the community and local residents financially by offering them an additional source of income.
The “hand-picked” stamp is a very clear indication of the philosophy behind the distillery. While the "organic" mark obviously does not apply to wild, uncultivated plants, harvesting by hand means that Bordiga's ingredients are actually more than simply "organic".
Needless to say, the plants grow with no pesticides, fertilizers, or any other chemical or artificial substance. Production follows the seasons and the climate, according to the principle “Love nature without forcing it,” as Riccardo explains.
In line with this philosophy, for example, Bordiga is also working towards using green energy insofar as possible, while also striving to self-produce electricity from renewable sources.
Harvesting by hand also means taking advantage of the benefits of the human element, since pickers can select the best, ripest and most fragrant botanicals, while a machine would obviously gather everything, including plants that are unripe or less rich in essential oils and waste material.
Genepy is the only cultivated botanical used at the distillery, as it's only available in very limited quantities in the wild. Still, it is sourced from nearby valleys, which produce a unique, exceptionally fragrant variety.
Although wild genepy is found in Piedmont, Bordiga does not recommend using it, as it's increasingly rare and picking it would jeopardize the survival of the species in the valley. It would also encourage local pickers to simply rip it up out of the ground, which would cause the plant to die. Genepy mostly grows in schist soil, and pulling it up damages its very fragile roots. The best way to pick it is to cut it, taking care to preserve the delicate roots.
Bordiga's genepy farming protocol requires plants to be grown at an altitude of over 2000 meters. At lower altitudes, the increasingly humid climate of recent years would cause the plants to suffer. No chemical substance is used, as the plant would not tolerate it - just water.
And, as we mentioned, genepy is the only non-wild botanical used by Bordiga. Even juniper grows wild: the surrounding mountain valleys are so abundant with the fragrant berries that at first glance they look farmed.
In line with these principles, the distillery is also trying to train pickers in order to provide them with better tools and knowledge. Offering pickers theoretical and practical training is crucial in preserving traditional products, states Riccardo. Increasing local knowledge of wild herbs is an investment worth making, especially nowadays, as the development of chemical synthesis processes make it possible to do almost everything artificially, with the risk of losing an invaluable part of the local natural heritage.
Bordiga's sourcing policy involves a large number of local licensed pickers.
With the exception of the snowy months, harvesting can take place all year round, each plant picked at the best time.
Once at the distillery, herbs are processed individually to preserve their specific properties, as each one needs to be treated differently.
Processing methods inspired from tradition
Riccardo then shows us the traditional recipes written in Pietro Bordiga's original book. The book is a truly ancient artifact collecting all of the cavaliere's recipes. It is carefully preserved in the building and still consulted today. It is an important part of the historic heritage of Italy's liquor industry.
Those recipes, written in his own hand, are still the basis for the current recipes, although they have been revised - always in keeping with tradition - to meet modern palates.
For example, Riccardo explains, a century ago products used to be much sweeter, for the simple reason that sugar was used much more liberally. Since sugar was very expensive as well as a good preservative, it was believed that products rich in sugar were also the finest. As another example, Pietro Bordiga almost certainly exported to South America a kind of vermouth that closely resembled molasses - a very sweet, dense concentrate that was then diluted on site, something that would definitely be regarded as overly sweet, if not undrinkable, by modern consumers.
However, with the necessary adjustments, traditional recipes still inspire Bordiga's products to this day. Most importantly, the distillery still employs the original traditional production processes.
In addition to botanicals, other ingredients used at the distillery include: 100% wheat alcohol, pure mountain water, premium oriental spices and wine from the Langhe region.
And one of the two stills in use dates back to the 1700s.
But first things first.
Where alcohol meets botanicals
Once the pickers have brought the botanicals to the distillery, they negotiate the payment, with fees varying according to season and plant availability. That's where Mario comes into play - in over thirty years of experience he has developed an amazing ability to recognize the best ingredients while also acting as the go-to person for pickers, whom he has known for decades and with whom he bargains in their native Piedmont dialect. The plants are then brought inside, ready for their encounter with alcohol.
Andrea shows us the alcoholate - a mixture of water and alcohol - and tells us about the marriage between the botanicals and the alcoholate.
The beating heart of the distillery is the use of pure alcohol to extract the plants’ full aromatic spectrum.
More in detail, the alcohol is produced exclusively from grains, always higher than 96% ABV, by a distillery 20 km from here. Alcohol content is then adjusted by adding pure water.
Upon their arrival at the infusion area, the botanicals are processed and steeped into alcoholates of different ABVs, depending on the type of extraction required. The infusion time also varies: 5 to 6 days for distillates, as long as 30 to 45 days for infusions.
Macerated botanicals are then pressed to retrieve more of the precious alcohol. The liquid resulting from the maceration period is still cloudy and will be separated from the solids using only paper filters.
The aromatic part is extracted by distillation and will then be used as a base for the distillery's spirits. The dried botanicals - some of which are crushed, depending on the type of plant - are steeped in grain alcohol diluted to 80% ABV. They are then loaded and distilled.
The liquid is distilled with part of the botanicals still in it, for two reasons: first, because the heat makes it possible to extract part of the aromatic compounds that cannot be extracted by infusion alone; and second, the botanicals still contain a lot of alcohol that needs to be recovered.
Bordiga's oldest still, dating back to the 1700s, is French style. It's a wood-fired bain-marie still, very difficult to manage.
It has a capacity of approximately 70 litres. It's a bit "rough", as Andrea explains, meaning that, as it’s wood-fired, it distils continuously, and being good at managing it means constantly keeping the distillation rate in check so that it's not too fast and doesn't entrain too many aromatic molecules during boiling.
Wood must be added a little at a time, and the task of constantly feeding the fire and trying to make it burn as evenly as possible is very challenging as it can only be adjusted by eye - and "by nose" - relying on experience. Also, there is no filter between the boiler and the condenser, says Andrea - there isn't a single gasket, only male-female fittings, with the male locking onto the female.
As Mario tells us, the fire is mainly fuelled with beechwood or other kinds of hard wood that don't carbonize quickly and ensure a long combustion time.
The bain-marie boiler avoids caramelization, burning and other problems that could affect the product's clearness.
The resulting products are crystal-clear and extremely refined in terms of organoleptic properties.
The second still is more modern and electrically powered, with a capacity of about 200 litres. It could potentially handle up to twice as much, Mario explains, but at Bordiga it is loaded with a maximum of 200 litres to avoid entrainment later on, as it has no columns or rectifying sections.
On top of the still is a pre-condenser - called a "dephlegmator" in jargon - a sphere where the distillate, still in a gaseous state, concentrates. The pre-condenser cools and condenses the first part of the distillate, so the liquid can flow down and continue cooling in the coil immersed in cold water as it normally would.
The marriage between infusions and / or distillates, water and sugar
Dating back to the end of the 19th century, Bordiga's vault was traditionally a wine cellar, with tanks filled from above using trapdoors. During World War II, these cellars also served as air-raid shelters, partly destroyed by bombings and later rebuilt.
This is the "sancta sanctorum" - the place where all of the infusions, both single and mixed, and distillates are separated and stored in two-litre glass bottles, so a supply of not-too-fresh infusions is always on hand. The products are stored here long enough to allow them to evolve.
This is also where the alcohol and bigger tanks are stored for larger production volumes.
The finished products are obtained using motor-powered mixing tanks. Water and sugar are mixed, then the flavours are added. This is done as quickly as possible to avoid stressing the product, as the aromatic compounds oxidate very easily and the more the product is stirred, the likelier it is for aromatic properties to be lost later on.
The mixing speed varies according to the mixture volume: 3 hectolitres mix in 30 seconds, 20 hectolitres in 3-4 minutes.
An exception to this is vermouth. The production of Bordiga's vermouth requires the wine to be mixed for several days while refrigerated, in order to reduce alcohol evaporation. The wine is mixed with sugar to obtain a sort of syrup; the mixing time is longer due to the larger mixture volume. The liquid is then flavoured with infusions and distillates and fortified to adjust the ABV for bottling.
The wine's ABV is increased by 1% to 2% by the infusions and distillates, while another 3% to 4% comes from adding pure grain alcohol.
Wine acidity is a key factor, so Bordiga always tries to work with the same supplier or winemaker.
After mixing, it's time for the first 10-day rest, followed by paper filtering when required. Then the product is left to rest for another 20 days and filtered again if needed.
The filters are simply a physical barrier made of pure cellulose that only retains solids. Paper filtering is a very gentle technique that only prevents dregs, although a small part may still be left over as is normal when working with organic matter.
In keeping with tradition, Bordiga uses gravity filtration, but they are considering the use of pumps in order to preserve the product's aroma as it used to be in the old days.
The product is now finished and ready for bottling, also done on site.
After our journey into the heart of this historic distillery, we can say we witnessed Bordiga's fully transparent work as well as respect for both tradition and nature, with clearly exceptional results to the eyes, to the palate and to the nose.
Bordiga's only secrets are the ratios of botanicals, infusions and distillates in the mixes, and they will remain a secret, as it should be.
We will be back at the beginning of the summer bloom, when we will follow the blossoming of wild botanicals along the local pickers' high-mountain trails.