Louis Catizone infuses amari and cocktails with booze and without at his Greenpoint distillery St. Agrestis

June 14, 2024 Alice Gilbert
Louis Catizone. Photo courtesy of St. Agrestis
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You might have seen one of Louis Catizone’s creations the last time you were out for dinner or drinks in Brooklyn. His distillery, which he operates with his brother, Matt, and business partner, Steven, produces the well-known Phony Negroni, a non-alcoholic (NA) version of the beloved cocktail that tastes shockingly like the real thing. The bitterness and herbaceous characteristics of amaro-based cocktails are not lost in their NA version, a testament to the care that Catizone and his team put into their spirits and bottled cocktails. I spoke with Catizone to learn about his journey to running this distillery — the only one making amari in NYC — and developing it into a household (or, at least, bar-hold) name. 

Tell me about yourself, St. Agrestis and how you came to run it. 

I feel like my whole life was building toward St. Agrestis, but I didn’t know it. I grew up in a first-generation Italian-American household with strong ties to my dad’s hometown in Calabria. I spent some summers there growing up. My aunts and uncles on my dad’s side were born in Italy, and my dad moved to the U.S. when he was 17. My mom is Italian-American but actually from Greenpoint, in the same neighborhood as the distillery. So, St. Agrestis is kind of a collision of the worlds of both of my parents. 

My first full-time job in this industry was working in sales for my now business partner, Steven, who founded Greenhook Gin. I wanted to learn more about wine, cocktails and, particularly, spirits without being laser-focused on one brand or category, like gin. I left and went to the wholesale side of the industry for a couple of years and helped to establish a wine distributor in the early days of their spirits portfolio.

A couple of years into that, Steven and I had stayed in touch and saw an opportunity to dive into the amaro and negroni world. Steven was already an entrepreneur, and I took the entrepreneurial leap of faith, and we took on St. Agrestis in September 2017. We’ll be coming up on seven years, which feels like five minutes and five hundred years at the same time. 

I can imagine. So, who were the original owners of St. Agrestis?

Two sommeliers started St. Agrestis. They were a couple when they started it, and I believe they still are. The story as told to me is that they went to Italy on an import trip — which is pretty common — and they fell in love with regional amari when they were out there. They came back and started St. Agrestis Amaro. That’s the only product they released, and it looked very different, though the logo was almost the same. That was founded in 2014 and was in business for about two and a half years before Steven, myself and my brother, Matt, came in and bought it outright.

Phony Negroni. Photo courtesy of St. Agrestis
Phony Negroni. Photo courtesy of St. Agrestis

When we think of Italian beverages, many might think of wine. How is amari similar to wine? 

Many wineries in Italy also produce an aperitivo or a digestivo. The laws around distillation aren’t as strict in Italy as in the U.S., so it’s not uncommon for a winemaker to distill some wine and extract some herbs and spices in that wine. Winemakers sometimes make amari, whether they sell them or not. One example is Abbazia di Novacella; they make something they call cluster bitter, which is like a pinecone amaro, up in the northern Alps. 

Beyond that specific overlap, amari is super terroir-driven because, for the longest time, it was only produced based on what was available locally. Usually, one village might have one specific plant, which they would integrate into the amaro with others. Sardinia is a good example. They produce something called mirto, a berry that grows there. You won’t find it on the mainland. They have this berry-herbal liqueur they produce in Sardinia. There are hundreds of similar examples, like the amari from Sicily being very citrus-forward because of all the amazing citrus available. 

You’re not harvesting berries from local trees in Brooklyn, but I wondered how you decide on the botanicals to use in St. Agrestis amari. 

One of the most important ingredients that goes into all of our products is New York City water. Aside from that, we use domestic botanicals in some cases, but we source from five continents besides Australia and Antarctica. Our philosophy was to create world-class quality that didn’t necessarily need to be from one specific place, just the best botanicals on the planet. We looked for gentian root, which is an important bitter root that goes into many amari and aperitivi, and we wanted to find the best one. We had dozens and dozens of samples sent to us before we decided on the one we wanted to use. 

We’ve had hundreds of individual botanicals considered for use in our products. Our philosophy is that, given the ability to find and transport ingredients in 2017-2024, we just want them to be the absolute best quality that can be found on the planet. 

How did the pandemic, which was sandwiched between your beginnings running this business and today, affect St. Agrestis?

I feel like we were lucky to have had a few years before the pandemic because I know a lot of brands in our category that were emerging in late 2019, early 2020 or even during the lockdown-heavy part of the pandemic that didn’t have enough time to create a consumer base. We had established some real loyalists during our first few years in business. They wanted to support us and see St. Agrestis survive the pandemic. To be honest, I didn’t think we would. 

Our business was 70% bars and restaurants. As soon as they closed, our business seemed like it was going to crumble. We had to reinvent ourselves every single day. 2021 was harder for us than 2020 because I feel like in 2020, you could be thrifty and gritty and work your way through it. You could do whatever innovation you needed to do that day to survive. In 2021, there was more acceptance of, “This is where the world is right now, and you need to exist in it until things go back to more-or-less normal.” 

Bars and restaurants were starting to reopen, but they had just survived such difficult financial times that it felt like the wrong thing to do — for the greater part of 2021 — to walk into bars and restaurants and try to sell them something. We were pretty hands-off until around October of 2021. It felt a little cruel, but we had to survive, too. 

The pandemic was good for us in hindsight because of the non-alcoholic portfolio. We were able to spend a lot of time and dial in the flavor profile of the Phony Negroni. We worked on it every day for about a year, which is a lot of R&D time we would not necessarily have had because we would have been out seeing customers and meeting with distributors. It afforded us the time to be innovative and learn how to extract plants without alcohol. 

I also think folks over-consumed a lot at the beginning of the pandemic. It made sense. People were working from home, and they’d open a bottle of wine at the end of their workday. That might’ve started to happen every day for a couple of months. I think people corrected that and looked for work-life balance and consumption balance that they might’ve lost at the beginning of the pandemic. 

Are you still selling to mostly bars and restaurants versus retailers?

Yes. It wasn’t for a few years, but now we’re back to mostly bars and restaurants. The Phony Negroni resonates in so many places, from borderline dive bars to Michelin-starred restaurants. The fact that it can work in that spectrum, I think it has the potential to be in almost every bar. If they serve a negroni, they can serve a non-alcoholic negroni. When we were developing the Phony Negroni, I never would have thought it would be a great solution for dive bars, but it fits in well with craft beer. But our bread and butter has always been the finer dining restaurants. 

Would you say those are mostly local Brooklyn bars and restaurants or further afield?

We’re really strong in New York and Brooklyn in particular. Every year, we’re stronger in other parts of the country, so New York gets proportionally smaller, but last year, New York was about a third of our total business.

Photo via St. Agrestis Instagram.
Photo via St. Agrestis Instagram.

Were Brooklynites familiar with your products, or did you find yourself doing a lot of educating on them?

In the early days, I’d walk into liquor stores with a more craft selection, and they’d say, “This neighborhood isn’t that Italian anymore.” And I’d say, “That’s not necessarily who our consumers are!” I probably poured thousands of Brooklynites their first amaro by posting up at retail shops. It was so interesting, in 2017 and 2018, to watch neighborhoods change. If I walked into a Park Slope wine shop in 2017, one out of every five people knew what a negroni or amaro was. Today, probably four or five of those people know. 

One thing I noted was that Brooklyn residents were more aware of what amari and aperitivi were before Manhattan. The world thinks Manhattan is the center of American culture, and bars and restaurants are amazing there. But I think there’s a curiosity about Brooklynites. We’ve become very innovative as a people. 

Where do you see the non-alcoholic movement going? Does the Phony Negroni outsell your other products?

Yes. And I think we’re just getting started. This is only going to be its second full year on the market. We launched in New York in 2022 but didn’t launch outside of New York until August 2022. The brand is being well-received in Texas and Florida, where it just recently launched. I know NA is here to stay. Some companies will stay, and some will go, but non-alcoholic adult beverages will continue to grow at exciting rates for the foreseeable future. 

A lot of people think that the non-alcoholic movement isn’t going anywhere because Boisson [a non-alcoholic bottle shop] went out of business. I would say that has everything to do with what happens when you get a lot of funding and spend more than you bring in. On a side note, this is the antithesis of how we run our business. We have no VC money, just a bunch of Brooklyn boys working hard! 

What’s next for St. Agrestis?

Available on our website right now and at a few retailers, bars and restaurants in just New York is our Phony Espresso Negroni. It’s still in a beta phase, not from an R&D perspective but from a sales and scaling perspective. We’re going to release it nationally soon. We always roll things out in New York first and then start selling them to other distributors across the country.

I liken it a bit to a Manhattan Special, an espresso soft drink made on Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint. My grandparents’ generation loved Manhattan Specials. They had it in their refrigerator until the day they died. Because it has this espresso component, the Phony Espresso Negroni is a bit of a nod to that product. We’re excited to see where things go.

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