A Brief History of Caffè Corretto

by Karin Mosca
caffè corretto

Caffè Corretto

Discover how Italy’s famous caffè corretto (literally “corrected coffee”) came to be, as well as uncovering some of the country’s many regional variations, tips for making your own at home, and much more in this whistle-stop tour through Italian coffee-spiking tradition.

The Birth of Caffè Corretto

The tradition of caffè corretto originated with the workers of northern Italy, in particular those in Veneto, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Lombardy and Valle D’Aosta. During their breaks, workers who laboured outside in cold weather conditions added a few drops of grappa to their coffee in an attempt to warm up a little.

From the north, the custom of spiking coffee then spread throughout Italy. As we’ll see, many regional variations then emerged inspired by the type of liqueurs and spirits available in each area.

What Should You “Correct” Your Coffee With?

Let’s get something straight right away: there’s no definitive “correct” version of caffè corretto. You can add almost any type of alcohol you like, (with a few exceptions we’ll go over later) and it’ll taste pretty good. As mentioned, your choice of booze comes down mainly to personal taste, what’s easily available in the area, and local traditions.

However, one of the most traditional and popular spirits used to correct coffee is, without a doubt, grappa. So if you want your caffè corretto the old-fashioned way, this is the one to choose. But we would advise you to avoid single-variety grappa, as the intense flavour could compromise the coffee. A much better choice would be a smooth multi-varietal grappa – even better if aged in wood.

In other regions, grappa is often replaced by sambuca which gives the drink a unique flavour – sweet, bitter and spicy at the same time. Also worth mentioning is the very Italian ‘sambuca con la mosca‘ – a ritual of flavouring sambuca with a coffee bean. There are also variations of coffee spiked with anise, which is fresh and pungent, and mistrà, an anise liqueur produced in Lazio and Marche which has a drier flavour. Fun fact: in some bars in Salento, it’s still customary to leave a bottle of anise on the counter so that customers can correct their coffee to their liking.

And the list goes on. There’s also brandy, whose flavour and aroma perfectly match those of coffee, and whisky creams, such as the famous Baileys, which give coffee creaminess and body. Rum and whisky, on the other hand, can make an espresso even stronger and more intense. And let’s not forget maraschino (a liqueur made from black cherry stones) for some sour fruity sweetness.

Moretta Marchigiana

In the tradition of caffè corretto, the Moretta di Fano stands out without a shadow of a doubt. Tradition has it that the Moretta originated as a hot, energising drink for fishermen, forced to work hard shifts in gruelling weather conditions.

Typically served in a glass, the Moretta is, in a nutshell, a sweetened espresso coffee to which an alcoholic mixture of aniseed liqueur, rum, brandy (or cognac) and lemon peel is added. At the bar, it’s prepared by heating up 3 teaspoons of the alcohol mixture, 2 teaspoons of sugar and a piece of lemon peel directly in the cup with the steam nozzle of the coffee machine. When the sugar has completely dissolved, add the boiling espresso coffee, taking care not to mix the ingredients. One of the fundamental characteristics of the Moretta, in fact, is the division into 3 distinct layers, consisting of liqueur, coffee and coffee cream. At home, you can prepare the coffee with a moka and heat the other ingredients in a small saucepan.

Ponce Alla Livornese

Another coffee that comes from the sea is ponce alla livornese, a drink that was served to fishermen before they set sail. As the name suggests, it is a variation on the English punch, which was originally made with tea, sugar, cinnamon, lemon and rum from the West Indies. Punch alla livornese, however, has two fundamental differences: it uses coffee instead of tea and instead of Caribbean rum it uses ‘rumme’ or ‘rum fantasia’ – a local invention made with alcohol, sugar and caramel.

Just like the Moretta, the punch is a ‘layered’ coffee and is prepared with the steam nozzle of the coffee machine. It is also known as ‘ponce alla vela‘ because it is served with a triangle of lemon peel, reminiscent of a boat’s sails.

layered coffee

Venetian Rexentìn

Also noteworthy is what the Veneto people call the Rexentìn ritual. The Rexentìn, or Raxentìn, is nothing more than a sort of “rinsing” of the cup in which one has just drunk a corrected coffee. The cup is cleaned by adding a little of the liqueur or distillate used for the correction, which is then drunk. That’s an innovative way to help with the washing up!

Caffè Alla Valdostana

Café alla valdostana, or café à la valdôtaine, is a special way of drinking coffee, typical of the Aosta Valley in northwestern Italy. It requires a special container, called a ‘friendship cup‘, carved from a piece of wood and fitted with several spouts from which to drink. In turn, the diners drink the coffee from the cup, to which several teaspoons of sugar, orange peel, lemon peel and Valle d’Aosta grappa or genepì, a typical artemisia-based liqueur, have been added.

Tips for Making Caffè Corretto

  1. The general rule is to add no more than 5 ml of liqueur or spirit. This way, you’ll be able to preserve the creaminess of the coffee.
  2. Allow the coffee to cool down before adding the liqueur or spirit, so as not to lose the alcohol content.
  3. Do not add sugar to the coffee: sugar will alter the taste! If you really cannot do without sugar, however, do so when the coffee is still hot. We also recommend brown sugar, which is a little less sweet.
  4. Use a liqueur or spirit at room temperature. Only in this way will it mix well with the coffee, without spoiling the taste or lowering the temperature too much.
  5. Avoid citrus liqueurs – they’ll make the coffee acidic. Spirits like vodka and gin should also be avoided, as they’ll make the coffee too bitter.
coffee from moka

Caffè Corretto Outside Italy

Although caffè corretto is an Italian tradition, there’s no shortage of international variations.

One example is the Spanish carajillo, a coffee to which rum, whisky, orujo, brandy or cognac is added with lemon zest or coffee beans. It seems that the origin of carajillo dates back to the time of Spanish rule in the Cuban territories, when the alcohol in the coffee was used to give the conquistadors the courage they needed to fight. The name, in fact, derives from the Spanish word for courage, ‘coraje’.

In France, particularly in Normandy, coffee is usually spiked with Calvados, a spirit made from apple cider. In this case, the drink is called café-calva.

Another distant relative of the caffè corretto is Irish Coffee. Find out how to make it in The Secret to a Great Irish Coffee.

And you? How do you prefer to correct your coffee?

Translated by Chelsea Cummings from Karin Mosca’s original Italian article: Caffè corretto: un viaggio nella tradizione italiana.

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