The European tradition of enlivening your palate with a well-made aperitivo is a ritual worth exploring any time of year. But the balmy days of summer are the perfect pairing for the icy effervescence of botanical-infused fortified wines and liqueurs. Not to mention, if you’re interested in joining the growing ranks of the low-ABV cocktail movement, aperitivo bottles have a much lower proof than hard alcohol —16%-25% ABV versus 40%-50% — so you can be more present to enjoy the long summer evenings.
Melissa Watson, the social media manager and self-proclaimed “Cocktail Nerd” at the San Francisco spirits shop Bitters and Bottles (she’s also known on Instagram as Negroni Queen) loves the concept of Aperitivo Hour in lieu of Happy Hour.
“In the States, we tend to see Happy Hour as celebrating ‘Thank god, work is over!’ but the European approach is more about kicking off a lovely evening,” says Watson. “That's even what the word translates to: The Italian verb aprire means ‘to open,’ and you're opening your evening but you're also opening your appetite.”
Watson embraces simplicity with her Aperitivo Hour. “A simple approach I fall back on is things that go well with club soda and/or sparkling wine,” she says. “This might be Campari, a light-bodied amaro like Cynar, or it could be vermouth or another aperitif wine. A few ice cubes, a citrus twist, maybe a decorative swizzle stick or straw, and a simple afternoon beverage can feel so special.”
Aperitivi are the cultural antithesis of taking shots to kick off the night: One inspires a sophisticated meal while the other compels you to avoid food until you face plant into some Taco Bell at 2 am. “Drinks should be light to start warming up taste buds, and bittersweet botanicals like gentian get the appetite going, literally making you salivate,” says Watson.
So much goes into making these liqueurs, aromatized wines, and vermouths — secret family recipes composed of dozens of botanicals, masterful blending, and in some cases barrel aging —that they’re already cocktails in a bottle with little need for embellishment.
As I was told by Nicola Olianas, Global Ambassador of Branca, which produces some of the finest aperitivi in the world: “These are not just ingredients, they are products in the same way that bread is not just an ingredient for panini.”
Here, then, are the aperitivi and aperitifs to become familiar with.
Wine-Based Aperitivi and Aperitifs
Wine-based aperitivi (in Italian) and their French counterparts, Aperitifs, must be refrigerated after opening and generally should be consumed within 1-3 months of opening. Most people will read this and ponder the warm bottle of vermouth they’ve had in a drawer or on a shelf since the last time they had a martini or Manhattan. Toss it. Consider buying 375ml bottles of vermouth unless you can go through a full 750ml bottle within a couple of months. But for Aperitif wines like Lillet, you’ll most certainly finish off any bottle with ease.
Whenever I think of the French aperitif wine Lillet, I always remember drinking it with my wife at a riverside cafe in Lyon on our honeymoon. I’ve never met a Lillet I didn’t like, and the Blanc variety is composed of 85% Semillon white wine and 15% citrus liqueurs, blended and aged 12 months in oak casks where it picks up round vanilla notes. Served on the rocks with soda and an orange twist in wine glasses, Lillet Blanc is a lovely way to upgrade an afternoon or get a dinner party off on the right foot.
Cappelletti is a wine-based aperitivo and one of the oldest styles of bitters. It works well with soda, in a spritz, or mixed in an Americano Cocktail alongside soda and red vermouth. If you tend to find the more popular red bitter aperitivo options to be too sweet, Cappelletti is a good alternative with a bit more balance.
Punt e Mes was developed in the 19th century, and was one of the first cocktails in Italian market. “People were looking for more edge in the vermouth and bartenders were adding wormwood and quina to create more astringency,” says Nicola Olianas. Punt e Mes literally means ‘point and a half,’ or one part vermouth to a half part bitter. As a cocktail in a bottle, it works well just with soda, and the bitterness also balances well with prosecco in a Negroni Sbagliato (recipe below).
Cocchi is a red vermouth with exquisite depth and richness. “The secret is its balance,” says Giorgio Bava, Cocchi’s Export Manager. “Bitterness, sweetness, acidity, ABV, and botanicals are all perfectly balanced. Bava recommends drinking it over ice with a citrus peel “as we’ve been doing in Piemonte for over two centuries,” or as an ingredient in cocktails, where it will neither get lost nor overwhelm other ingredients.
A delicious vermouth made for the Caffe Mulassano in Torino by Bordiga, producer of handcrafted aperitivi, gin, and vermouths since 1888. Because it is white wine-based, it’s lighter than red vermouth. Botanicals like mint, cardamom, vanilla, and orange peel make it remarkably complex. Try it on the rocks with a lemon or orange twist, but to me, it’s better with soda so it goes farther.
Spirits-based liqueurs don’t need to be refrigerated after opening, so if you’re someone who dabbles in aperitivo life and won’t drink through a bottle of vermouth in a three-month period, opting for one of these may be a better option.
Likely the world’s best-known bitter aperitivo, Campari and soda is a staple drink to start the night in Italy, and if the night goes on, part of the trinity of ingredients along with gin and sweet vermouth that make up a Negroni. This is likely the easiest aperitivo for you to find at a liquor store near you, and Campari is great as a gateway to further explore the category.
You’ve probably seen a bottle of Cynar on a bar shelf and assumed the green illustration of the artichoke wasn’t literal. It’s a dark, rich amaro literally made with artichoke, among other ingredients. Try substituting it for Aperol in a spritz, for a totally different direction. “I love a plain Cynar Spritz, with a grapefruit twist and a sprig of rosemary,” says Watson.
When I was a bartender at the Chateau Marmont and Anthony Bourdain was staying there, our chef walked out to the bar one night, handed me a bottle of Averna, and said, “Nobody gets that but Tony.” I poured myself a taste with soda, and my first thought was that it was what I wished Coca-Cola tasted like as an adult. The rest of the bottle went to Tony, and I’ve loved it ever since.
Where others on this list are a bit more forceful, Italicus is delicate and subtle. With botanicals like chamomile, gentian, and lavender, it’s lovely and light with soda. Many options on this list have a boldness that demands a food pairing, Italicus is enjoyable with no food in sight.
3 Apperitivo Cocktails to Drink This Summer
1. Negroni Sbagliato (Low ABV Style)
The Negroni Sbagliato is Watson’s favorite––a drink that alters a Negroni by substituting prosecco for gin. “Some people like to keep it equal parts prosecco, Campari, and sweet vermouth, but the option to lengthen it out with another part or two of prosecco lightens and brightens, and helps keeps the ABV in check.”
- 1 ounce Campari
- 1 ounce sweet vermouth
- 3 ounces prosecco
2. Aperol Spritz
The Aperol Spritz is wildly popular, but it’s best to use a good DOCG Prosecco, and with both of the cocktails below, it’s fun to also experiment with other aperitivo options besides Aperol, such as Select, Bordiga, Cappelletti, or Luxardo Aperitivo.
- 4 ounces of prosecco
- 1 ounce Aperol
- 2 ounces soda
- Orange twist garnish
3. The Americano
Try switching it up for a Bianco version of the Americano, using the same proportions but with white vermouth, gentian liqueur such as Suze or Salers Aperitif, or the Italian version, Bernard Genzianella, and top with soda and a lemon twist.