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A Spritz for every season

How did this bubbly, bitter cocktail go from being an Italian stalwart to gaining global ubiquity?

Aperol Spritz

*This feature was originally published in the October 2023 issue of The Spirits Business magazine.

In the summertime, nothing hits like a Spritz, but the refreshing cocktail has found legs throughout the year as drinkers worldwide embrace bitter flavours and lower-ABV experiences. Pair those trends with increased post-pandemic travel and a rising interest in all things Italy, and the viral moment that the Aperol Spritz had a few years back has evolved into serious longevity for the drink, which combines Prosecco, the bitter aperitivo, and club soda in a 3-2-1 ratio.

“Italian drinks are having a huge moment and not just like, one at a time,” Jessica King, owner and operator of Knoxville, Tennessee’s Brother Wolf, an aperitivo bar with an entire page dedicated to Spritzes, says. “It’s not just popularity, it’s overall awareness that I think has not existed at this large a scale before.”

Indeed, drinkers are becoming more knowledgeable, their palates more refined, and that has resulted in a wider embrace of Italy’s aperitivo culture, of which the Spritz plays a key part. Similar to happy hour, aperitivo is about taking the time to enjoy your drink and the company you keep. “The beautiful thing about a Spritz is that, like a lot of aperitivo, it has dilution,” King says, “so that you’re elongating the amount of time that you’re spending with friends.”

That concept, while strong in the summer, isn’t necessarily bound to one specific season. Campari, which acquired Aperol in 2003, has done its part to place the Spritz in different social settings, recontextualising how drinkers view it. In the recent past, that has included activations at Coachella and the US Open, while also bringing the Aperol Spritz to California’s Mammoth Mountain in an effort to connect it to après ski culture, which similarly emphasises relaxed camaraderie.

“A lot of the trick with the Spritz is people seeing it and thinking about it outside of that warm summer, outdoor moment that they’re used to seeing it in,” says Andrea Sengara, vice-president of marketing at Campari. “That aperitivo moment of togetherness with your friends, taking a moment to just enjoy that with them, applies beyond that.”

The visibility of the Spritz, in these settings and more, has helped to keep it in the public consciousness. Sengara points to 2015 as when the Aperol Spritz really exploded in popularity, and it has crossed over to become a pop culture fixation since.

HBO’s popular series The White Lotus went to Sicily for its second season, which aired in October 2022. The all-star cast sipped many Aperol Spritzes on the show, the colourful cocktail acting like a beacon of sorts, calling the viewer to some far-off destination, or at least a sunnier frame of mind.

Nathan McCarley-O’Neill, head of bars at Major Food Group, says the Spritz has that specific power to transport its drinker, sometimes simply through appearance. “During winter time, you want something that’s going to pick up the mood and change your perspective within those dark and gloomy hours,” he says.

Darko Doban, bars manager for the Amano Group, agrees. He likes to feature the Spritz on his menus in September and October, rather than peak summer months, as many people in London are returning from vacation then, and if the weather is still nice, they want to drink outdoors.

“It’s an emotional connection to the summer,” he explains. “You go out, even in October, if it’s a little bit sunny, and you’re sitting outside, the first thing that comes to your mind [is], ‘I want to have a Spritz’.”

For these bar professionals, the Spritz is an open canvas, on which they can embed seasonal flavours, reinventing the drink for cooler months. For autumn variations, they turn to apricot, apple, and fig, while winter brings citrus and baking spice flavours. Doban says the possibilities are even broader when you consider the wide spectrum of vermouths, sodas, and other ingredients.

“All of these things work really, really well which allow you to play around with it in different times,” McCarley-O’Neill says.

While King gives her bar staff freedom to create, she says that the bitter element, one of the foundations of aperitivo, is a must.

The Susano Spritz, made with gin, elderflower liqueur, cucumber, lemon, Prosecco, and soda is a top seller, and she says she’s even seen customers who used to shoot Fireball ordering amaro instead. “Being in a market like Knoxville, Tennessee, it’s always interesting to see where people are at as far as their knowledge about specific styles of cocktails, specific cultures of drinking,” she says. “What we really wanted to gauge was what people knew and what they didn’t in our area. Everybody here has heard of the Aperol Spritz.”

To be sure, there’s a familiarity there with the Spritz that makes it an easy sell. Doban says that when drinkers aren’t sure of what they want, they search for something recognisable, and so a Spritz can become a bestseller on name alone. Plus, the low-ABV nature means they can be consumed at any point in the day, with King saying it’s easy to sell customers on a second drink due to its lightness.

Still, today’s drinker covets exploration, so while the Aperol Spritz may be here to stay, offering variations throughout the year is a way for bars, and brands, to keep those aperitivo trends going strong well beyond the summer. “Not everybody wants to drink patio cocktails during those times of year,” King says. “So it was our goal and our task, really, to try and find some seasonal versatility in these classic cocktails.”

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