This evocative drink which stems from Italian soil has earned its place as one of the world’s most popular cocktails. Balmy summer evenings in a mediterranean milieu are brightened by the orange glow of sunsets and Spritzes, and it is hard to come by any Italian bar, piazza or beachside which isn’t punctuated by multitudes of glasses that radiate with the vibrant hue of Aperol.
Instantly identifiable by its bold orange-red colour, Aperol is a liqueur from the Veneto region. Combined with soda water, Prosecco, ice and a slice of orange, it makes up one part of the classic Aperol Spritz cocktail. Whilst this Venetian concoction has been quenching the pre-dinner thirsts of Italians for over 100 years, only recently has it also delighted the tastebuds of the rest of the world.
Now, through immense marketing campaigns, it is celebrated globally as a drink of unity which is signalled by its unambiguous slogan “Together we joy.” This emphasis on community spirit alludes to the surprising history of the Aperol Spritz which can be traced back to the early nineteenth century. Although it is proudly and fervently Italian, its origins lie in lands further afield and to a time when the idea for Aperol had not even begun to brew in the minds of two brothers from Northern Italy who eventually went on to invent it.
After the collapse of the Napoleonic Empire in 1815, a power vacuum throughout Europe left the continent’s remaining superpowers scrambling to occupy the lands lost by French forces. Italy’s northern regions of Lombardy and Venetia fell into the hands of the Austrian Habsburg Empire and by the end of the year, its soldiers had settled themselves comfortably into their new territory. However, adjusting to the lifestyle south of their border proved difficult particularly when it came to the Italian drinking habits. More accustomed to lighter, less alcoholic wines, the Austrian palates were sensitive to the strong, more full-bodied flavours from Italy’s sun-drenched vines. Before long the soldiers found a way to enjoy these bolder tastes by requesting a spray of still water in their wine, or as they called it in German, ‘ein Spritzer.’
When the Italian regions finally gained independence in the later nineteenth century, the Austrian soldiers departed but their drinking habits remained. Soon, the ‘Spritzer’ of still water was replaced by soda water and at the start of the twentieth century, liqueurs and spirits took over from wine. Enter the Barbieri brothers, Luigi and Silvio, born and raised in Padua, who, upon inheriting their father’s distillery, set to work inventing a new liqueur that was inspired by a combination of this ongoing drinking trend, their holidays to France and the aperitifs which they had enjoyed there.
They worked on a recipe for 7 years — a true labour of love — and in 1919 at the Padua World Fair, a global trade event showcasing food, travel and lifestyle brands, the brothers exhibited Aperol. Aperol Spritz’s name is therefore a nod to the international influences in the creation of what is now an internationally acclaimed cocktail. ‘Aperol’ is a spin off of the French term, ‘Aperitif,’ (adapted in Italian as ‘Aperitivo’), which describes the longstanding ritual of drinking before dinner to stimulate the appetite. Meanwhile, ‘Spritz’ alludes to the Austrian soldiers’ unwitting creation of a new mixed beverage served in Italian bars. Indeed, Aperol Spritz is merely an embellished continuation of the watered down wine requested by Austrians stationed in Lombardy-Venetia over 200 years ago. However, make no mistake: the Aperol Spritz is still fundamentally an Italian creation, adopting Austrian and French influences, but crucially, adapting them to the Italian drinking culture and lifestyle.
Perhaps it is surprising to some that the origins of Aperol Spritz can be traced as far back as 1815 when Aperol’s entire branding seems solidly anchored in a twentieth-century world of Art Nouveau aesthetics and the cosmopolitan boom of post-war Italy. With its inextricable ties to the after-work ritual of aperitivo, Aperol was initially marketed as a liqueur of refined leisure but its relatively inexpensive price made it an obtainable addition to the drinking and social mores of modern Italy. Today, Aperol’s affordability is an ongoing priority, and is perhaps another reason for the omnipresence of Aperol Spritz in bars throughout the world.
Proclaimed Aperol connoisseur and coauthor of Spritz, Talia Baiocchi, encapsulates exactly what this popular cocktail represents: “It isn’t a luxury item; it’s a cultural right.” However, while Aperol is a general crowd pleaser, some bar-goers can be spotted decidedly Spritzless. Many who dislike its intense sweetness and bold citrus taste, complain about its lack of complexity compared to other liqueurs. But to over analyse the Aperol Spritz is to miss the point entirely. The cocktail itself is synonymous with accessible pleasure and the concept of La Dolce Vita which became so influential in the urban hubs of 1950s Italy. This notion of a relaxed and unpretentious view of life is based entirely (and paradoxically) on a conscious effort to unwind. The Aperol Spritz fits into this very aspiration: it is not a complex drink and nor does it want to be. Rather, it appeals to the masses and does not require (nor desire) a trained or sophisticated palate to tease out intricate flavours.
You do not need a sommelier to tell you what food best accompanies your Spritz. In fact, all that should be served alongside it is a bowl of salted peanuts hastily banged on the table in front of you by a bartender who is already dashing off to serve other customers, almost all of whom will inevitably order the same vibrant orange drink as you.