The Francoli family originally come from Campodolcino, a small village high in the Italian Alps, close to the Swiss border. The main business activity in Campodolcino was logging and woodworking but the village also had a reputation for its grappa.
The village folk felled trees and hauled the timber down the mountain to sell at the town of Chiavenna. Towards the end of the logging season the folk of Campodolcino would carry grape pomace back to the village to produce grappa.
Soon after the Second World War, in 1951, Luigi Francoli moved from Campodolcino to Ghemme to rent a small distillery near the train station which had been abandoned by one of his uncles. The stills had long been removed so initially Luigi bought grappa from other distillers, blended and bottled it to sell.
In 1953/4, Luigi was joined by his four brothers and they bought their first still. Each of the brothers contributed their own skills to the growing business - one was good at accounting and another at sales, while Giovanni, the youngest, was good at production. They quickly gained a reputation for producing fine grappa leading to sales throughout Italy and a thriving business. As well as grappa, the brothers also started making liqueurs.
Luigi and his family lived above the distillery, their home heated in the winter by the stills operated day and night below. It was here that his son Alessandro Francoli, the President of what remains a family owned and operated company, was born. Alessandro remembers that their kitchen and bathroom were at one side of the distillery yard, directly next to vats of flegma awaiting a second distillation.
The business outgrew the old distillery near the train station and so in 1964 they moved to a purpose built distillery just outside of town among the vineyards of Ghemme. At the time this area was undeveloped and the Francoli family had to pay for electricity and water services to be run to their new site. White local townsfolk talked about those crazy Francolis setting up in the middle of the fields the choice of location was strategic. Not only was there a good supply of pomace from the surrounding wineries but the new distillery sits on the main road to the mountain and the lakes so ensuring passing trade. To this day Francoli’s shop does a roaring trade selling their wine, grappa and liqueurs directly to the public.
Francoli’s grappa sales continued to grow apace and in 1975 they decided to move from traditional batch distillation to continuous distillation. The traditional pot stills were simply too slow to meet demand and they were forced to distil from the September harvest right through until the end of March. Continuous distillation halved the production period meaning that fresher pomace was used, so producing grappa with a better average quality.
In 1977, the Francoli family planted their first vineyard of Nebbiolo grapes in Ghemme. This was the start of what has become a very successful wine business called Torraccia del Piantavigna and they now have 40 hectares of vineyards in Ghemme and the neighbouring area of Gattinara planted with Nebbiolo, Vespolina and white Erbaluce grapes.
The brothers continued to seek technical advances and in 1981 replaced their still with a new continuous still, still in operation today. They also started experimenting with cream liqueurs and became experts in cream liqueur production. This led to their creating Venetian Cream Liqueur which was launched in 1985 by Hiram Walker in the USA, and in the first year’s sales in America alone exceeded 100,000 cases.
Alessandro Francoli maintained a good relationship with Hiram Walker and in 1988, during his honeymoon in the USA, he and his new wife met and dined with Jim Murphy, the President of Hiram Walker, at his home in Detroit. After dinner over coffees, Jim asked Alessandro about the possibility of making and launching a coffee flavoured Sambuca. Alessandro explained that there were already numerous coffee flavoured sambucas on the market but he liked the idea of producing a Sambuca that was truly different and would stand out. Perhaps a black sambuca.
Months later Jim reminded Alessandro about the conversation and Alessandro set about experimenting in the laboratory. Inspired by the deep purple-black colour of elderberries, the key flavour ingredient in all sambucas, Alessandro created a black sambuca with hints of liquorice and lemon. He named his new creation Opal Nera and in the summer of 1989 the first shipment left for America. The success of the American market led to shipments to Australia and New Zealand the following year.
In 1999, the family launched their Luigi Francoli grappa range, named after Alessandro’s father, the founder and head of the company. His passion for grappa was second to none and the family wanted to create a premium range of grappa that was more distinctive.
In 2007, the Francoli family acquired a second distillery, Valdotaine Distillery in Saint-Marcel, 140 km (90 minutes’ drive) to the North West of Ghemme in the beautiful lower Aosta Valley. Established in 1947, Valdotaine is a small distillery compared to the Francoli Distillery, producing grappa by batch distillation in copper pot stills. The acquisition of this second distillery allows the Francoli family to produce small runs of speciality grappas. It also allows them to blend of pot and column distilled grappa. At Valdotaine they also produce small batch distillations of fruits and other spirits.