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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Altamura Distilleries: the pride of Puglia

After baking a loaf of bread during lockdown, Frank Grillo’s focus turned to a fabled, centuries-old Italian food ingredient. From there, he embarked on a quest to showcase its uniqueness in a new and innovative way. As he explains here, the rest is history


“Steve Acuna and I have known each other since 2010, having met shortly after I moved to Atlanta, Georgia, to accept a position as Chief Marketing Officer of a technology company that had recently been purchased by private equity. Over time, we accompanied one another to Denver, Colorado, and back again to Atlanta in collaborative roles at a telecommunications company, a marketing agency and consulting practice.

Frank Grillo (left) and Steve Acuña

Along the way we also travelled together to Italy along with my spouse Justin and extended group of friends who were regulars on previous journeys there.  Personally, I’d been traveling to Italy since the nineties: it has always held a special place in my heart, partially because my entire family heritage is Italian American, and partially because I am existentially attracted to la dolce vita.

In 2015, we travelled to Tuscany with an especially large group of 20 friends to celebrate my 50th birthday. It was on this particular visit that the idea of relocating to Italy became cemented in my mind; at that moment I hoped to achieve the dream before I turned 55.

We were back in Atlanta when the pandemic hit, part of a marketing consultancy practice. The nature of the consulting business already leant itself to remote engagements with clients and covid only reinforced that. Both Steve and I were stereotypically living our lives on zoom bridges. It was during one of those many video calls one day, while gazing out of my apartment window, that the idea struck: “why not move to Italy now?” Professionally it would work fine; our clients didn’t care where we were physically if we were available when needed. Personally, the radical change introduced by covid had made me open to even bigger change.

I pitched the idea to Justin and, sure enough, he was ready to make the leap. When I shared our plan with Steve, he too was onboard for the adventure. So, the next step was to decide where in Italy we should move.  We wanted warmer weather, great beaches and sea, and good airport access. Moving to the southern part of Italy provided all this plus significant tax incentives to non-EU residents. The region of Puglia quickly topped the list and the decision was made to move there.

I love to entertain and am an avid cook. Once we had honed in on Puglia, I began cooking Pugliese recipes for our friends in Atlanta: when I came across a recipe for Pane di Altamura (a traditional bread from the Puglia region), I searched for Altamura flour and then baked a loaf at home. As it came out the oven, looking amazingly authentic, I distinctly remember holding it aloft saying: “If I’d boiled this instead of baked it, we’d have vodka.” In that moment the idea for Altamura Distilleries was born. As marketers, Steve and I are both easily captivated by a great story: Pane di Altamura had one in spades. It’s the only bread in the world protected by a PDO, baked in the same place, and in the same way for over 2,000 years, using the same ancient wheat that was written about by Horace in 37 BCE. The durum wheat grown in Altamura gave the bread its unique flavour, texture and durability. It stays fresh for a very long time – which is why Horace advised travellers to carry several loaves on their journey.

Traditional Altamura italian bread: Pane di Altamura

I became curious why nobody appeared to be using this wheat in distilling, given its unique story and characteristics. When we hired a consultant to answer our questions about the distilling process and use of Altamura wheat, we became quite convinced the idea could work.

We established Altamura Distilleries SRL while we were still living in Atlanta. We found a marketing agency in Bari to work with us in creating the brand. They came up with the fantastic idea to use the symbol of Altamura, the iconic lions on the steps of its cathedral, as our brand logo, coupled with colours traditionally representative of Puglia: yellow, blue, and red, Sun, Sea, and Earth.

With the company established and a brand identity ready to go, we left for Italy on May 1, 2021 with covid lockdowns still in place. Steve and I were both eager to get started, but Italy had other things in mind: it took almost four more months to obtain the necessary permissions to operate the business, a timeline impacted by the wonderful traditions of Feroagosto and the summer holiday season.  However, by the end of September, we were finally ready to go. We had a relationship with a contract distiller in place and we also had 12 tons of wheat purchased from the Cappiello family of Altamura.

We’d met Andrea Cappiello and his family in late May, shortly after we arrived.  Steve and I drove to Altamura to explain our project and enter into a purchase agreement. The Cappiellos were fantastically supportive of our idea and the relationship developed from professional to personal before our first prosecco and focaccia fuelled encounter was over. This relationship has been integral to everything we have built, it is the uniqueness of the wheat Andrea provides us that makes the vodka so special. We are now an extended family with the Cappiellos; in fact, we just had one of our twice annual, all-day lunches with them at our house in Francavilla.  One of the absolute charms of business in Italy is that the personal and professional intermix so naturally and it is both easy and normal to build deep bonds among the people you collaborate with.

The first vodka production was completed in January of 2022; we launched our brand and vodka in February at a party at the Paragon 700 Hotel in Ostuni with a great flourish, having five mixologists from all over Italy each create a unique cocktail with the vodka for our 150 guests.

It has been a whirlwind ever since. The vodka has received 12 gold medals, three specifically for its smoothness (which the Italians refer to as morbida), and most recently a category award for Best International Vodka at Tales the Cocktail in New Orleans.

We’ve had the amazing good fortune to collaborate with some of the most renowned mixologists in the cocktail world and some of the most iconic brands in the hospitality world, initially in Italy and now globally as we’ve expanded to export to India, the UK, the US, and soon to China and Australian too.

We’re only 18 months old, and the growth and change we’ve experienced in this short time has genuinely stunned us.  We’ve expanded our team, increased our output and taken on investors to fund our growth. Neither Steve nor I have ever run a distillery before, so we are learning along the way, helped by an ever-increasing team of people who have much more knowledge than we do. The possibilities for the brand right now seem endless and we are excited to experience what the future holds. All of this from a loaf of bread baked during lockdown!






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