Spritz: Italy's Most Iconic Aperitivo Cocktail, with Recipes - Talia Baiocchi, Leslie Pariseau (2016)
IN VENICE, THE SPIRITUAL home of the spritz, there are no house-conceived twists on the old-fashioned, curious margaritas, or midori-infused variations on the martini (unless you happen to be at a hotel or an establishment with a doorman and electronic dance music spilling out from inside, in which case: avoid). Instead, there is simply an assembly line of prosecco, soda water, and bitter liqueurs combined by the slapdash dozen with a spraying soda gun and speed pourer. And your drink is always, without fail, punctuated with a skewered olive or a slice of orange plunging to the bottom with a bubbling plunk. Serious only in its insistent daily presence, the purest spritz is made by feel, gut instinct, and experimentation. Yet, in order to offer insight into its evolution and architecture—no matter how resistant to the jigger—there must be a set of rules for building it.
HOW TO SPRITZ
FIRST • A spritz is always effervescent. Whether its bubble is acquired through soda water, prosecco, some other sparkling wine, or a flavored soda, the spritz would not be a spritz without buoyancy.
SECOND • A spritz is low in alcohol, which, for our purposes, means that it should contain no more than one ounce of strong spirits (preferably less). This is a drink that is consumed when the day is waning and the night is young.
THIRD • A spritz is a pre-dinner drink, meant to be consumed in that liminal hour between work and play. It should be bitter as a means to open the stomach for a meal.
Within this chapter, we offer models that follow the aformentioned rules, from classic to modern to a smattering of oddball cousins and back again. We remind you, of course, that these are simply jumping-off points for creating a spritz. If an ingredient is absent from your bar, try a substitute—Cocchi Americano for bianco vermouth, lime juice for lemon juice, or tonic water for quinquina wine, and so on—because the true spirit of the spritz requires a bit of homegrown curiosity for what might happen if you stretch the rules just a little bit.
Prosecco is oft-maligned as being the ubiquitous, cheap cousin of Champagne—the kind of sparkling wine that’s fueled many a bottomless brunch. It’s true that a deluge of cheap prosecco began cascading into the United States in the 1980s and into the 1990s, when restaurants like Cipriani began pouring the stuff directly into the mouths of celebrities and the linen-clad set. It’s since become something of a global lifestyle brand, much of this owed to its production process, called the Charmat method—a means of creating sparkling wine by allowing it to undergo its second fermentation in a tank rather than in the bottle, which is the way true Champagne is made. This tank method, which is much less time-consuming and more affordable, generally produces wines of less complexity and longevity, which is precisely why prosecco ended up in nightclubs, bars, and pretty much every place alcohol is served from New York to Hong Kong. But the wines do have a more serious side.
The finest proseccos come from the DOCG zone, which stretches from the town of Conegliano to Valdobbiadene, and covers fifty thousand acres of steep, terraced vineyards that rise up from the road like verdant amphitheaters. While the majority of the region’s sparkling wines—all produced from the white Glera grape—are made using the Charmat method, the last half decade has seen a very welcome redux of prosecco col fondo (which translates to “with its bottom” or “with its sediment”), the old-school cloudy style of bottle-fermented bubbly that’s released without the lees being removed. While not a typical companion for the spritz, the col fondo style has captured the attention of the wine world’s avant-garde as a more traditional, and very often more compelling, expression of the region.
When spritzing, you’ll typically want to look for a dry prosecco made using the Charmat method; those clean, bright pear notes and sheer slammability are paramount here. So is quality. Just because you’re mixing doesn’t mean you can get away with a suspect bottle of bubbly. In many of the classic and modern spritz formulas, prosecco makes up the majority of the drink, and—plain and simple—the better the prosecco, the better the drink. Below are three producers who make top-quality Charmat-method prosecco.
NINO FRANCO • For three generations the Franco family has been making some of the best prosecco out there. While the single-cru bottlings are worth seeking out on their own, the Rustico bottling is our favorite all-purpose prosecco and clocks in at just $15 per bottle.
SORELLE BRONCA • The sisters Bronca are some of the region’s most conscientious growers and producers. They tend organically-farmed hillside vineyards in Conegliano, which feeds their range of proseccos. At the top end is one of the region’s best Charmat wines, Particella 68, along with a limited col fondo bottling. For our everyday purposes both the Extra Dry ($17) and the Brut ($17), which, confusingly enough, has a touch more residual sugar than the Extra Dry, are both excellent.
ADAMI • Like Nino Franco, Adami produces a significant volume of prosecco, but the quality level remains very high. Known at the top end for their Vigneto Giardino bottling, they also offer the affordable and widely available Garbèl ($14) and Bosco di Gica ($14), which both play nice in any spritz.
Some of the most exciting wines in the region are being made in this style. Here are a few worth seeking out:
Casa Coste Piane Prosecco Valdobbiadene “Sur Lie” NV | $24
Ca dei Zago Col Fondo Prosecco NV | $20
Bele Casel Col Fondo Prosecco Asolo DOCG NV | $18
Zanotto Col Fondo Prosecco NV | $22
Costadilà Prosecco Colli Trevigiani NV | $21
Throughout the recipe section we’ve categorized spritzes as either Classic, Modern, or Cousins.
The most traditional spritzes are those that originate along Italy’s spritz trail—from Trieste to Turin. They’re the simplest of the formulas, containing just a few ingredients: wine or prosecco, soda water, a bit of citrus, and a bitter element like Aperol, Campari, or in some cases, an amaro like Cynar. The classic spritzes evolved regionally and are topped with a distinguishing garnish; their bitters are determined by a particular allegiance to one local brand or another. All of the spritzes that make up the classic canon—from the Venetian Spritz to the Negroni Sbagliato—are still drunk in their respective homes, like a daily prayer to the aperitivo gods.
Once the Italian version of the spritz hit the U.S. and beyond, bartenders took note and began mixing their own versions of the iconic cocktail. These modern drinks still adhere closely to the classic template for the spritz but they prove that there are dozens of possible combinations within that format, especially when bred with classic cocktails whose spirit base can be swapped out for sparkling wine. The modern spritz takes cues from its predecessors but draws on new garnishes, fresh juices, and alternatives to the classic Italian liqueurs that commonly find their way into the spritz.
The cousins of the spritz are so called because they aren’t necessarily made up of the exact same DNA. While they maintain the same philosophical sensibilities (bitter, low-alcohol, bubbly), they do so with unorthodox ingredients (egg whites, beer, muddled fruit) that pull them off the beaten path. Spritzes in camouflage, they share the same ethos as a classic or modern iteration.
BUILDING A SPRITZ BAR
The essential spritz bar is a spare one, requiring only the elements detailed in “How to Spritz”—namely, something bubbly and something bitter, with a wine base, which can be anything from still white wine to prosecco to vermouth to sherry. Beyond the essentials, there are a number of highly recommended additions—from syrups to shrubs to a greater selection of liqueurs—that can easily add another layer of complexity to the spritz.
But even if you haven’t begun to acquire these ingredients, you probably have the makings of a spritz on hand. Given the up-for-anything nature of the drink, anything on one’s bar—Angostura bitters to Barolo Chinato—is fair game. But take heed: not all experiments will result in deliciousness, we can assure you of that. Though it invites experimentation, the spritz requires a feel for flavor pairing and the necessary grace to understand that sometimes less is more. Often, the simplest spritzes are the most alluring.
Following is a brief list of recommended necessities with suggestions for the advanced home bar or bartender.
SODA WATER • The Soda Stream is your best bet to ensure an endless supply of charged soda water. Newer models allow for the user to gauge the level of carbonation, and the spritz is always best at its most bubbly. In terms of store-bought soda water, Canada Dry’s aggressive carbonation is a great baseline, but any carbonated water will do.
SPARKLING WINE • While prosecco is the spritz’s bubbly best friend, any sparkling wine is fair game. For a spritz that has the bulk and structure to stand up to cold weather, look to lambrusco. If you’re seeking an extra layer of complexity from your bubbly wine—especially when pairing with minimal ingredients that allow the wine to shine—Crémant d’Alsace, which is an affordable alternative to Champagne and is made in the same method, will add a note of yeasty umami flavor.
TONIC WATER • Our go-to is always Fever Tree, which is notable for its subtle spice, dry finish, and ability to play well with other ingredients. Tonic syrups, like Jack Rudy or Tomr’s, are also quite versatile, but they will most likely include more intense herbal and spice flavors, so try them out in small amounts before committing to a generous dose. Also, keep in mind that most commercial tonic waters lean toward sweet and overpowering, so if Canada Dry or Schweppes is all you’ve got on hand, be prepared to use less tonic and to supplement with soda water.
For more on aperitivi, turn to the “Aperitivi 101” box.
CAMPARI • In 1860, Gaspare Campari conceived the bitterest of the red liqueurs in Novara. He eventually moved to Milan, where the liqueur grew to fame at his Caffé Campari, which opened in 1867. Composed of a mix of proprietary spices and herbs, grain spirit, and sugar, Campari has since become synonymous with Italian cocktails like the Americano and the Negroni. Ranging from 20 to 28 percent ABV (depending on the country), Campari is bracingly bitter, a bit spicy, and infused with a strong taste of bitter orange.
CONTRATTO BITTER • With a base of grape brandy derived from Italian Barbera grapes, Piedmont-based Contratto’s red bitter liqueur has its origins in a recipe from 1933. It’s similar to Campari in that it’s best used in drinks like the Americano and Negroni, but is less aggressively bitter and sweet with a more subtle, herbal backbone owing to a cold maceration of twenty-four different spices and herbs including aloe, hibiscus, wormwood, and juniper. It’s colored naturally with beets and has an ABV of 22 percent.
CAPPELLETTI APERITIVO AMERICANO • Part of Eric Seed’s Haus Alpenz portfolio in the United States, Cappelletti is a trebbiano wine–based Americano that combines both sweet and bitter in what is essentially a ready-to-drink cocktail base. It’s been made near Trento at the base of the Dolomites since the early twentieth century, where it’s known and bottled as Specialino. Given its oxidized wine base, Cappelletti drinks like a combination of a red bitter and vermouth—all vanilla, sweet grapefruit, and bitter orange—and is a dream ingredient if you like your spritzes with a bit more junk in the trunk.
APEROL • Though Aperol defies the red bitter category with its orange hue and sweeter flavor profile, it still contains the subtle bitter element that the spritz requires. First created in 1919 by the Barbieri brothers in Padua, the 11 percent ABV liqueur’s secret recipe has, purportedly, remained unchanged for the past century. The main flavor here is sweet grapefruit with aromas of rhubarb and orange.
CONTRATTO APERITIF • Colored with natural carrot and beet extracts, Contratto aperitif is made from a recipe that dates back to 1935. At 13.5 percent ABV, this orange bitter (similar in style to Aperol) is brandy-based, infused with everything from wormwood to angelica to orange to juniper, and pleasantly bittersweet and herbaceous.
COCCHI AMERICANO • Born in Asti in 1891, Cocchi Americano is an aromatized wine steeped with bitter orange, cinchona bark, and gentian. It’s slightly bittersweet with citrus, floral, and herbal notes, and is pale straw yellow in color. Though it’s been on the market continuously since its conception, it’s seen a surge in popularity since the 1970s, when the Bava family took over production.
LILLET BLANC AND ROSÉ • Born in Bordeaux in the 1870s, Lillet once referred to Kina Lillet, a quinine-fortified aperitif wine, which eventually fell out of fashion before evolving into, simply, Lillet. Both expressions are made from Sémillion grapes and offer enough sweetness and viscosity to add real texture to a spritz. While the blanc skews more golden and honeyed, the rosé is fresh with notes of berry and citrus.
PUNT E MES • Somewhere between a red bitter, a vermouth, and an amaro, Punt e Mes is the Piedmontese equivalent to a proto-bottled cocktail. It was originally made by the Carpano family (of vermouth fame) starting in the late nineteenth century, and is now owned by Fratelli Branca (which is perhaps most famous for its bracingly bitter Fernet Branca). Punt e mes means “one point and a half,” which supposedly refers to one part sweet and half part bitter, a phrase which was mirrored and requested by patrons with the gesture of one finger and a thumb.
SUZE • Bitter and herbaceous, Suze is a bright yellow nineteenth-century French aperitif flavored with wild gentian root. At 15 percent ABV, it slides into the bitter category with a less astringent flavor profile but works in the same manner when paired with white wine, prosecco, stone fruits, and citrus.
GRAN CLASSICO • Golden brown and flavored with a proprietary mix of herbs and spices including gentian, wormwood, and hyssop, this Swiss-produced aperitif has a bitter bite softened with its herbaceous and caramel-driven backbone. It’s most often used as a substitute for Campari.
AMARI • These bitter herbal Italian liqueurs, usually reserved for after a meal thanks to their dark and heavier profile, appear in many of the following recipes thanks to the bite and viscosity lent by sugar and time in the barrel. We recommend stocking Cynar, an artichoke-based formula that’s dark but balanced; Braulio, an Alpine amaro with a distinct pine and menthol flavor; and Averna, a sweeter but versatile Sicilian amaro, that works well with brown spirits. We also love Amaro Montenegro (sweeter and mellow) and Amaro Nardini (higher-proof, minty, and intense).
Wine and Fortified Wine
WINE • The most accessible spritz of all—the white wine spritzer—consists of simply a pour of basic white wine mixed with soda water and, if you’re feeling fancy, a slice of citrus. Many establishments in Italy still use white wine for their Aperol Spritz instead of prosecco, relying on soda water to add the sparkle. When it comes to still whites, opt for something acidic with just enough stuffing to add texture—like Soave from Italy. When a spritz calls for red wine, a full-bodied red with minimal oak influence—like an un-oaked Cabernet from just about anywhere—does the trick.
SHERRY • Dry styles of sherry, notably fino, manzanilla, and amontillado, are excellent alternatives to the classic white wine base. Fino and manzanilla are both dry and saline, offering a savory note and bit of perceived acidity, while amontillado offers the same dryness with a kick of oxidation.
VERMOUTH • The original vermouth—a fortified wine aromatized with herbs and spices—was conceived by herbalist Antonio Benedetto Carpano in Turin in 1786. As it became commercially available in the early nineteenth century, Carpano (and many other budding brands like Martini & Rossi) was served in Turin’s cafes, helping shape the tradition and ritual of aperitivo. There are a number of vermouth styles beyond those listed below, but these are a solid base to build on when considering your spritz bar.
DRY VERMOUTH • Synonymous with French vermouth, dry vermouth is exactly what it sounds like: dry, spicy, and slightly herbal. Created by Noilly Prat in Marseilles in the early 1800s, the style is now produced by most major vermouth houses. Our favorite dry vermouth brands are Dolin Dry, Noilly Prat, and the newer Carpano Dry.
SWEET VERMOUTH • Sweet Vermouth implies either Vermouth di Torino (which is the original vermouth and is geographically protected) or a vermouth made in the spicy Turin style. Recommended are Carpano Antica, a centuries-old vanilla-forward recipe from Turin; Cocchi di Torino, a classic formula containing a moscato base; and Dolin Rouge, a Chambéry-style (i.e., drier and lighter) take on sweet vermouth.
VERMOUTH BIANCO/BLANC • Bianco or blanc vermouth is a type of white sweet vermouth that was created in Chambéry, France (the only other town outside of Turin whose vermouths are geographically protected), in 1821. Generally more floral than its red counterparts, bianco or blanc vermouth is best when balanced with herbal flavors and citrus. We love Contratto Bianco, Dolin Blanc, and Carpano Bianco.
Fruit Liqueurs, Syrups, Shrubs, and Infusions
The simplest way to add viscosity and flavor to a basic spritz is to integrate seasonal flavors. Outside of the raw ingredient itself, fruit liqueurs are the most readily available and shelf-stable ingredients to translate fruit flavor to a drink. While most liqueurs on the market are flavor facsimiles (like red-flavored Skittles) and are usually the color of neon crayons, Giffard, a French spirits company that dates back to the nineteenth century, makes pure fruit liqueurs that are widely available across the United States. We use their Pamplemousse Rose (pink grapefruit), Crème de Frais des Bois (wild strawberry), and Framboise (raspberry) the most.
Though bottled liqueurs are available year round (and last nearly forever), their fresh, homemade counterparts are an invaluable addition to the spritz arsenal, capturing the truest essence of a season, fruit, or herb. Both syrups and shrubs (vinegar-based syrups) have the ability to brighten a cocktail with only a dash or two, turning a one-dimensional drink into something far more complex.
On the same note, infusing or steeping a spirit base or vermouth with an herb, spice, or fruit provides an extra layer of flavor, translated best through white vermouths, lighter aromatized wines, or clear spirits (see Basil-Infused Dolin Blanc or Caraway-Infused Cocchi Americano). Though the extra step of infusion may seem like a hassle, it takes only a little forethought and a minute or two of preparation. On the next page, find ideas for syrups and shrubs that go well in a spritz.
Still drunk daily in their birthplaces like an offering to Italy’s aperitivo gods, the classics are the simplest, most traditional of spritz formulas: wine, soda water, and bitter.
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GLASS rocks or wine glass • GARNISH olive and orange half-wheel
KEY INGREDIENTS: Bitter Liqueur, Prosecco
The spritz that launched a thousand spritzes, the Venetian Spritz is made with a range of bitter liqueurs, including the ubiquitous…
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GLASS rocks • GARNISH orange half-wheel
KEY INGREDIENTS: Campari, Sweet Vermouth, Prosecco
The legendary Bar Basso in Milan (which originally opened in 1933 and moved to its current space in 1947) claims…
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GLASS wine glass • GARNISH seasonal citrus, herbs, or fruit
KEY INGREDIENTS: Dry White Wine, Lemon Syrup
The first vestige of spritz ancestry, the white spritz or spritz liscio was likely—as the Italian mythos goes—born in Hapsburg…
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GLASS wine glass • GARNISH lemon half-wheel
KEY INGREDIENTS: Campari, White Wine
Either a white spritz with the addition of Campari or a Venetian Spritz that calls for white wine instead of prosecco, the Bicicletta…