Cocktails, like food and art, are woven into the fabric of Italian culture. The spirits and cocktails enjoyed by Italians, and the ways in which they drink them, date back to monks in the 13th century and the Medici family during the Renaissance. So Italy has had plenty of time to refine and perfect its cocktail culture.
Get to know Italy’s most authentic and delicious liqueurs and spirits, and know how and when to drink them like a true Italian.
It’s only natural to start with aperitivos, since the name is derived from the Latin word for “begin,” aperire. Aperitivos are an integral part of daily life in Italy. Drinking them usually takes place between 6 and 8 p.m., giving people a chance to unwind before dinner. The spirits enjoyed at this time are typically lower alcohol and dry—ideal for casual sipping.
The most famous aperitivo is likely Campari. And the Negroni is a prime example of what an Italian would be drinking prior to dinner. But the Negroni, despite its high profile in the States, isn’t the most popular Italian cocktail. That distinction goes to the Aperol Spritz, a light and refreshing cocktail that still boasts a complex flavor profile.
It’s also important to remember that not all aperitivos are liqueurs. Cinzano, a handcrafted and slightly spicy vermouth, is another pre-dinner staple. While this can be used to excellent effect in a Manhattan, try making an Americano to experience this vermouth in an authentically Italian way.
Frangelico, a light and smooth hazelnut liqueur, has the benefit of being appropriate to drink before and after dinner. This versatility makes Frangelico the key ingredient in some intriguing cocktails. A Frizzante is a great way to enjoy it as an aperitivo, with its light and refreshing flavors. But a Frangelico Affogato combines the liqueur with coffee and ice cream, creating a perfectly decadent after-dinner cocktail.
The after-dinner spirits tend to be stronger and richer and can act as a sort of liquid dessert. Cynar is pleasantly bitter, and Averna is velvety on the palate. You can maintain Italian authenticity by having any of these on the rocks or in a cocktail, like a Dolce Amaro or Cynar Julep. Braulio, however, packs a more robust flavor that’s best enjoyed by itself or mixed with cream.
Whether you’re enjoying a drink before dinner or after, just remember to stick with these liqueurs and spirits. Skip the knockoffs, and you’ll be drinking like an Italian in no time.