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Reflections of a wandering Liquor Salesman in Italy

… It’s mid February 2015 I’ve recently returned from a short 3 day business trip to NE Italy where I went to visit a new customer in Ancona, who may be interested in Villa Lobos Tequila, our Hapsburg Absinthe producers in Roma and a new potential client in Milano.

Northern Italy in January is not usually one of life’s greatest joys, especially when it involves a Ryanair flight to Bergamo. My office instructions are always, please try to book me BA … and yet I often end up with an Easyjet or a Ryanair ticket .

I hate sitting bolt upright for hours in a Easyjet / Ryanair flying cigar tube being bombarded from boarding the plane to landing with ‘mouthwatering’ offers for their over priced coffee and pringles, to the scratch cards ‘in aid of a good cause’.  (note to self : pack earplugs next time ).

Leaving London at 2°C and arriving in Ancona less than 2 hours later : to a sunny, blue sky and 18°C was a nice surprise. A short drive to The Seeport Hotel in Ancona, perched on top of the hill overlooking the port and the huge ferry boats going to Greece, reminded me of how illogical it was to live in cold, grey London. For only €81 a night incl. full breakfast, I had a lovely room in this new elegant hotel with sea view,  soft bathrobe, and free mineral water…  It would be three times that in London, and no sea view…

After a short rest, I met up with our new client, Cosimo A. over dinner, and again I wondered why I stay living in London.

Our repast began with a complimentary pumpkin soup , followed by a thin ribbon pasta with anchovies and wild mushrooms. I asked for some grated parmesan cheese to sprinkle on top (like in all the UK Italian restaurants) and I got THE LOOK … horror … “don’t you know, you NEVER put cheese on fish?…”, but I was brought some very spicy olive oil sauce to put on the pasta, which was magnificent. Cosimo ordered some baked cod (Baccala’ al forno) and I had a sea bass filet with a pumpkin sauce… (I guess pumpkins are still in season here !). Mineral water, non-stop jugs of delicate Verdicchio , really wonderful macchiato coffee and all for € 53 for two incl, tip. (Osteria del Pozzo, Ancona).

The table conversation agonised over the horrors of the recent Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, (and no doubt simultaneously at millions of other dinner tables around the world that same night), before somehow getting back to more parochial subjects like the price of Mexican Agave , and whether the Villa Lobos tequila would increase in price this year or not… The current price of agave is around 7.5 Mexican pesos a kilo ; and given around 12 years ago, it went up to over 14 pesos a kilo, there is precedent for higher prices in the short term, although long term, this would seriously limit tequila sales and probably cause the agave price to plummet again to 2011 levels of below 1 peso per kilo.

A 6am wake-up call, and seated on the 7.54 am express  (aka the FrecciaBianca) from Falconara Marittima to Roma saw day 2 get under way ; cold but blue sky and sunny.

I’ve a known history of bad luck with Roman taxis and getting ripped off, so Dr. Pallini kindly offered to collect me from the station and we drove to the Pallini HQ on the Via Tiburtina , where we immediately started the usual discussions on glass bottle requirements for 2015, label changes and the new Allogens labelling regulations, and the different formulation requirements for Hapsburg Absinthe around the world. Japan and New Zealand requires a different formulation to that for the EU; the USA is different again, as is Ecuador, so lots of fingers in the air to estimate requirements.

1pm finally arrived and we agreed ,instead of the usual delivered pasta and salad to the boardroom, we would go out for a local ‘casalinga ’(home-made/ housewife style lunch) at Ristorante Dai Cesaroni   …  1376 Via Tiburtina   ( ). I had the famous Roman pasta dish, Cacio e pepe…made with Bucatini pasta  …looks like Spaghetti with a hole through the length of the pasta, with a sauce made of Peccorino (sheeps cheese), and spicy peppers… wonderful, but the portion was so huge, I needed Dr. Pallini to help me out. This was followed by a simple dish of seared thin slices of eggplant, in olive oil and that was more than enough.

Back to the boardroom for some more forecasting (aka ‘guessing’) of 2015 sales of Hapsburg, to ensure we don’t run out of glass bottles, as has happened in the past.Then a taxi to Roma station for the 5.30pm express to Milano Centrale.  I arrived rather early and wondered if my ticket would allow me to take the 5pm train, or whether a surcharge was necessary/ possible.

What is noticeable among the thousands of passengers wheeling their cases in every direction, is there is almost NO-ONE to ask from traveller assistance.
With difficulty, I found the ‘informazione’ booth set up with a ticketing system and a noticeboard showing which ticket number goes to which counter, but gathered in front was a huge crowd anxiously holding their tickets to see whether their number had come up, while glancing at the station clock to see whether they would get to the counter before their train departed. In my case an Italian beside me told me in (excellent French), that by the time I would arrive at the info desk to ask my question, both the earlier  5pm train I was enquiring about, AND the 5.30pm train I was booked on, would have left, “… so either buy a coffee for 40 minutes , or take a chance on the earlier train, and hope not to get turfed off at the first stop !…”
In a country known for it’s youth unemployment, why not invest in improving the tourist industry and foreigners travel experience by recruiting some youngsters to walk around the stations (and airports perhaps ?) with bright outer jackets, saying ‘Can I help you ?’

I took a chance on the earlier 5pm train with only an €8 surcharge by the ticket controller for the change, so tutti va bene .

Arriving at Milano Centrale, round 8pm, it was cold and dark, rainy and everything seemed grey, (except the multi-coloured graffiti everywhere, but I’ll discourse about that later on).

Big city stations often seem such dark miserable areas where thousands of uncomfortable and outwardly unhappy people jostle and wait around  (a notable exception is the new St. Pancras Eurostar station). Milano Centrale reminded me of arriving on the Eurostar at Gare du Nord, another station which seems to be a grey & miserable.

The Italians are world famous for their sense of style and elegance, so it seems doubly shocking (to me), how easily they seem to accept the ugly , even aggressive graffiti that is everywhere, with no apparent effort to prevent / remove it. And yes, there ARE ways to stop / reduce this practice, but more about that later…

That got me thinking about ‘graffiti etiquette’, for actually it is not everywhere, as some places are left alone. Why are the walls of buildings covered in these spray images, and yet not the shop windows within the walls ? Is this an invasion too far? The graffiti artist will perform all over the exterior of trains and buses, but somehow they almost never attach private cars. I wondered why not, and how the protocols evolved, as to what is fair game, and what is not ?

I think we get the towns we want and the justice we feel we deserve. If there were a stricter pursuit and application of crime & punishment, then walls might look rather different.  Aerial cameras (as used in many UK streets) could easily spot these spray artists and if the punishments were daunting, then no doubt the perpetrators would think twice.  Physical punishment as in Singapore would no doubt deter many ‘artists’ . I have long nursed the idea of dunking these artists in a liquid up to their chins, which would semi-permanently stain the skin some bright colour, and then leave them in a kind of public stocks in front of their handwork for one day, for all to see.

But no one seems to care, and so nothing is done.It’s a bit like littering in the UK which seems to have reached epidemic levels. Again no one seems to care. I asked a lawyer, a Clerk of the Court how many litter cases he had dealt with in 25 years before the magistrates ?  “ None !” was the shocking answer… Case proven m’lord.

Dear Reader, if you are STILL with us, and perhaps wondering what this has to do with liquor ? Well actually nothing at all !… it’s just the randomreflections of a wandering liquor salesman(in Italy)…

Ciao !