Frank Grillo is managing director of Altamura Distilleries, which produces vodka from Altamura wheat in Puglia, Italy.
Why did you swap Atlanta for Puglia?
My whole family is of Italian American descent and I always wanted to live in Italy. It hit me one day that no one really cared where I was as long as I showed up on the Zoom work call. We settled on Puglia because it has good weather, great beaches, good airport access, and great financial incentives for non-EU citizens to move here.
What inspired the creation of Altamura Distilleries?
I love to cook so started to read about Pugliese recipes and came across a recipe for pane di Altamura, a bread made from Altamura wheat with a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status. I found Altamura flour in Whole Foods in Atlanta and baked a bootleg loaf which came out pretty well. I said “if we boiled this instead of ate it, we could drink it” and that’s what started the curiosity of distilling a spirit from this wheat. It took 16 months from thought to liquid.
How does it differ from competitors?
The durum wheat is starchier and adds a certain umami to the vodka – we distilled it in a way to keep that in. It’s very smooth. I describe the finish on the palate as if you sautéed mushrooms and finished them with vermouth, that kind of earthy, sweet flavour.
How important is the local wheat?
There can be innovation in some of these old, traditional ingredients with storied histories, and we can bring life to things that may be seen as somewhat stale and in jeopardy. We’re giving the wheat a new outlet and source of growth.
What has been the response in Italy?
There’s a real affection for it. We buy all our wheat from one farmer, whose family has been farming for 350 years, and the patriarch hosts masterclasses with us around the world. He loves the idea of taking a very traditional source ingredient and doing something fun and innovative with it. All we do is take the bread and let you drink it instead of eat it.
Tell us about your recent travels.
In July I attended Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, where Altamura won Best International Vodka, and then our UK launch at The Donovan Bar at Brown’s Hotel in London at the end of August. One of the joys of this job is getting to visit world-renowned bars.
What’s your favourite cocktail?
I’m a zealot for the classic martini. I like the style of the American Bar at The Savoy: three parts vodka, one part really lovely dry vermouth and a dash of orange bitters.
What’s been your most rewarding travel experience?
My first trip to India was the most impactful because it was so different culturally, visually and socially.
And most challenging?
We rented a villa in Italy but didn’t realise that the host was going to stay with us. She had very particular thoughts about how someone should or should not enjoy her villa. I’m now used to asking if someone is living at the property with us when booking a stay.
What’s your dream destination?
Kenya for culture, food and nature.
What’s your indispensable travel gadget?
What’s your inflight entertainment pick?
Music. I mostly listen to it as background in my day-to-day life. Planes allow me to concentrate on the music and lyrics. It becomes a little musical bubble.
We will be producing a gin and American-style whiskies from the first quarter of next year.