Pre-prohibition cocktails and modern twists on classics

Calisaya

Calisaya

A previously lost ingredient in the US with a history almost 400 years long, Calisaya has been recently revived. Haven’t heard of it? Read on to learn more.

Flipping through pre-prohibition cocktail books, it’s not uncommon to come across a few ingredients that you’ve never heard of before.  At first this was because I just didn’t know that many ingredients, but as I became more educated a few remained mysterious.

Cinchona (a major source of quinine) is what gives tonic its “bitter” flavor.

One of the ingredients that came up in a few recipes was Calisaya. At first, I had no clue what the heck it was; but through the powers of Google, I quickly learned that Calisaya was a bittersweet orange Italian amaro, made from Cinchona. As a bitter/Campari addict, I knew I needed to try some. Unfortunately, I also learned that Calisaya hadn’t been produced for quite some time.

So I forgot about Calisaya and went along my merry way. Until one day I saw it on the shelf at a liquor store. Could it have been revived? Back on Google, I did a little research. Turns out the folks at Elixir, an Oregon company, had indeed revived this long lost ingredient. Obviously, I decided to pick some up and give it a shot.


Calisaya 3


How’s it made?

According to Elixir, they get Cinchona bark from Peru, macerate it with flowers/botanicals from Europe and then add bitter orange flavor from Seville oranges. Neutral spirit is added and the mixture is allowed to blend for a while. Later the flowers and botanicals are removed, sugar, water and more neutral spirit is added. The final product is filtered multiple times and taste tested before bottling.

Notes:

Quinine and citrus with an effervescent aroma. Hints of spice linger beneath the surface. Bitter and light up front, the citrus starts to come through. Notes of allspice and clove at the finish with a lingering bittersweet spiced root and orange flavor, leaving a light syrupy residue on the tongue to remember it by. Balanced bitter and sweet accents throughout. The mouth feel and sweetness is similar to Gran Classico, but the flavor itself is quite different.

Proof:

70 Proof (35% ABV)


Calisaya 5


History:

One of the most interesting stories behind a spirit, the history of Calisaya is intimately intwined with the disease Malaria. For centuries in Rome, inhabitants fell ill to this disease during the summer months. The locals thought it had something to do with a summer breeze bringing foul smelling air into the city from the nearby swampy areas (which were extensively mosquito infested). They named the disease “mal’aria,” which meant bad air. The cyclical fevers caused by malaria occur every few days and were known as tertian or quartan fevers.

Many fell ill to and died from Malaria in the summer months, including members of the army, cardinals and even a Pope or two. No one was safe from its effects. Pope Urban was elected in the early 1600s, after the death of the prior Pope Gregory due to Malaria. Urban promoted missions across the world as well as the Santo Spirito pharmacy in Rome.


Calisaya 4


Once such mission in Puru during the early 1600s came upon an world altering discovery, a Peruvian bark from the “Fever Tree” that had been curing Peruvians of Malaria for years, due to its quinine content. This bark, Cinchona Calisaya, was brought back to Europe and eventually Rome by one of the missionaries and eventually led to the eradication of malaria from Europe.

In order to make the bark more palatable, it was often mixed with alcohol, herbs and honey. The resultant amaro, Cinchona Calisaya, became popular for both medicinal and recreational consumption throughout Europe, even after Malaria was no longer a threat. Like many amari, Calisaya became known as a cure all for many other ailments.


Calisaya Ad from the 1800s (source: openlibrary.org)

Calisaya Ad from the 1800s (source: openlibrary.org)


Calisaya also made its way into a number of classic cocktails. The Old Waldorf Astoria Barbook (1935 reprint) lists 10 cocktails featuring the amaro. Somewhere between then and now, Calisaya slid into obscurity. Only recently has it been revived by the folks at Elixir, who are slowly working to reestablish it in the US market. While still limited in availability, Calisaya is definitely worth trying, especially if you are into bittersweet orange flavors, or even just the history behind it. At the time of this writing Calisaya is only available in Oregon, Washington, California and DC (score!), but you can also order it online from various merchants.


Calisaya 2


Have you tried Calisaya? What did you think of it? Looking for a few cocktails? Check out one of my favorite originals, featuring Rye, Fernet-Branca and Calisaya, called The Study. Another original called Gentian Dream is also delicious. For some of the classic Calisaya cocktails, check out the cocktail section of the Calisaya website by clicking here.


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13 Responses to “Calisaya”

    • The Straight Up

      MacArthur Beverage (Bassin’s) and Ace Beverage have it. I’ve seen it at a couple other random spots as well but MacArthur has the best price I’ve seen (it’s not cheap – 50 bucks).

      Reply
  1. Brother Cleve

    Calisaya was originally a Spanish liqueur, although the Italians eventually lifted the word as well. But it appears that they produced it differently…Italian Calisaya is an Aromatized wine (not fortified), whereas this version replicates the Spanish liqueur. The Italians use cinchona in their dolceamaros such as China Martini and Ferro-China (pronounced KEE-na, just like the French word Kina).
    All that said, the Oregon Calisaya is delicious and unique. I hope they can expand their sales into more states!

    Reply
    • The Straight Up

      Brother Cleve,

      Thanks for the comment. I found getting accurate history on this liqueur to be a bit difficult. I’ve read conflicting stories on the discovery of quinine, some saying it was the Spanish Jesuit missionaries (since it was named after the Countess), other the Italians Jesuits. That part aside, it is then also debated (both in the “normal” and medical literature) whether the bark was first brought back to Spain or to Rome. Perhaps the most likely explanation is that it was the Spanish, but that the bark quickly made it’s way to Rome (since it was claimed to have been used there shortly after it’s discover and was closely tied with missionaries); then again this is just conjecture on my part to simplify things. Maybe it would be better for me to adapt the article to be more “vague” on this point since it seems contended in the literature.

      That aside, I could find almost nothing about the true nature of the original liqueurs made with Calisaya. I had seen some of the information about the Spanish vs Italian products on the Internet Cocktail Database when researching, but wasn’t able to find much more about it. I also saw some bottles from the 1970s of Spanish Calisaya for sale online, but couldn’t find anything to date its earlier forms. Regardless, it sounds like from what you and the Cocktail Database are saying it would be more accurate to credit the Spanish with the origin of the liqueur from which this expression takes it’s recipe (in contrary to the company’s claims). If you know of any additional sources of information that would help improve the history, I’d love know so that I can make the article as accurate as possible. For now I’ll revise things as discussed above.

      Thanks again,

      Nick

      Reply
      • Brother Cleve

        Hi Nick

        The information available on all the various aperitivi can be conflicting (let’s see, Carpano created vermouth in 1786, but Cinzano started producing it in 1757?). And this contemporary US version is made by an Italian, so the story on the bottle may be skewed that way.

        Look at it this way. The area of South America where cinchona bark was found – Peru, Bolivia – was conquered by the Spaniards. So I like the theory of a Spanish missionary, probably Jesuit, learning of this from the native people. We know priests and monks had been creating elixers for a few centuries by this point. They bring it back to Spain, but the mother church is in Rome so it gets shown to the bosses there early on. Curiously, it isn’t until 1846 that quinine makes its debut in spirits, with both Dubonnet and St-Raphaël being created for the contest the French government hosts, to reduce malaria in the Foreign Legion in Algeria.

        From what I’ve seen, which is the same info you have found, is that Calisaya/Calasaia/Calasay is a liqueur, fairly high in proof (35%), made more often in Spain but it did exist in Italy, though I have no evidence that it still does as a liqueur. One website lists it as Carthusian origin. Italian Chinas are bitter amari, withthe sweet, thick Martini at 25% abv and minty Ferro-China at 21%. French quinquina favors non-fortified Aromatized wines – Dubonnet at 14.8%, St-Raphaël at 14. Kina L’Avion d’Or is 18%, but Lillet at 17% is lightly fortified with brandy . The most interesting item I’ve encountered is Italian — Rovero Calisaya, which is a fortified desert wine from Asti, aromatized with quinine at 16% abv. It resembles a Chinato, but it isn’t. Thats the only Italian product called Calisaya that I can find.

        And yeah there’s Byrrh, Bonal, Picon, Duhommard – the French have excelled at quinine and gentian based wines and spirits.

        Considering all this, my instinct is that it’s a Spanish liqueur and that the Italians and the French have slightly similar versions…and the Italians have used the same name on occasion (see the CocktailDB image). The Calisaya liqueur from Oregon is spicier and hotter ABV-wise than any other quinine beverages in my bar, and I really enjoy it. I think I’ll go make a Montauk Riding Club now

      • The Straight Up

        Brother Cleve,

        Yeah it can definitely be tough to get things sorted out. Lot’s of contradictions in the world of cocktails, and I’m sure more of history than scholars would care to admit.That theory sounds like what I am beginning to lean toward. It’s tidy and it just makes sense. Thanks again for the insight and information. You’re right also, sometimes the best thing to do is just enjoy the spirits. Hope that Montauk Riding Club turned out well for you.

        Nick

      • Brother Cleve

        Yes, it was quite nice, thank you. But to clarify further, it dawned on me that I have had Licor Calisay in Barcelona years ago. It’s listed as a Catalan spirit, and in fact its still produced and sold there. It’s a liqueur of similar color and ABV as the Oregon Calisaya. The spelling Calasaia is indeed a Catalanian type spelling. Everything I read about it claims that’s where it’s origins lie. Lots of pix of bottles out there , too.

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