The Basics History & Trends

Why Aperitivo Hour Has Taken Over America

The Italian pre-dinner cultural institution has a lot to recommend it.

Channel Orange cocktail
Channel Orange. Image:

Annie Park

 

A world that represents not only a category of beverages but an act, a state of mind and even a time of day, the all-encompassing aperitivo in Italian (or aperitif in French) is “a magical idea” that is unique to “the great Italian idea of enjoying one another,” says Linden Pride, the owner of New York City’s Dante, the Italian-American aperitivo-focused bar and cafe currently ranked best bar in the world

What Are Aperitivi? 

Typically referring to low-alcohol drinks containing bittersweet liqueurs and/or vermouth, an aperitivo drink is intended to open up one’s palate and stimulate a drinker’s appetite before a meal. The liqueurs used in making these refreshing cocktails (think classics like an Aperol Spritz or a Campari & Soda) are made from closely guarded secret recipes of bitter herbs, roots, spices and citrus macerated in a wine or spirit base then sweetened.

There’s some science behind the appetite-whetting nature of the drinks. Lindsay Matteson, part of the beverage team behind Seattle’s aperitivo-centered bar Barnacle, explains that human bodies are naturally programmed to assume that bitter tastes are poisonous, so when a person ingests something bitter, their body naturally reacts by wanting to ingest nutrients to help counteract the effects of the “poison,” she says, which is why aperitivo cocktails often preface dinner. 

What Is Aperitivo Hour?

Aperitivi are about more than kickstarting one’s appetite. Marissa Huff, the author of “Aperitivo: The Cocktail Culture of Italy,” says that in Italy, aperitivo culture has become woven into the country’s social fabric. It’s an excuse to meet friends before a meal as well as a time to wind down in the early evening and relax with a refreshing drink after work. 

And while America’s appreciation for aperitivo culture in all its forms has grown over the past decade, due in part to our changing palates taking on a newfound affinity for bitter flavors, its roots lie in Turin, in northern Italy, where the history of bitters and vermouth began.  

Dating back to the late 18th century, as the story goes, Italian distiller and herbalist Antonio Benedetto Carpano invented what’s believed to be the world’s first vermouth—a proprietary blend of fortified, aromatized wine that was sweet enough to be sipped rather than consumed for purported medicinal properties, confirms Huff. Within the next century, others began producing bitter liqueurs, such as entrepreneur Gaspare Campari, the founder of the namesake red liqueur, which has become one of the world’s most beloved aperitivo liqueurs and aperitivo culture’s gateway drug. 

And it was around the same time, at Campari’s Caffè Camparino in Milan, that original aperitivo cocktail the Milano-Torino (Mi-To) was conceived, named for the source of its two ingredients: Campari (from Milan) and sweet vermouth (from Turin). A sparkling variation, the Americano, ensued, which eventually led to the Negroni’s birth around 1919. Legend has it that Italian Count Camillo Negroni asked his friend, bartender Forsco Scarselli, to serve him a boozier version of the Americano. Scarselli replaced the Americano’s soda water with gin. The cocktail proved a success and became “the center of aperitivo hour,” says Matteson.

America Embraces Aperitivi

Over the last decade, Americans have embraced aperitivo culture so much that it’s no longer restricted to the early evening pre-dinner hours. “Aperitivo hour has blurred into entire evenings spent sipping and snacking,” says Huff. 

And it’s thanks to low-alcohol intoxicants, like the beloved Spritz, a sparkling-wine-based cocktail spiked with an aperitivo liqueur such as Aperol or Campari plus a splash of fizzy water, that make hours-long drinking sessions enjoyable. In fact, the Spritz has proved so popular in the U.S. that it has inspired a growing slate of aperitivi products, including more Italian aperitivi liquors to come stateside like juniper- and rhubarb-laced Venetian Select, plus wholly new ones like zero-proof Ghia, a nonalcoholic aperitivi “liqueur” flavored with yuzu, ginger and orange peel. 

Like the Spritz itself, which is made from just three ingredients, a huge plus for aperitivo cocktails in general is that they’re easy to make. Huff suggests starting with a bottle of Campari and a good-quality sweet vermouth, such as Cocchi Vermouth di Torino. To make the godfather of them all, the Mi-To, mix equal parts Campari and sweet vermouth over ice. Or top the drink with soda water and garnish it with an orange slice to make an Americano. Swap gin for soda water, using equal parts sweet vermouth, gin and Campari to produce a Negroni. Replace the gin with sparkling wine, and that’s a Negroni Sbagliato. To make an even easier aperitivo cocktail, simply blend vermouth or a bitter liqueur and club soda or sparkling wine. The key, says Pablo Moix, a co-owner of Los Angeles Italian bar and restaurant Scopa: “Don’t overthink it.”