L’hora del aperitivo – that magical hour between work and play – has long been perfected into an art form across Italy. While Londoners are pouring into pubs, reaching for pints and pouring heavy slugs of gin into their tonic, our stylish neighbours have been sipping on bitter liqueurs and grazing on small complimentary bites for decades. Yet, as iconic as the drinks that this golden hour has given rise to, l’hora del aperitivo is more about socialising than sipping, it is in every sense a sliver of time reserved for relaxation.
In true aperitivo style, the idea took its time journeying up from Milan to London. But finally this summer saw the city completely embrace, if not the slower pace of life, then at least the delightfully bracing style of the bitter, less-boozy drinks. Twists on the Aperol Spritz, Sgroppinos, Negroni Sbagliatos and Americanos managed to invade almost every venue and, at the end of August when over 250 of the city’s best bars submitted their cocktail serves for London Cocktail Week, 30% of the recipes contained either Italian bitter liqueurs, sherry or French-style aperitifs. The aperitivo had arrived.
The very idea of the aperitivo is to open up our palates for the evening meal but it has become much more of an idealised concept than a practical drink. And while any visit to an Italian city will show you familiar scenes at the end of each working day of cafe tables strewn with crostini, crisps and olives, an orange-coloured spritz in every one’s hand, without the piazzas or warm enough climate to fully embrace this lifestyle, London lifted the elements of the café culture that fit with its international, fast-paced life. Unsurprisingly it was the drinks rather than the complimentary nibbles we liked.
Most of us would have stumbled across classic aperitivo drinks without realising we were dipping a toe into this cultural phenomena. Spritz drinks – the most iconic of the style – have been doing the rounds since the Austrians slipped into north-east Italy in the nineteenth century and found the wines too strong for their taste. A splash, or spritz, of water toned them down nicely. 100 years later soda water become ubiquitous in bars and the Spritz was truly born. Nowadays this has even been replaced with light Italian beers - the work Peroni has been doing with its House of Peroni pop-ups is a demonstration of the recent innovations to flavour.
What truly marks a drink out as an aperitivo, however, is the inclusion of the bitter liqueur which serves the purpose of opening up your palate. Italy’s famous bitter liqueurs, which include Campari and Aperol, started their life in Turin in the mid-nineteenth century. Made from wine or spirit based concoctions that are infused with herbs, citrus and other ingredients and sweeteners, these would be accessed through the city’s cafés. Even 200 years ago café culture and alcohol were intrinsically tied together. In their book, Spritz: Italy’s Most Iconic Aperitivo Cocktail, Talia Baiocchi and Leslie Pariseau describe the scene well:
“Coffee, it turned out, was – then as it is now – inseparable from alcohol in Italy. By 1842 Turin had around one hundred coffeehouses, or cafés, that played host to a broad cross-section of society. Decked out in marble, gold, and glass, with preternatural lighting that seems to melt into the furnishings, the surviving cafés exude a sort of halo effect – as if to remove any doubt about their divinity within Italian culture. Manned by bow-tied and white-jacketed barmen, these cafés in their original forms may have been all-business in the front, but there was very often a party in the back. The cellars and backrooms of these cafés became defacto labs manned by a maître licoriste or specialiare – and alcoholic alchemist of sorts tasked with, among other things, mixing formulas for bitters.”
It’s here that some of the most important figures in the world of Italian drinks – notable Gaspare Campari and Alessandro Martini would get their starts. Initially the bitters were considered solely for medical consumption but eventually they would seep into the social moment before a meal in the case of vermouth and aperitivo liqueurs or after in the case of amari bitter liqueurs.
While the Spritz, with its clean, and bright pear notes from the prosecco, is the most famed of aperitivo drinks, we would be doing a disservice not to mention those cocktails such as Negronis (in all its many forms) and Americanos which add vermouth in to the mix to balance out the bitter element. Negronis have been a staple of London drinking for years, and recently the Americano – the grandfather of the Negroni – has made it into drinking culture. Now we are faced with the exciting prospect of applying London’s talented bartenders to this age old tradition, because the true secret to Italy’s aperitivo hour is that the drinks are not exactly world class worthy. But that’s not why you’re drinking them in the sun-drenched piazza at 7pm in Milan surrounded by your best friends. In London it’s a different story.
With the dedication of London’s fantastic bar scene the aperitivo is being treated to same level of expertise that the Martini and Old Fashioned enjoyed ten years ago. The aperitivo arrived, and was quickly improved.
Americano – Campari, a sweet vermouth such as Martini Rosso, Cocchi, Dolin or Regal Rouge, and soda water. A smooth, slightly tart drink, the Americano has spawned many twists including drinks with grapefruit soda and most famously the Negroni which adds gin and takes away the soda. Made to the original recipe it's low in alcohol making it perfect for those drinkers who want to slow down and take it easy on a night out.
Negroni – Equal parts gin, sweet vermouth and Campari. Pasta, La dolce vita, the Negroni. The Italians have contributed a lot to modern society. And at last, a cocktail with a history that is traceable right to its very point of inception.
It was 1920 when Count Negroni returned to his native Italy after a sojourn through America’s Wild West. Described as a tough man, he was in love with the idea of cowboys, and was often spotted sporting full regalia. Apart from his slightly odd cowboy inclination, Count Negroni was a fan of drinking and was a regular at Casoni Bar (later renamed Giacosa) in Florence. It was here, just after returning home, that he asked for an Americano (Campari, sweet vermouth and soda water) but with a bit more of a kick.
Fosco Scarselli, the bartender on duty, simply replaced the soda water with gin. A legend was born. Over the years customers would ask for one of Count Negroni’s drinks, eventually simplified to a Negroni. How do we know all this? Luckily the drink’s origins are documented in Sulle Tracce del Conte: La Vera Storia del Cocktail Negroni, which was written by Lucca Picchi, head bartender at Caffe Rivoire in Florence.
There’s something completely perfect about the Negroni, its balance is exceptional and it’s one of the easiest drinks to assemble. Knock one together and contemplate this phenomenal Italian invention.
Negroni Sbagliato – Sweet vermouth, Campari and prosecco. The Negroni’s little sister is a delightful mix between the classic and a spritz. Sbagliato translates a ‘mistake’ and the story goes that a bartender in Milan’s Bar Basso accidentally picked up the processo instead of gin and mistakenly gave birth to this classic adored worldwide. It’s far less boozy but no less delicious.
Aperol Spritz – Aperol, soda and prosecco. Aperol is sweeter than the bitter Campari and lends its orange notes to this summer favourite. It keeps the measurements to the classic spritz style with three parts prosecco to two parts Aperol and one part soda water. It can be beefed up with a sly shot of gin for those who want a more Negroni-esque drink.
Garibaldi – Campari and fresh orange juice. An impossibly simple combination, the sweetness of the juice infuses brilliantly into the bitter liqueur and because the orange hasn't been over worked it retains its sweet tang. Recent innovation have seen grapefruit juice added into the mix which serves to enhance the bitterness and works well on a warm day.
Peroni Spritz - Peroni Nasto Azzurro Piccola, prosecco, aperol and grapegruit juice, at The House of Peroni Presents Amare L'Italia.
No 20 - Portobello Road gin, sweet vermouth, Maraschino liqueur and orange bitters, at Bar Americain.
WC2 Negroni - Beefeater gin, Amaro Montenegro and Martini bianco vermouth, at Bedford & Strand.
La Dolce Vita - Bombay Sapphire gin, Campari, limoncello, passion fruit puree and fresh grapefruit juice, at Radio Rooftop Bar.
Bouret Negroni - Calvados, Amer Picon and La Quintinye rouge vermouth, at Riding House Cafe.
Olive Oil Gin Fizz - gin, homemade verbena syrup, fresh lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil and topped with prosecco, at Cartizze Bar.
B-Side - Evan Williams bourbon, Amaro Cia Ciaro, strawberry Aperol and citric acid, at Hawksmoor Air Street.
Sanguinetta - Solerno blood orange liqueur, bitter lemon vodka, fresh lime, cranberry and topped with soda water, at Bourne & Hollingsworth Buildings.
Lemon Twist - Staibano lemon liqueur, Malbec wine, apple liqueur and a dash of rose water syrup, at Paternoster Chop House.
Stellare Negroni - gin, Cocchi di Torino vermouth, Bruto Americano and a bitter foam, at Worship Street Whistling Shop.
Peaches and Cream - peach liqueur, pink grapefruit liqueur, fresh lemon juice and prosecco, at The Alchemist.
Pink Ribbon - Dolin Chamberyzette vermouth, St Germain elderflower liqueur, Campari, lemon juice and tonic water, at Joyeux Bordel.
Clockwork Orange - gin, orange wine, Cocchi di Torino vermouth, Campari, pear eau de vie and elderflower, at Victory Mansion.
Bermondsey Indian Summer Martinez - Langley's gin, Antica Formula vermouth, Cocchi Americano vermouth, elderflower cordial and fresh lime juice, at Bermondsey Yard Cafe.
Hanky Bianco - Langley's gin, Martini Bianco vermouth, Fernet Branca and orange bitters, at Village East.
National discourse - homemade parsnip infused gin, Aperol, fresh mint and topped with prosecco, at Gillray's Bar.
Wit & Wisdom - Portobello Road gin, Campari, St Germain elderflower liqueur, fresh lemon juice and topped with soda, at Apero.