To the untrained eye, there may appear to be little that connects Samaroli and the Corti Brothers. Aesthetically the bottles are miles apart, and they were literally miles from each other when originally sold on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean. However, Silvano Samaroli and Darrell Corti were two men having an almost parallel experience, seemingly plotting the same course through the choppy waters of the great whisky story of the 1980s and one that would eventually carry them on a wave of admiration into its annals, as legends of the era.
The Corti Brothers of Sacramento is a specialty grocers business established by Frank and Gino in 1947. It was Frank’s son Darrell who brought a specialist spirits knowledge to the company, and he made their first foray into whiskey in 1975 after making a special trip to Kentucky to seek out barrels to bottle in honour of the US Bicentenary the following year. The full force of his fine-tuned and highly selective palate was already in full display, and he turned down casks from distilleries like Old Crow and Maker’s Mark to name just a few. Instead, Corti opted for an unfashionably well-aged bourbon from Willett, his appreciation for which no doubt laid the groundwork for their sought-after collaborations with Julian Van Winkle III in the decade which followed.
Buoyed by his experiences in Kentucky, Darrell sought-out his first Scotch whisky in 1978. His Italian contemporary sold his first Samaroli-branded bottlings the following year, and both are now revered for the quality of their selections. Invariably, their attention to detail drew them to the same source of casks, the historic cache of Wm. Cadenhead. The Campbeltown bottler then produced legacy-defining releases for both Samaroli and the Cortis through its R.W. Duthie subsidiary, and clearly both parties knew what to look for, with each selecting casks from parcels of 1975 Ardbeg, 1966 Jura, and 1964 Longmorn, as well sharing enthusiasm for classic 1960s vintages from Bowmore and Springbank.
Single malt Scotch had always had a market in the US, with cases making their way across the Atlantic before the first pieces of the torn-up Prohibition act touched the floor in 1932. However Darrell Corti was the first American to brand and market it using his own label, as was Samaroli in Italy. Both were beneficiaries of the emerging independent bottling scene, which created a unique opportunity for people outside Scotland to engage with and take some ownership of the spirit that they knew and they loved. It allowed them to not only import the whiskies that matched their own tastes, but to stamp their own personality on them. Samaroli of course did this in spades, whereas the humble Corti, a legend in the American food and drinks trade who still considers himself simply as a “grocer,” preferred to let the whisky speak for itself. We know that they did just that, and the understated presentations of his Duthie’s imports are no less iconic today that their counterparts in Italy.
In Darrell’s own words, at Corti Brothers they “do everything – we do traditional aceto balsamic, we do fresh white truffles, and we do toilet paper.” No matter how hard he tries though, and try he may, he cannot underplay the sensation that are his single malt selections, both those from Averys of Bristol in the 1970s and the Duthie’s imports of the 1980s. From their quiet beginnings on a shop shelf on Folsom Boulevard, neighboured by canned goods and sanitary products, these bottles have found their way into the hands of collectors across the globe. Like their spiritual counterparts from Samaroli in Italy, the bottles have a magnetic appeal, and their influence on the American independent scene is keenly felt through brands like Whyte & Whyte and Vintage Hallmark. Both sought after releases which appeared in the 1990s, these replicated the Corti Brothers’ use of simple and unchanging label designs which intentionally or otherwise, are an embodiment of the quiet genius of the simple Sacramento grocer who inspired them.