I tried my first Aperol Spritz in the summer of 2015. Being both new to the world of cocktails and extended stays in the Tuscan countryside (My family purchased our farmhouse in the spring of 2014.), a drink with a base of bitter orange liqueur had me feeling skeptical. How could something like that possibly be palatable? At the time, I didn’t even like many types of beer. Any hint of an acrid aftertaste in a drink was an instant turnoff.
It wasn’t until the first reluctant sip passed my lips that I finally understood why I saw the flourescent-hued beverage during any respectable Italian happy hour. Against all expectations, it worked. Four years and many aperitivi later, an Aperol Spritz is a taste experience deeply intertwined in my definition of summer, and of Italy itself.
It’s hardly a stereotype to say that Italy is heavily divided along regional lines. Hometown pride is taken very seriously, and many Italians will tell you that where they come from has the best wine, the best food, and/or is the most beautiful place in the country. (Of all the things American films get terrifically wrong about Italy, this exaggeration is something I’ve found to be pretty accurate.)
That said, the prolific popularity of the Aperol Spritz, at least across northern Italy, despite these strong regional loyalties, is nothing to downplay. The modern definition of the “spritz” dates back to the early 20th century where wine-based cocktails were spiked with bitter liqueurs and thinned with a bit of soda water. According to the book Spritz: Italy’s Most Iconic Aperitivo Cocktail, the creation of the drink was also a way for bartenders to take the practice of watering down wine from their Austrian neighbors, and transforming it into something uniquely Italian.
Aperol, invented by the Barbieri brothers in Padova in 1919, is among those bitter liqueurs (also including Campari, Select, and Cynar). It’s low in alcohol (11 percent) and based heavily on the taste of bitter orange. The classic recipe, which the company capitalized on in the 1950s, calls for three parts prosecco, two parts Aperol, and one part club soda.
While the formula for an Aperol Spritz has been commonplace prior to WWII, local rifts on the recipe are, of course, to be expected. In Venice, bartenders occasionally swap the prosecco for white wine. While I’ve never experienced that change, I have had a green olive added to the typical orange slice garish. Farther south, that addition disappears. Containment is typically some variety of wine glass, but in my family’s neck of the woods (around 30 minutes outside of Lucca), whatever glassware you have around will do the trick.
Italians are all about sticking to tradition, some of the details are negotiable as long as the essence of the experience is maintained. The exact execution of the recipe for an Aperol Spritz is not as important as the larger ritual of aperitvo it orbits. It’s a time of gathering for friends and family, for transitioning from work to play, and to “prep” the stomach for an onslaught of carbs.
Full disclosure, I love this kind of thing. Maybe it’s my heritage speaking. An Aperol Spritz is not just a drink. It’s 7 o’clock on a summer night. It’s time shared and preserved.
That being said, my own variation on the recipe is as follows: replace the club soda with either orange soda or orange juice. It cuts down on the bitterness, and amps up the citrus flavor. Like many other Italians, I just couldn’t help myself.
There’s also another “rule” that one Aperol Spritz is enough. I, however, subscribe to the believe that it’s a drink best enjoyed in pairs; not only with someone you appreciate, but over a conversation that lasts two rounds.