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Francesco Amodeo on One Year of Liqueur Success

Welcome back to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary. This month's edition takes a slightly different spin, checking in with local liqueur company Don Ciccio & Figli.
Francesco Amodeo [Photo: R. Lopez]

The number 29 is a significant one for Francesco Amodeo. The Italian-born former sommelier started his artisanal liqueur company Don Ciccio & Figli at age 29. The soft-launch of the brand took place on Oct. 29, 2012. Then the true debut, along with a Washington Post article that put Amodeo's passion project on the map, came on Jan. 29, 2013. The most recent Jan. 29 brought coverage of Don Ciccio & Figli in none other than The New York Times.

Amodeo's all-natural products stand out because they're brought to the United States straight from the Amalfi Coast — and from his family's recipe book dating back more than a century. The liqueur flavors out in the marketplace range from limoncello to mirtillo (blueberry) to concerto (15 herbs and spices with barley coffee and espresso) and are available in bars, restaurants and retail stores up and down the East Coast. Beyond selling by the bottle, Amodeo has begun doing tastings for private parties and partnering with distilleries to create custom cocktails.

To toss around just a few more numbers, Amodeo says that in all of 2013 he bottled 7,200 of this hand-crafted Italian concoctions. In just the first six weeks of 2014 he's up to 3,200 bottles, which makes him believe the second year may bring even more dramatic growth to his business. What follows is an edited version of a wide-ranging chat Eater had with Amodeo at the discrete "wet house" where the liqueur-making magic happens.

So what is the most popular flavor you sell?
Locally the most popular is the limoncello. We've sold about 50 cases in D.C. and Maryland. And then everything else came along. But different states have different flavors that are popular. In Boston we'll go through prickly pear, hibiscus and fennel. In New York mandarin, walnut, fennel. It really depends.
In the beginning I almost didn't want to make limoncello because you find so many on the shelves of stores, and I didn't know that anyone would buy it. I made 20 cases and just left them there (with the retailers). Everybody requested the other flavors, and the limoncello didn't sell.
Then when we got the Washington Post article. It completely switched. Three-hundred cases later we were like, "Oh boy, that's a lot of lemons to peel." Limoncello is the most popular overall now, but everything else is moving too.

Is there a big difference between what's sold at bars and restaurants versus stores?
You're always going to have it be different. You have restaurants that love certain flavors. For example, The Fainting Goat, I was there for an hour and a half eating at the bar recently. They went through two bottles and a half of limoncello. Imagine: that was just a Friday night between 7 and 8. And then we have the Hamilton. They did a cocktail with fennel and went through five cases a week of that. You have the stores like Batch 15, and it's different there. It depends on location, the kinds of crowd they get. Of course we do everything we can to have tastings and events and get participation as much as we can. So many people, they have to see it, taste it. With new customers, it's always word of mouth. As long as I create something, it will always be the same, and there's the consistency. Then the bottle will do the work.

You are, right now, the sole person that's here making the liqueurs from start to finish. Why not hire other people or bring on help?
I have my packaging expert, which is my wife. Mondays we do a lot of bottling together. And I actually did a training last week to have this gentleman come in and help with packaging.
That will help a lot because it takes a lot of time. And I was very surprised about the care and obsessiveness that it takes. I'm trying to train the person that every detail is very important because we can't work 24 hrs a day every day. But then if we don't put the bottle out the way it's supposed to, all the work we've just done, the hours having to be here back and forth — and we have to be here almost every 12 hours — it goes to waste.
The liqueurs are very unique, and they're 130 years old. I want to be able represent what my grandfather started.

When you decided to pursue this, was there any reluctance from your family about giving you the recipes?
Yes, but not out of jealousy. They wanted to ensure I took care of the recipes and represented them the way they were supposed to be. So they really pushed to make sure I was passionate about it. After they felt comfortable, they gave me them (the recipes).
I started to make the stuff at the restaurant [Bibiana, where he was the sommelier] to try out the recipes and see if the public liked them. It was almost moonshine. I was making it in the kitchen usually at around 11 or 12 in the morning so nobody was there and I could make a mess. People were asking to buy it and I had to say, "I can't sell it. But if you bring an empty bottle I'll fill it." I gave out about 400 plus bottles and, all of a sudden, I realized, "Wait. I'm sitting on something here." That's when the whole idea started.

What's been the hardest aspect of the business?
Licensing, because nobody in the city would know at first what I was trying to do. Try telling a guy in the Health Department your process. For a good year and a half that was our biggest challenge.
We finally got the license. We were supposed to open in June 2012, but we got some delays. There was a hole in the wall that we had to fix. So we launched in October 2012 but without publicizing or any press. I just wanted to see if I needed to change anything, so it was a soft opening.
The other challenge was to actually get distribution...You have to sell the story, yes, it's really important. But I think what really made people change their minds was the product itself. I just simply said, "If you don't want to carry my product, that's fine. We will help you do marketing, anything, though. Just try it." Then when they tasted it they saw the difference.
We started here in D.C. and Maryland. Then in April (2013) we hit Boston. Then we went to Georgia about September. So the challenge was to have enough states opening, and it takes a long time with all the compliance and the paperwork. I started to work hard to get to enough distribution to expand the brand. With this product I almost created a niche in the market, that's what my distributors eventually told me. "You were able to create a spot for yourself," they said.

What is the big difference with your products?
One thing is I use grain alcohol as a base. It has to be grain alcohol because you want to extrapolate all the flavors from inside. Sometimes with vodka, it's rectified up to eight times. They take away all the good stuff from the original batch. You need to use that flavor profile from the ingredients the alcohol comes from to give it a more clear and balanced profile.
The alcohol we get is 190 proof, and we bring it down to 58 for the limoncello. Everything from how you make 190 go down to 58 proof is very precise. This is worse than baking, because at the end of the day you do 20 batches.
That's why I come back every 12 hrs -- to check the alcohol percentage all the time. If the infusion goes down a couple degrees even, you don't want that to happen.
It also allows it to be more on the mixable side. I try not to use so much sugar to create more balance and to help the bartenders create cocktails with them.

How do you suggest consuming your products? What's the most enjoyable way to savor them?
You can simply drink it out of the fridge. Not the freezer. Neat. On the rocks. Or you can do cocktails with it. We have a huge, huge cocktail program on the website. So we collaborate with Green Hat. We do cocktails with Greenhook Ginsmiths (in Brooklyn). And every time, we try to come up with cocktails that are easy for folks to replicate at home. And then we also create fancy stuff for restaurants that don't have the time but they have a cocktail guy. We have dozens of restaurants, bars and lounges. There are about 870 locations that you can find our products — both retail and restaurants. It's hard to keep up with who has what.

What did you do to celebrate your one-year anniversary? Drink a lot of your liqueurs?
Yeah, I actually made myself a Negroni.

Since 29 is your lucky number, are you thinking you want get to 29 flavors? You mentioned it's important to control quality. So, how many flavors is too many?
Well, this is already a lot, so not 29… I think I'm very happy with what we have. Some of them, they seem to prove me wrong.

What do you mean "prove you wrong?"
Well, I was skeptical because I was creating something completely different. For example, the way we make the concerto I didn't know if people would appreciate it or like it. That was my concern. But I wanted to try. Many, many friends said that I should just do one flavor and I said, "I can't. How would I choose? What do you want me to not make?"
My vision was to reach out to different people. Different consumers. Different retailers. Different outlets. To the retail stores, make more of the classic ones. They taste it and know the brand is solid and then they're able to be more adventurous and buy others.

Did you consider the American palate and whether customers were ready for these Italian flavors?
I've lived here for now eight years and I've worked in many, many restaurants. The big thing for me was the ability to work and serve so many people. If you take the average of 1,000 people a week the last eight years, that's a lot of customers...Being the wine sommelier since I was 21 I kind of understood the way that Americans enjoy. You can't just say Americans. America is such a cosmopolitan nation; you reach out to so many different groups — European, Asian. There are all sorts of different flavors they will appreciate.

Using your liqueurs with food is something you're getting into more. What can be cooked up with the products?
The fennel is great for seafoods. Mandarin orange is great in vinaigrettes. I spoke to Spike Mendelsohn, and we were thinking to maybe do at Bearnaise Restaurant a concerto steak. You can marinate a steak with the concerto and grill it. We were talking to him, and we'll see what we can do there. (With desserts) we're going to have the mandarin and the maraschino with sorbet at Lupo Verde. I do consulting at different restaurants, so I'm helping there.

Since the early days when limoncello was a flop and then came around, as you said, have there been any other unsuccessful products? You make it sound like it's been one hit after another.
Yeah, one hit after another. And it's such an amazing feeling when you give a sample at those events and people really, really like it. You have someone who doesn't like one flavor more than another, and that's personal preference. That's why we give so many choices. But generally everybody likes it.
...I do my best to do the best product possible. But then the public has to appreciate it. That's, for me, a great satisfaction. It doesn't matter how many hours I work. Last night I was up til 2, 3 in the morning finalizing some cocktails. At 8:00 I was up again. It doesn't matter to me because of the love, the passion, and because it's a family tradition. We want to keep it real. Eventually we'll go nationwide. We're getting a huge, huge request on the East Coast, and we'll see where it goes. For me, the sky's the limit. But if I can't make it, if I can't produce it, I won't push it because I want the quality to be there.
—Dena Levitz
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