Italian spirits have undergone a renaissance in the US. Though many Italian distillers have sought a Denominazione di origine controllata (D.O.C.) for numerous amaro styles, which would restrict the official category to Italy (like Champagne in France), many spirits producers across the US try their hand at making bitter botanical spirits. There are several distilleries in Brooklyn alone making high-quality fernet, aperitivi, and amari. Faccia Brutto, which opened in Williamsburg in March this year, is the latest to enter the scene.
Faccia Brutto, founded by Patrick Miller (the former Executive Chef of Rucola), produces Old World Italian spirits in Brooklyn. And, before you ask, Miller is aware that Faccia Brutto is grammatically incorrect. (Technically, it should be “Faccia Brutta.”) Miller wanted to lean into the playfulness of the name, which is often used as a term of endearment.
Miller has spent a cumulative 20 years in the hospitality industry. He had always been a fan of Italian spirits and traces his amaro love to growing up in an Italian American household. However, in recent years, he developed a fervent passion for making Italian spirits.
“One year I made an orange bitters as a DIY Christmas gift,” Miller tells CH. “It started as a fun hobby. And then it became something I knew I’d want to do full time.” That decision didn’t happen overnight. Miller recognizes he was a relative newcomer to the scene. But, he honed his distilling skills and used his culinary experience to make balanced, thoughtful products. Sharing his spirits with bartenders, bottle shop owners, and his partner (“who has a much more developed palate than I do”), helped direct Miller to make quality amari.
“I talked to a few bartenders because I wanted to know what they wanted in a spirit,” Miller shares. “And they said, ‘If you want us to use it, put it in a bottle that’s easy to hold. Don’t make it square like Patron. Think about the bartender who has to pick it up 50 times a night.’”
“They were my touchstones,” he continues. “I’d say, ‘Tell me what you don’t like about it. What about it can I improve.’ It was in R&D for about five-and-a-half years. Bartenders were a huge part in the development of the spirits.”
Miller says the boom of amari and Italian spirits in America is owed, in part, to Brooklyn-based writer Brad Thomas Parsons. “He’s helped by exposing people in the food and beverage industry to [amaro],” Miller says. “And from there causing small ripples. People are becoming more aware; people are getting more into it. It’s more accessible than it ever was. And that’s mostly because of smaller distilleries.“
When he was looking for inspiration for his own products, Miller turned to traditional, classic Italian distilleries and the amari that he grew up drinking. “Varnelli has been around forever and they make an amaro called Sibilla, which is the most delicious and complex and pleasantly bitter amaro out there,” Miller recalls. “For me, that was the quintessential amaro because it had everything I liked. It had bitterness, it had complexity, it had balance.”
When talking about Faccia Brutto, Miller returns to the same word. “For me, balance is everything.” When questioned further, Miller says that he doesn’t mean neutral or bland. His flavor descriptors are informed by the culinary world. “You need it to be balanced,” Miller says, “It can’t be too acidic, can’t be too salty. If it’s not balanced it won’t be good. And then, people won’t eat at your restaurant. Balance is number one.” Once he’s achieved, in his mind, a balanced flavor, Miller seeks accuracy. “Is it indicative of the style I’m trying to make or emulate?” he asks.
Finally, as a pragmatist, Miller needs to sell his spirits. “Let’s just say I make something and it’s balanced and true to style but no one wants to buy it,” he continues. “It won’t sell.” Making quality spirits starts with the ingredients. “If you use bad ingredients, you won’t get a good product,” Miller says. “Garbage in, garbage out.”
For Miller, being an organic distillery and using quality ingredients is the “bare minimum.” “We’re working on our B-corp certification and looking to be carbon neutral,” he shares. “We recycle and compost everything.” But being a B-corp certified company doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll make a good product. Miller knows that, and is doing it because “I think it’s a good thing to do as a person.”
For a select portion of his sourcing, he works with Foraged & Found Edibles (F&F), a team of foragers supplying restaurants across the country with stellar wild foods. Miller’s relationship with F&F began in the kitchen at Rucola, supplying mushrooms and berries for certain dishes. When he started home-brewing Italian spirits, they were an obvious choice for his ingredients.
“We would buy mushrooms and stuff from them for the restaurant and when I saw that they had green walnuts I thought that I’d try making nocino,” Miller explains. “They supply me with some of the elderberries for the aperitivo, and green walnuts for the nocino. They don’t want to talk about where but they’ll say it was harvested in the Pacific Northwest. They come from unsprayed, organic trees which is great. Foragers are similar to liquor makers in terms of their secrecy.”
Part of the mystique and intrigue surrounding the world of Italian spirits is that no one really knows the ingredients in an amaro—save for the distiller of course. Part of that is the sense of protection Italian distillers have over amaro. But, even American distillers are tight-lipped about their processes.
“In the food world, everyone shares ideas,” explains Miller. “The world’s best chefs write cookbooks and include their recipes and things they’ve been working on for years and years. In liquor, there’s so little information publicly available. No one gives you any hints as to what’s in it.” But, over years of testing, working, and refining, Miller has landed on a product that, if not perfect, he’s proud of.
Once he had a quality amaro, Miller tasked NYC design team Garrett Elizabeth Office, who have worked with companies like Caraway and Outer Reach, with designing the visual identity of the brand. Faccia Brutto’s packaging is stylish, echoing apothecary bottles of yesteryear in its shape and striking a balance between whimsy and class in the label design. All of that was intentional for Miller. “A lot of people shop with their eyes,” he says. “That connection is super-important. Even at a restaurant, presentation is key. People eat with their eyes and if the plate looks like shit they’re going to think it tastes bad.”
Miller is an intentional person. The decisions he’s made while launching Faccia Brutto are done with care and consideration. Miller is realistic about the spirits he’s making. He’s led with quality branding not only because it’s aesthetically pleasing, but also because he knows it’ll stand out. He’s using organic ingredients and partnering with thoughtful suppliers because he knows using good ingredients will yield a stunning product. And it’s working.
Images by John Paradiso