The first time my friend Khira Jordan realized the Aperol Spritz was a “thing,” she was in Vienna, jetlagged and looking to drink something that wouldn’t make her more tired. When she mentioned that she was thinking of ordering an Aperol Spritz — an Italian cocktail known for its bright orange color and bittersweet taste — her drinking companion, a native Austrian, complained that everyone in Vienna had started imbibing them.
“I immediately thought, if Aperol Spritzes are decidedly ‘over’ in Europe, they’re sure to be the hot new enigmatic thing in the US,” says Jordan, who lives in Portland and works as a global brand director at a Fortune 500 Company. “And sure enough, when I got back to the States, I couldn’t unsee them. They were absolutely everywhere.”
The sunset-colored beverage is the latest European export to evolve into an aspirational shorthand for leisure.
Jordan’s trip to Austria was in late 2017, but if you live in a city like New York or LA and go to bars from time to time, you probably noticed that the Aperol Spritz became completely inescapable this past summer. You may have seen celebrities like Madonna, Halle Berry, and Katy Perry posting about the drinks on Instagram — or one of 900,000 photos that have been posted using the #AperolSpritz hashtag on the app. According to the Campari Group, which acquired the Aperol brand in 2003, Aperol sales are up 45% since last year, and 57% over the past three months.
Combining two parts Aperol — a century-old liquor from Padua, Italy concocted from a top-secret amalgam of oranges, herbs, and roots — three parts prosecco, and a splash of soda water, the drink seems like it was expressly designed to shimmer in the sun. Like rosé a few years back, the sunset-colored beverage is the latest European export to evolve into an aspirational shorthand for leisure.
What most casual fans of the Aperol Spritz are probably less familiar with are the surprising historical origins of the modern spritz drink, which dates back to the uber-nationalist heyday of Italian fascism. In their 2016 book Spritz: Italy’s Most Iconic Aperitivo Cocktail, Talia Baiocchi and Leslie Pariseau trace the tradition back to Hapsburg-era Northern Italy when occupying Austrian soldiers started watering down local wines to make them more palatable. By the 1920s and 30s, though, bartenders had started iterating on that wine-and-water formula with the addition of soda water and regional bitter liquors like Aperol, which was created by the Barbieri brothers in 1919. It was a trend that dovetailed with fascism’s emphasis on Italian products — and also with a nascent mixology movement spearheaded in part by the Italian Futurist artists, who believed that different concoctions would have magical effects on those who drank them.
As Baiocchi, editor-in-chief of the cocktail website Punch, explains in the book, the spritz was the result of bartenders taking an Austrian pastime and making it Italian — and especially since World War II, the spritz has become synonymous with the Italian tradition of the Aperitivo, a drinking occasion associated with the transition between work and play at the end of the business day. “It’s a time to spend with friends, to unwind, to be yourself, to relax,” she tells me. “You’re stopping, you’re having a snack. You’re having a low-ABV drink that’s bitter — that’s meant to open your appetite to essentially prime you for dinner. It isn’t a luxury item; it’s a cultural right.”
There are many kinds of Spritzes, but the Aperol Spritz is probably the most popular cocktail in Italy. Along with the more bitter-tasting Campari, Aperol is also one of the most successful Italian liquors overseas. A big reason for that, of course, is marketing: following successful campaigns in Continental Europe, Australia, and South America, the Campari Group has ratcheted up its efforts to convert Americans over the past two years, seeding product at New York’s Governor’s Ball, Splash House in Palm Springs, private parties in the Hamptons, and other spots where upwardly mobile millennials are likely lurking. According to the Campari Group, though, the drink’s head-turning appearance, along with the amplifying effects of social media, mostly take care of the rest.
“Because it is light, you can slam 18 of them throughout the day, and not feel bogged down like you do with beer.”
“One of the great things about the Aperol Spritz is that it’s contagious,” says Melanie Batchelor, Vice President of Marketing at Campari America. “So when you see someone drinking it in the bar, because of the vibrant color, people will tend to say, ‘Oh, what is that?’ and then you start to see an Aperol Spritz popping up around at different tables.”
Batchelor says that Campari America hopes to spread aperitivo culture to the US — though I think it’s safe to say that Americans are interacting with the Aperol Spritz a bit differently. At the Brooklyn Barge — an outdoor drinking establishment on Brooklyn’s waterfront — it seems to be primarily a weekend thing, especially on Saturdays at brunch. “People who find a spot on the property and want to be here for five, six hours, it’s probably a drink that they’re having,” says Mackenzie, the bar’s manager. Jonna, a bartender, puts it more bluntly: “Because it is light, you can slam 18 of them throughout the day, and not feel bogged down like you do with beer. So I think that’s what it is for the people who want to make it a marathon.”
There’s another important difference between drinking an Aperol Spritz in the U.S. and drinking one in a piazza in Venice: to make the same profit margin, U.S. bars sell the drinks for more than twice the price of a glass in Italy, where they usually cost around five euros and come with free snacks. If you live in an expensive city like New York, shelling out $12 for a cocktail is par-for-the-course, but makes it hard to imagine the Aperol Spritz becoming the everyman’s drink that it seems to be in Italy. Along with French cheeses, Swiss chocolates, and German sausages, it’s yet another example of Americans taking a product that is exceedingly mundane in Europe and re-interpreting it as something fancy — or at least something to be saved for a “shareable occasion.”
Perhaps for that reason, some bartenders associate the drink with a particular clientele. Max Mohenu, a 31-year-old writer and DJ from Toronto who also works as a bartender, says he sees a lot of white women and gay men drinking them. “They come from money, want to be seen, don’t tip, and love Instagramming every drink you serve them,” he wrote me via email. I see what Mohenu means: During a casual reconnaissance tour of about a dozen drinking establishments in Brooklyn last weekend, I ended up at Westlight, a rooftop bar at the five-star William Vale Hotel. Whereas most of the other bars I’d visited that afternoon were home to the odd Aperol Spritz drinker or two, at Westlight, the drinks were everywhere.
Still, as Jordan put it to me, the Aperol Spritz is something of a “cultural skeleton key.” Though it seems to be well on its way to becoming synonymous with the Hamptons set, it was definitely the go-to drink among my writer and musician friends this summer — and I’m pretty sure my mom would love it too. It’s sweet enough to appeal to the most conservative American palette and unique enough to reward novelty-seekers; it projects an air of European sophistication while tapping into the proud ordinariness of American rosé culture, one which asks us to revel unselfconsciously in the basic pleasures of life. As my friend Ezra Marcus, a 26-year-old writer, described it: “I think [people] want to feel worldly and “continental” without sacrificing immediate pleasure. A sugary cocktail that’s basically a grown-up version of those syrup-and-water “Italian sodas” they used to sell at Starbucks is a perfect medium.”
Amid the political and social turmoil of the Trump era, it’s ironic that we’ve collectively fallen in love with a drink that has origins in the era of Italian fascism. It’s also hard to imagine workaholic millennials leaving work a little earlier so we can spend more quality time together before the sun goes down, but maybe that’s why we’re so drawn to the Aperol Spritz. When we’re feeling overworked and disconnected, it’s a little taste of La Dolce Vita, in the most literal sense. And if a few glasses in, we still find ourselves unable to access that feeling of escape, then at least we can snap a picture of something that resembles it.