Americans are a bit obsessed with Italy right now. The viral Negroni Sbagliato trend last summer and the ubiquity of the Aperol Spritz have helped fuel this fire, which means more and more Americans want to drink like they’re relaxing on the Amalfi coast. Right now, that means the demand for spritzes and Negronis is at an all-time high.
The most prominent Italian cocktail at the moment is undoubtedly the spritz. These bright and bubbly cocktails seem tailor-made for the moment — they’re refreshing, low in alcohol and perfectly Instagrammable. In Italy, spritzes are most commonly served at aperitivo hour, a daily ritual in which people meet for drinks and small bites before going out for a proper dinner.
“The aperitivo hour in Italy is a must,” says Paolo Gastaldo, head bartender at the Belmond Splendido Mare, a hotel that sits right at the harbor of the coastal Ligurian town of Portofino. Aperitivo hour is more than “happy hour” here in the United States, which is more often than not a way for bar owners to drive business during slow hours.
Aperitivo hour is an important thread in the cultural fabric of Italy. “It has become the most important social event of the day,” says Fabio Rafaelli, Martini & Rossi’s North American brand ambassador and Milan native.
The food is just as important to aperitivo hour as the drinks. In Italy, every cocktail ordered during aperitivo hour at a bar comes with a spread of free snacks and small bites like green olives, potato chips and sometimes nuts. Small savory pastries, canapés, mini sandwiches and pizzetta are also common. Like all food in Italy, the aperitivo spread is highly regional. “Each place uses local ingredients,” Gastaldo says. “In Liguria, we use the pesto sauce made with local basil and olive oil with focaccia.”
In Sicily, sardines and other small, oily fish are often served with aperitivo. “It all depends on location,” Rafaelli says. “The tradition is that the food should always be something simple.”
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The cocktails enjoyed at aperitivo hour all have a bitter element that’s meant to help stimulate the appetite. Aperitivo liqueurs are a specific style of Italian appetite-stimulating concoctions that are used in many cocktails to deliver that bitter element that dries out the palate and encourages the drinker to eat. The most notable example of this style is Campari, popularly used in the Negroni. Other bitter liqueurs like Aperol, Select Aperitivo and Martini & Rossi Fiero are used as the base in various styles of spritz. Most of these bitter liqueurs come from Northern Italy — Campari is from Milan, Select is from Venice and the Martini & Rossi liqueurs are made in Pessione, outside of Turin.
The bitter element can also come from the Italian style of sweet red vermouth. This ingredient is commonly paired with bitter liqueurs in aperitivo drinks like the Milano Torino, Americano and, of course, the Negroni. Vermouth is a fortified wine aromatized with a variety of botanicals such as wormwood, and like bitter liqueurs, it balances sweetness and bitterness. This style of vermouth comes from the area surrounding Turin in Northwest Italy’s Piedmont region.
The herbal, floral and fruity flavors in both aperitivo liqueurs and vermouth come from various botanicals. Herbs, roots, bark, flowers, citrus peel, spices and other natural ingredients are either distilled with the base spirit or infused later on and then sweetened. The result is a sweet, complex and deep flavor profile that has a hint of bitterness to stimulate the drinker’s appetite and prepare them for a full meal.
Bitterness isn’t generally a desirable flavor among the broader American palate, so this style of aperitivo cocktail hasn’t always been popular in the United States. But things are changing. “When I arrived in New York in 2007, nobody was drinking Negronis,” Rafaelli says. “The culture has completely changed. There are now more people drinking aperitivo cocktails outside of Italy than in the country.”
The evidence isn’t just anecdotal. According to IWSR Drinks Market Analysis, the aperitivo category has doubled in size globally between 2013 and 2022, with a 17% increase in sales volume from 2021 through 2022. “The key driver of the trend is the growth of the aperitivo occasion — either as a precursor to eating out or as a replacement for it,” says Humphrey Serjeantson, Research Director at IWSR. According to Serjeanston, the growth of the category is being directly driven by America’s interest in the custom of aperitivo hour.
Aperitivo cocktails are already low in alcohol. The primary ingredients, vermouth and bitter liqueurs, generally have a lower ABV than spirits. Spritzes and Americanos are usually topped with sparkling water. The drinks are still flavorful and appetite-stimulating. So it should come as no surprise that the drink category is also helping to popularize low- and non-alcoholic cocktails and ingredients.
At this year’s Tales of the Cocktail, the non-alcoholic Martini & Rossi Floreale aperitivo won the Spirited Award for “Best New Spirit or Cocktail Ingredient,” which is the bar and spirit industry’s equivalent of an Oscar for “Best Actor.” And for a bitter liqueur that has no alcohol, the honor is almost more impressive.
The striking yellow hue of Floreale immediately sets it apart from its alcoholic red and orange counterparts. Floreale is fresh and floral with strong notes of citrus peel, chamomile and a hint of bitterness. The alcohol is not missed — it’s still full flavored and botanical forward and, when paired with tonic and served over ice, the Floreale makes a refreshing and appetizing bright yellow spritz.
Regardless of what small bites are served, or whether the cocktails are alcoholic or not, the focus of aperitivo hour isn’t really the food and drink. “It’s not just making a cocktail or two at 7 p.m. — the aperitivo is about being with people and talking,” Rafaelli says. “You go to a bar, stand around, eat some snacks. It’s very nice and it’s one of the things I miss most about my country.”
Aperitivo, above all else, is a social tradition meant to be shared with friends and family in a relaxed environment. The spritzes and food are just a bonus.
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