Ferro china amari

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Amari (plural of amaro) are traditional Italian bitter aperitivo or digestivo liqueurs and ferro china are a distinctive sub-category of amari containing iron citrate (hence “ferro”) and cinchona bark (china). The iron citrate gives ferro china its red hue and delicious citrus notes. It is sometimes called “the iron amaro.”

Ferro china amari are particularly identified with the Italian capital where this dark coloured liqueur, dating back to the late 1800s, is traditionally enjoyed as an aperitivo or digestive tonic. Ferro china is also a versatile cocktail ingredient [view recipes].

Baliva Ferro China, formulated in Rome by Doctor Ernesto Baliva in 1894, is the last remaining traditional Italian ferro china in production and is still made in Rome by Pallini S.p.A..

History & meaning of the name

Ferro, from the Latin word for iron ferrum, indicates the presence of iron – as in the term ferrous metals which mostly contain iron versus non-ferrous metals that have little or no iron. The “ferro” in ferro china also indicates the presence of iron, in the form of iron citrate. 30ml/1oz of ferro china contains around 5mg of iron.

Iron plays an important role in the formation of red blood cells, which carry oxygen around the body, and an iron deficiency can lead to anaemia – commonplace after blood loss or pregnancy. Symptoms include pale skin, tiredness, lack of energy, shortness of breath and heart palpitations.

To treat iron anaemia, doctors prescribe iron tablets and instruct patients to eat iron-rich foods such as meat, dark-green leafy vegetables, pulses and lentils. Drinking orange juice after you've taken iron supplements helps iron absorption, (perhaps worth remembering when formulating cocktails with Ferro China).

Back in the late 1800s Rome, iron anaemia was common due to poor diet and a lack of meat. Ferro china was formulated in Rome at this time and is the world’s first liqueur to be made with the salt of a metal - iron citrate (FeC ₆H ₅O ₇). The liqueur was considered an invigorating tonic and blood supplement enjoyed as an aperitivo or digestivo, but also consumed as a supplement.

China, in the ferro china refers to the liqueur’s recipe including Cinchona, a bark containing quinine, long considered an effective treatment against malaria. Indeed, research suggests that cinchona alkaloids are effective in treating strains of malaria which have evolved resistance to modern synthetic drugs.

When ferro china was first formulated in the 1890s, epidemics of malaria were commonplace in Rome due to The Pontine Marshes, a vast tract of marshland extending along the coast southeast of the city. This wasn’t drained, and the land reclaimed until Benito Mussolini’s regime in the 1930s. Malaria plagued Rome through millennia and Roman Fever is a particularly deadly strain of malaria which may have contributed to the fall of the Roman empire during fifth century AD.

Ferro china contains both iron citrate, a form of iron more easily absorbed by the body, and quinine so the liqueur helped alleviate the iron anaemia and malaria in the population of Rome.

Tonic liqueur

It was believed the iron salts and quinine composition of ferro china, along with its other perceived health benefitting botanicals, were more easily metabolised (broken down and absorbed) due to their being infused in alcohol. Hence Ferro China was considered a miraculous tonico-ricostituente (health tonic) with digestive properties taken as a supplement and a cure for malaria.

Vintage labels of Ferro China Baliva claim:
Sovereign in stomach atonic, in chlorosis anaemias, in neurasthenia in general. Great strength regenerator after exhaustive infectious diseases like typhus and flu, after the puerperium and during lactation. Pleasant taste. It is taken with pleasure by children and ladies. Use for adults: one small glass an hour before each meal, for children: a teaspoon before each meal.

Mothers mixed a spoonful of the liqueur with whipped egg yolk and sugar to improve their children’s nutrition and generations of Italians grew up being given a daily spoon of ferro china.

Sales exploded in Italy, but ferro china was also hugely popular in Asia and India where it was mixed with water as a purifier. During Prohibition in the United States, ferro china was sold in pharmacies and to this day the liqueur is bottled in dark glass, like a medicine, to protect it from light.

In 1927 the first laws restricting health claims in advertisements were introduced. Despite this, perceptions of health benefits persisted, and ferro china remained popular until the late 1970s, then gradually declined. Diageo acquired Bisleri Ferro China, then the last surviving major brand, subsequently ceasing production in January 2015.

Ferro China almost disappeared as a category but was saved when Pallini S.p.A. restarted production of Baliva Ferro China in 2017 after acquiring the rights to the brand in 2015.

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Baliva conquers Bisleri

Felice Bisleri, an Italian entrepreneur, patented his Bisleri Ferro China in 1881, followed by Doctor Ernesto Baliva, a pharmacist working in Rome's hospitals, who developed his Ferro China Baliva recipe in 1894 and started supplying the city’s pharmacies.

Over the decades other Ferro China brands emerged (including: Aquileia, Bonomelli, Comar, Ferrol, Gorizia, Guasti, Sac) but Bisleri and Baliva remained the market leaders competing against each other.

Amusingly, Baliva’s label depicts a Roman gladiator standing over a slain lion, the gladiator representing Baliva conquering Bisleri whose label depicts a lion. As Baliva is now the only surviving brand of ferro china it would appear that the scenario depicted on Baliva’s label has indeed played out.

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