America’s taste in cocktails seems to evolve or devolve every few years, and the preferred tipple of the time often best sums up the zeitgeist of a particular era. If you liked piña coladas (and perhaps getting caught in the rain), you may have fond — or foggy — memories of the rollicking 1980s. Meanwhile, Uptown, those Sex and the City fans among us couldn’t quite sate their cravings for a very Carrie-esque cosmopolitan in the scene-stealing noughties.
But around 2006, the Italian aperitif Aperol was just beginning to flirt with the American market, bringing with it a mission to elevate and dominate its own decades. Since then, the effervescent Aperol Spritz drink has slowly gone from being hailed here by the cocktail cognoscenti to lifting the spirits of the masses across the country every year as one of the mainstay beverages that’s the embodiment of the bright summer season. Now, at last, the influencers are calling it all over social media: 2022 is Spritz Girl Summer.
Like the bloody Mary, classic martini, Harvey Wallbanger, and other famous decade-defining drinks, the Aperol Spritz will likely always be known as reflective of this era: representing a time when there was a refocus on the importance of making memories with special friends and family, especially in a post-pandemic world.
“Looking at this style of cocktail, it’s all about when people are out, they’re on patios, they’re at cafes, they’re enjoying their life in that moment,” Daniel Warrilow, the Italian portfolio ambassador for Campari in America, explains to GRAZIA USA. “I think that’s something that really resonates with people, and I think, in the last few years, especially, people have found a lot of comfort in that style of beverage.”
Prosecco makes up the base of the drink, and that’s topped with vibrant-orange Aperol, a slightly bitter citrus-focused aperitif with botanical and herbaceous notes, followed by sparkling water. Finally, the cocktail is crowned with an orange slice. While personal preferences vary, the best way to make an Aperol Spritz is exactly like they do in Italy: Grab an ice-filled wine glass and use the countdown combination: 3-2-1; or, three parts prosecco, two parts Aperol, and one part sparkling water. Mixing the drink in that exact order also eliminates the need to stir, since the liquids will perfectly fuse together on their own.
In 1919, the Barbieri brothers, Luigi and Silvio, created the recipe for Aperol. Silvio, inspired by his travels to France, came up with the name by borrowing from the French word for aperitif, apéro. The siblings then launched the new beverage at the Padua International Fair in Northern Italy.
It’s not an accident orange was chosen as the base citrus for the aperitif. “If you’re in Sicily, you’re going to find a lot of lemon citrus, and that’s why you’ll find a lot of limoncellos and things of that nature in Southern Italy,” Warrilow notes. “If you make your way a little further north, you’ll find different types of orange citrus, and a lot of that has to do with what was brought over through the Silk Road and the spice trade into Venice because of the waterways.”
The aperitif was a runaway success in Italy from the start, and it became particularly popular around the Veneto region. Because the pre-dinner drink was light and had low alcohol by volume, it could be enjoyed with friends and family and provided the perfect sip to segue from day to night.
But Aperol’s biggest splash as the key component of the Aperol Spritz would have to wait until it debuted years after World War II.
Long before the Barbieri brothers created Aperol, in the 1800s, Northern Italy and portions of the Veneto region fell under the control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Men stationed in the region at the time weren’t accustomed to the local wine and considered it too strong. The solution? Diluting the wine with spritzes (German for splashes) of water, which was later swapped for soda water in the late-1910s, followed by bitter wine and spirit-based aperitifs in the 1920s and early ‘30s. The Venetian mainstay, prosecco, was then combined with Aperol sometime in the 1950s.
While the invention of a popular cocktail can often be traced back to a particular place or person — for example, Harry’s Bar founder Giuseppe Cipriani invented the Bellini, a mixture of peach purée and prosecco, in Venice in 1948 — the Aperol Spritz has no such known origin story.
One thing that is common knowledge in Italy, however: The Aperol Spritz hits its stride when enjoyed the Venetian way, or with cicchetti, which are usually salty, savory snacks that accompany and complement the drink.
As for what could be the next big spirit on the scene, Warrilow points out Aperol is a perfect introduction into the Italian way of eating, drinking, and living la dolce vita, and the aperitif can be considered a gateway drink for Campari, which has been around since the 1860s and in America from about 1910.
“I think Americans are really, really finding Campari as a graduation of sorts,” he says of the beverage that is bracingly bitter, unmistakably red, and can also be used to make a spritz. “Campari tends to be that thing that [gets] people to really dive into Italian culture.” Salute to that!