How Faccia Brutto Became Brooklyn’s Favorite Drink

The phrase faccia brutto conjures Italy, provided you are not Italian. Native speakers will explain that, in Italy, it would be faccia brutta, ugly face. But in Brooklyn, it is Faccia Brutto, the name stamped across bottles that glare out from the liquor lineups at half the bars in Kings County and Manhattan. The ugly mug on all those labels is a scratchy caricature inspired by Charles Bukowski, the counterculture Ham on Rye novelist and legendary drinker — a semaphore for a certain type of louche sophistication. What Aesop soap once signaled in the bathroom, Faccia Brutto telegraphs from behind the bar: taste and quality, half-buried beneath a little scruff.

Since its founding in 2020, Faccia Brutto’s amari and digestivi have become omnipresent. Grammar issues aside, the bottles look as though they could come from Italy, but in reality, they come from a building next to a gas station and a tarp-covered church congregation in Bedford-Stuyvesant. This is where Patrick Miller, 42, the former chef of Rucola in Boerum Hill, instills, mixes, ages, and bottles all of Faccia Brutto’s eight liqueurs, from its Chartreuse-like Centerbe to its flagship bitter. Faccia HQ has the look of a combination science lab and cellar, with rows of used oak barrels aging spirits on one wall and a van-size, $140,000 machine for bottling. There are pantry shelves of botanicals that go into the blends, which are steeped in megasize cold-brew coffee bags: gentian and rhubarb root alongside more obscure stuff like zedoary (Indonesian white turmeric) and dittany of Crete, an oregano-like herb that Miller used to source from a mother-daughter pair who gathers it in Greece and ships it worldwide on Etsy.

Faccia Brutto now does about a million dollars in sales a year, Miller says, which sounds higher than it is, given the rising costs of ingredients like saffron and sugar. (After water, sugar is Faccia Brutto’s most-used ingredient, and, because it can technically be used in bomb-making, Miller suspects that buying it in quantity is a great way to get placed on government watch lists.) He moved into a space on Atlantic Avenue last summer, from a much smaller location farther north; he now has three employees. But day to day, he mixes up batches and tinkers with new varieties. (His own version of nocino, a walnut liqueur, arrived this fall.) The early success has been heartening, and the challenge now, Miller freely acknowledges, is making the jump from fad to fixture: “Amaro is still kind of trendy right now,” he says. “I’m interested to see if it can become classic, like whiskey, gin, vodka.”

The herbal, faintly medicinal flavor of amari — along with the potionlike apothecary quality and historic associations with monks — is a world away from the top-shelf vodkas and celebrity-fronted tequilas that lead alcohol trends right now. Fernet-Branca, the bitter Italian amaro from Milan, and its ilk have long been thought of as more of an acquired taste; most people don’t instinctively long for a warm sip of gentian. But they have also been a mainstay within the industry, beloved by restaurant staffers even if they were still regarded with skepticism by restaurant patrons. “In the food industry, Fernet was de facto the drink you’d have every day,” says chef Gerardo Gonzalez. “You’re surrounded by food all day and it’s piling up in your stomach. Amaro kind of lightens your load.” He recently began making his own amari and digestivi, less as a commercial endeavor than as an art project, a way to paint a picture of a place quickly and digestibly. Last summer, he had a residency at the Ace Hotel in New York, for which he biked out to the boroughs to gather local ingredients to infuse Bronx, Queens, and Manhattan amari; he’s now doing a similar project in Los Angeles under the auspices of the Hammer Museum. “From a food person’s perspective, regular cocktails are very basic when it comes to flavor profiles. Whereas amari and to a degree aperitivi give you a more interesting play on bitterness and earthiness — you get all of it in one little elixir.”

For lay-drinkers, the 2010s ascent of the negroni (and its younger corporate sibling, the Aperol Spritz) helped build a wider acceptance of bitter beverages, and it’s now outgrown its origins. Any given cocktail menu these days lists amari-laced concoctions by default, and American producers began popping up: St. Agrestis was founded in 2014, Forthave Spirits in 2016. Ingredients like cinchona and aloe ferox may not be household names yet, but dine out with local Brooklyn dads and prepare for a round of after-dinner Nardini.

During his own professional-cooking days, Miller experimented with brewing various amari at home. He’d grown up in an Italian American family in L.A. and remembered his grandmother keeping a bottle of sambuca. He scaled up as his skill and ambition grew. In 2020, he left Rucola and, after securing investment largely from family and friends, he was able to buy his first “tote” of neutral grain spirit in March of that same year — just as the entire world began to shut down. “I had a bunch of appointments and tastings set up with people,” he says. “Everybody canceled because everything’s closed down. Luckily, the liquor shops were the only places still open.”

With the support of a few key early accounts, like Clinton Hill’s Leon & Son and Henry’s Wine & Spirit in Bushwick, Faccia Brutto fell into a community of like-minded, and often like-designed, Brooklyn-ish brands. It was Chris Leon of Leon & Son, in fact, who connected Miller with Garrett Elizabeth Office, the husband-and-wife design firm that had done Leon’s own creative.

With Faccia Brutto, they wanted to design something that contrasted against any prevailing trends in amaro marketing, “which was very artisanal, small-batch, quiet, quiet labels,” Elizabeth Dilk says. They leaned instead on Miller’s brash, “kind of bad American take on Italian.” Garrett Morin drew up the Bukowski-ite brute with a “giant gourd nose, just kind of having a great time.” Now, “it is one of our most recognizable things,” Dilk says. (At least one true believer went out and got the face tattooed on her arm; she now works for the company, doing outreach.)

Miller readily agrees that his branding has played a part in the success, but ultimately, he says, “If it’s a delicious product, people will come back and buy it.” The American-made amari market is young and drinking trends are notoriously fickle; long-term success is hardly guaranteed. “I can always fall back on cooking,” Miller shrugs. “But I’d really rather not.” He is well aware, by the way, that the name is grammatically incorrect. He liked the wrongness of it — “ugly face, ugly grammar,” he said — and despite the objections, he doesn’t want to change it.

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