Spritz: Italy's Most Iconic Aperitivo Cocktail, with Recipes - Talia Baiocchi, Leslie Pariseau (2016)
A SPRITZ IS BORN
IT ALL BEGAN WITH the Greeks and Romans, naturally.
Back in the fourth and fifth century B.C., when Alexander III was slaying his way to “Great” and Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle were fathering modern philosophy, these men were also, for all intents and purposes—proto-spritzing.
During the heady days of empire building, it was considered gauche to drink wine without first mixing it with water. “Only Dionysus, they believed, could drink unmixed wine without risk,” writes Tom Standage in A History of the World in 6 Glasses. Drunkenness, as it were, was not next to godliness. Thus, lengthening and diluting the concentrated wines of the day meant that you could, say, drink a pitcher of wine at the symposium without getting yourself in trouble with the symposiarch (essentially an ancient mash-up of host and chaperone).
After Rome overtook Greece as the dominant Mediterranean powerhouse in the middle of the second century B.C., many of the cultural achievements of the Greeks lived long in Roman culture, not least among them the cultivation and appreciation of wine.
As the Italian peninsula established itself as the premier supplier of wine to the Mediterranean basin, a number of Greek wine-mixing rituals were improved upon, notably the addition of water to wine, or even seawater, as the Greek wines of Cos and Lesbos became famous for. Falernian, a white wine grown on the slopes of present-day Mount Massico near the border between Campania and Lazio, was considered the most expensive and sought-after wine in the Roman Empire, and one of the most mythologized in the history of wine. In a testament to the importance of the “proto-spritzing” ritual, even the oldest and most prized vintages of Falernian were mixed with water—an act akin to dumping your water glass into a decanter full of very old, and very expensive, Montrachet.
While Falernian loomed large in the Roman psyche, a number of other wines established themselves as all the rage; most notable among them (at least for our purposes) was Setine. A spritz of sorts, Setine, or Setinum, was a strong, sweet wine often diluted with snow that became the premier summer drink and a pan-seasonal favorite of Augustus, owing both to its flavor (according to the Roman poet Martial, it tasted of salty Chian figs, for what it’s worth) and the fact that it did not cause him indigestion. Other wines, like Mulsum, which had honey added to it; Conditum, which was mixed with herbs and spices; and Rosatum, which was flavored with roses, were often consumed as aperitivi.
Fast forward 2,000 years, and the foundation of our modern notion of the aperitivo drink is being built, bar by bar, in northern Italy—first in the northwest with vermouth in the eighteenth century, bitter liqueurs in the nineteenth century, and a combination of vermouth and bitters at the beginning of the twentieth century (hello, Americano). At the same time, the northeast is busy with its own interpretation of the archetypal aperitivo cocktail: the spritz.
WATER INTO WINE
The word “spritz”—derived from the German spritzen, meaning “to spray”—is the first clue to the modern origins of the drink. The Italian legend is that the spritz either originated in the northeast of Italy in the nineteenth century, when the region was ruled by the Hapsburgs (centuries-strong Austro-Hungarian imperialists who had some notorious trouble with inbreeding), or during World War I, when Austrian soldiers were, likewise, a fixture in the region.
These folks, used to their high-acid Rieslings and Grüners, apparently didn’t take to the wines of the area, the story goes, which—depending on who you ask—were considered either too bitter, too strong, of poor quality, or all of the above. The Austrians ultimately resorted to ordering their wine with a spritz of water to dilute it, in an unintentional nod to the ancients.
As with most Italian tales of uncertain origin, the spritz story has acquired a very Italian dose of embellishment—including one dead-serious story a notable Italian bartender told us involving beach-going German counts and Valpolicella—to the point of parody. Roberto Pasini, in his book on the spritz phenomenon in Italy, Guida allo Spritz, sarcastically recounts an alternative origin story wherein a bartender, outraged at the notion that his patron would ask for water in his wine, punches him in the face, causing a “spritz” of blood from his busted nose to splash into his glass, coloring his drink a shade of red. “Okay, I allowed myself some license,” he jokes, “but I swear I based it on the most reliable historical hypotheses.”
Whether or not the modern spritz’s origins involve foreign soldiers with an aversion to the strength (or quality) of the wines is difficult to confirm—and every person really will give you a different answer. What we do know is that the early spritz was simply a combination of white wine and still water, à la Greek- and Roman-style.
But as far as we’re concerned, even if the widespread practice of adding water to wine in the north of Italy—or at least the introduction of the word “spritz” to define it—does belong to the Hapsburgs, the spritz really doesn’t become the modern spritz until it gains its now-inseparable sparkle. Or as Guido Zarri, the former owner of Select (the Venetian red bitter brand often credited as the first to be added to the spritz formula), puts it, “the spritz is born when soda is born.”
While soda water was present in Italy by the end of the nineteenth century—and siphons began appearing in aspirational advertisements for everything from Campari to Bitter Pastore in the first years of the twentieth century—according to Fulvio Piccinino, a drinks historian and the author of La Miscelazione Futurista (Futurist Mixology), it only started to become a widespread fixture in bars about a decade and a half into the twentieth century.
By the late 1910s, soda water was at least popular enough that it prompted the invention of what remains one of Italy’s most important aperitivo cocktails: the Americano, which is documented for the first time in Ferruccio Mazzon’s 1920 Guida al Barman. During this same time, the first iteration of the modern spritz began planting its flag in the northeast of Italy and beyond. You could order the spritz liscio (plain) or spritz bianco (white)—a simple mixture of soda water and white wine that is now known as the “spritzer” in the United States and Austria, gespritzer or schorle in Germany, fröccs in Hungary, gemist in Croatia, and so on.
1980S FLASHBACK: THE WHITE WINE SPRITZER
In the United States, the affluent eighties were all leg warmers, synthesizers, hair bands, Molly Ringwald, and, of course, white wine spritzers. While the Iron Curtain was coming down and the stock market going up, the spritzer was conceived from the same health fads that birthed Jazzercise, the cabbage soup diet, and aspartame. Though not unlike those first Hapsburgian spritzes consumed along the Italy-Austria border—simple, refreshing, and low-alcohol—the white wine spritzer had zero connection to European pre-dinner rituals, but rather, was born of the low-fat, “no pain, no gain” lifestyle. Fixed between manufactured wine coolers and boxed blush wine, this symbol of aging suburban femininity has seen a somewhat ironic resurgence amongst the cocktail set, which has banished all matronly implications from the modern notion of an American aperitivo.
This white spritz, though, is neither a cocktail (the common creed is that a cocktail is not a cocktail if it contains less than three ingredients) nor exactly Italian. Those two designations come with the addition, in the 1920s and 1930s, of what is arguably the spritz’s most important ingredient: bitter liqueur. When it comes to the modern Italian perspective on mixed drinks (and, sidebar, fascism—but never mind that), it’s in this period that, according to Fulvio Piccinino, “everything is born.”
THE RISE OF THE ITALIAN BITTER
The production of bitter liqueurs—wine- or spirit-based concoctions infused with bitter herbs, citrus, other ingredients, and sweeteners—and vermouth had become a cultural imperative in Turin by the middle of the nineteenth century (and earlier, in the case of vermouth).
Coffee, it turned out, was—then as it is now—inseparable from alcohol in Italy. By 1842 Turin had around one hundred coffeehouses, or cafés, that played host to a broad cross-section of society. Decked out in marble, gold, and glass, with preternatural lighting that seems to melt into the furnishings, the surviving cafés (many of them beautifully preserved) exude a sort of halo effect—as if to remove any doubt about their divinity within Italian culture. Manned by bow-tied and white-jacketed barmen, these cafés in their original forms may have been all-business in the front, but there was very often a party in the back.
The cellars and backrooms of these cafés became defacto labs manned by a maître licoriste or specialiare—an alcoholic alchemist of sorts tasked with, among other things, mixing formulas for bitters, both proprietary and from established recipes. It’s here that some of the most important figures in the world of Italian drinks—notably Gaspare Campari (of Campari) and Alessandro Martini (of Martini & Rossi)—would get their starts. And just as the seeds of the American Revolution were sown in our early taverns, the Turinese coffeehouses played host to many of the early intellectual rumblings of the Risorgimento, or the political movement that led to the unification of Italy.
In simple terms, an aperitivo is a beverage meant to open a meal and is broken up into two main sub-categories: bitter liqueurs and aromatized wines. As a category, these liqueurs and wines tend to be lower in alcohol and more mellow in flavor, or are served in a manner (with soda, mixed with wine) that counters their intensity.
BITTER APERITIVO LIQUEURS
This category includes all spirit- or wine-based bitters—typically colored either red, orange or yellow—meant to be consumed before a meal. Generally those that are orange in color (e.g. Aperol) are lower in alcohol, slightly sweeter, and less bitter, while the more ubiquitous red bitters (e.g. Campari) are generally higher in alcohol and more bitter.
VERMOUTH • A fortified aromatized wine made by adding a neutral spirit to a low-alcohol wine, then infusing it with spices, roots, and herbs before bottling. European vermouths must contain one of three varieties of wormwood (Artemisia absinthium, Artemisia pontica, or Artemisia maritime) as the main bittering agent. While it comes in a number of styles—depending on geographical origin, base wine, and sweetness— the most iconic style is the original Italian sweet “rosso” vermouth, which originated in Turin in the late 18th century.
CHINATO / QUINQUINA WINE • Similar in style to sweet vermouth, but typified by the infusion of chinchona bark, or quinine, as the bittering agent.
AMERICANO • Similar in style to either bianco or sweet vermouth, but typified by the addition of gentian root (as well as wormwood) as the main bittering agent. By EU law, Americanos can be colored either yellow or red, or not colored at all (e.g. Cocchi Americano).
While the café was a definably social place, the bitter liqueur was considered medicine, often sold based on your ailment. So how, then, did it go from being a cure-all to a symbol of Italian leisure?
“You had a lot of wine being made in the area, and by fortifying it or mixing it with spices and herbs and medicines, it was a whole other product that could be kept longer,” says Rachel Black, an assistant professor of gastronomy at the University of Lyon who’s done extensive research on Italian bitters, in reference to the production of everything from vermouth to chinato (aromatized quinquina wine). “So they created new products and then created a market for them through advertising.” These advertising campaigns didn’t seek to eradicate the medicinal aspect of bitters and vermouth (that still persists today) but to create an association between the products and a social moment—whether it’s before the meal (in the case of vermouth and aperitivo liqueurs) or after a meal (in the case of amari bitter liqueur).
Much of the imagery surrounding the branding of bitters not only featured your standard aspirational, upper-crust vignettes—couple at white-tablecloth restaurant in Edwardian garb, provocative lady sipping daintily from tiny glass—but also contained a “strong dose of forbidden fruit,” writes Mark Spivak in Iconic Spirits. Bitter, after all, is a flavor that represents both poison and antidote (brassicas, anyone?). In one telling Campari ad from 1904 by Marcello Dudovich, the “bitter” appears to be represented by a slick proto-Zorro cloaked in all black, presumably seducing the woman sipping Campari at the bar.
Even Campari’s current press kit plays up the sort of provocation evident in early ads from artists like Dudovich and Leonetto Cappiello, who is famous for his 1921 depiction of a jester climbing out of an orange peel: “With its colour, aroma and flavour, [Campari] has always been a symbol of passion. This passion expresses itself in terms of seduction, sensuality and transgression.”
Transgression. We’ll take two.
During the Futurist era, the commingling of avant-garde contemporary art and iconic advertising artists like Fortunato Depero (who declared that “the art of the future will be largely advertising”) helped further elevate many of these brands from mere medicinal tonics to symbols of Italianism—using imagery that seemed to suggest that, with one sip, sex, power, and freedom could be yours. With this in mind, bitters soon became more than a cure for indigestion shot back with the wince-and-bear-it enthusiasm of a dose of Robitussin. It was the core ingredient in a ritual—the text to this tiny budding religion called aperitivo—and one of the most important ingredients in a new Italian attraction: cocktails.
The birth of cocktail culture in Italy during this period was not merely an appropriation of an American tradition, though. More than drinks, many of the first Italian cocktails—the modern bitter spritz, the Americano, and any number of Futurist cocktails, which adamantly called for the use of only Italian ingredients—were expressions of Italianness, regionality, and, in the case of the Futurist cocktails, an exploration of the contemporary Italian psyche.
Even the evolution of the white spritz to include Italian bitters was, in its own way, an expression of nationalism—an Italianization of a Germanic tradition inherited under imperialist rule. And it’s in this moment, and the prosperous decades to follow after the war, that the spritz became a symbol of leisure and prosperity.
BITTER INTO WINE
By the 1920s, the social ritual of taking an aperitivo—whether Campari and soda, an Americano, or a spritz—had become big business in the north. Capitalizing on the trend, a rash of new products entered the market during this period—most notably, for our purposes, Aperol (1919) and Select (1920), both of which would go on to become the spritz’s most popular bitter companions, along with Cappelletti Aperitivo Americano, aka “Specialino” (1909), Campari (1860), and Cynar (1950s).
THE COCKTAILS OF THE ITALIAN FUTURISTS
Just as the spritz was getting its legs in Northern Italy, Futurist mixology, an offshoot of the Italian Futurist art movement (1909 to 1944) was beginning to find a fervent following. Calling on ingredients both weird and ordinary—from anchovy-stuffed communion wafers to lambrusco to amari— the drinks of the Futurists were often less about ingredients and more about expectations—or rather, the unexpected.
Where the spritz nods to the past and revels in the present, the Futurists radically rejected nostalgia and were bolstered by the Industrial Revolution’s devotion to speed, energy, and individuality. The art of time reflected that—praising achievement over harmony—often resulting in pieces that distorted perspective in an attempt to illustrate dynamism. Somewhat unexpectedly, the principles of the movement manifested in food and drink.
When applied to cocktails—or polibibita, as they called them—the element of surprise formed the basis of Futurist mixology. In keeping with the movement’s mantra, the Futurists sought to reinvent the cocktail as not only modern, but as undeniably Italian, rejecting the use of classic garnishes and eschewing the use of foreign ingredients. But more than anything else—just like the spritz—the movement was about what the cocktail could inspire, socially and psychologically.
In the eyes of the Futurists, a drink was a temporary creation meant to evoke discussion, challenge expectations, and alter sexual desire and performance. For example, cocktails with eggs and spice were thought to lower inhibitions and were categorized as “war in bed,” while “peace in bed” described digestif cocktails meant to warm those who were going home to sleep alone. Outside the bedroom, drinks containing sparkling wine (ahem, spritzes) were “inventive” and meant to inspire the drinker to create, while others were thought to help the drinker resist conformity. Once an all-but-forgotten piece of Italian drink history, Fulvio Piccinino’s Futurist Mixology has not only brought the birth of Italian cocktail culture into relief, but helped explain why classic Italian drinks like the spritz were—and are—more than just drinks.
Primo Franco, the third-generation owner of the famed prosecco producer Nino Franco, recalls that when he was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, the addition of a bitter liqueur to the classic white spritz was still “just a few drops,” and was offered as a spritz upgrade. “You’d see a regular spritz on the menu and then a spritz con l’amaro at a higher price; it was the luxury version of the spritz,” says Franco. Then it was merely a combination of still white wine, soda, and a dash of bitter—a far cry, says Franco, from the heavy dose that’s now common in the spritz.
While Aperol looms large as the primary bitter liqueur used in the modern spritz, its dominance is a fairly recent phenomenon. Prior to the 1980s, when many of the bitters brands that once had a foothold in the market began to lose ground—from Rosso Antico to Gancia Americano—the spritz varied more widely from city to city, even from bar to bar, in northeast Italy. Today, some of these regional loyalties still persist. If you are in Venice your spritz will often be served with Select; in Padua it’s Aperol; in Brescia it might be Cappelletti Aperitivo, and so on.
Just as there are a million tiny rituals in Italy, there are also a million tiny allegiances. “Which bitters do you prefer in the spritz?” is basically like asking, “Which soccer team is the best in Italy?” Even the precise manner in which the spritz is assembled (ice first, then prosecco, then bitters, and then soda) is not a joking matter.
Many point to Select, which was created by the Pilla company on the island of Murano (of blown-glass fame) just outside Venice in 1920, as the first bitter that found its way into the white spritz. In the 1920s and 1930s, Select ran a number of very successful ad campaigns—featuring famous Italian actors and actresses of the day claiming that it was the best aperitif in the world—that helped bolster its loyal foothold in Venice and surrounding cities. By the time Leonida Zarri, of the brandy producer Villa Zarri, purchased Pilla in the 1950s, Select was the company’s most important brand, and the spritz con l’amaro—according to Guido Zarri, Leonida’s grandson and the current head of Villa Zarri—was already an embedded fixture in Venetian bacari.
This spritz formula, a mixture of still white wine, soda, and a bitter liqueur, remains a consistent local ritual from Trieste to Brescia and beyond. But the spritz underwent one more important evolution in the 1990s, when prosecco—which by then was a market force in and outside Italy—began to replace still wine.
“The phenomenon of prosecco really happens at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s,” says producer Primo Franco, referring to the rise of the bubbly Italian wine as a global brand. Much of this had to do with the widespread introduction of the Charmat method—a means of creating sparkling wine by allowing it to undergo second fermentation in a tank rather than in the bottle, as in méthode champenoise or méthode ancestrale. This tank method generally produces wines of less complexity and longevity—but that was precisely the point.
“Prosecco became a lifestyle in the sense that it was an elegant wine, but a wine you can have every day,” says Franco, referring to the sparkler’s light flavor profile and affordability, especially in comparison to Champagne—hence its “poor man’s Champagne” reputation.
With the advent of the tank method, the majority of the wines coming out of the region were sparkling (before this, Primo Franco estimates that half of the prosecco sold was still, or at least still by the time it reached the bar) and exported in greater quantities, carving out a bigger culture of sparkling wine consumption in Venice and surrounding cities, including the area’s beach resorts.
It was here, on the beach, that the spritz met prosecco.
According to Vito Casoni, who spent twenty years as the marketing director for Aperol, prosecco and ice (the latter often absent from the spritz before this) became part of the spritz equation on the beaches and in the bars around Venice—notably Bar Capannina in Lido di Jesolo—in the mid-1990s. “They started to use a bigger glass to fit the ice cubes and replace still wine with prosecco,” Casoni says. “The success of this was immediate.” Seizing on the local popularity of this new version of the spritz, which was longer, colder, bubblier, and fancier (it was now routinely being served in a larger white wine glass rather than a rocks glass), Aperol focused its attention on marketing the brand via the spritz. And the rest, as they say, is history.
THE SPRITZ AS GLOBAL PHENOMENON
While the spritz had been the most popular aperitivo drink in the Veneto and many parts of Friuli and Alto Adige for decades, it’s not until Aperol began marketing the spritz in the 1990s that it went from being a mostly local ritual to Italy’s most popular cocktail.
“The spritz is not a global phenomenon,” says Leonardo Leuci, one of the owners of Rome’s lauded craft cocktail bar The Jerry Thomas Project. “Aperol Spritz is a global phenomenon.”
When Aperol first began marketing the drink in the 1990s, the spritz made up “10 percent of the sales volume of Aperol,” says Casoni. Today it is the primary way in which Aperol is consumed, worldwide.
By the late 1990s, Casoni began marketing the Aperol Spritz to other parts of Italy by traveling to bars from Florence to Rome and farther south, to teach the new prosecco-and-ice recipe. During this period, Italy was still dealing with the aftershocks of a 1980s countrywide campaign to curb alcohol consumption—and in a way the Aperol Spritz, at a maximum of 8 to 10 percent alcohol, was the perfect compromise. Between the late 1990s and the launch of the first Aperol Spritz campaign on Italian national television in 2007, sales of Aperol doubled.
The first ad campaign ran as a short spot with two women in a Fiat who get boxed into a small square filled with young people drinking spritzes; the bartender eyes the ladies and crowd-surfs two spritzes—made with soda, Aperol, and prosecco, of course—to them through their sunroof. “There was no sex or love story—just simple people,” says Casoni. Just simple, good-looking people drinking in the town square during the day—no jobs, no responsibilities. Just spritz. It ends with a question, which carries far more significance now than it did then: “Spritz Life?”
“Yes,” it turns out, was the universal answer.
Aperol’s success in exporting the spritz all over Italy (and beyond) lies in the genius of translating the spritz culture of the north and the symbolism of the drink as a modern, tangible incarnation of the la dolce vita of the 1950s and 1960s—or, “as a symbol of wealth and prosperity of the urban people,” says Roberto Pasini, author of Guida allo Spritz—to a new generation. “The lifestyle is simple,” Pasini says, referring specifically to the culture of aperitivo and spritz in the Veneto. “Drink a lot, but drink well; don’t hurry; and don’t worry about your hangover—people around will understand you.”