If there’s just one tradition we could transplant from Italy to this side of the Atlantic, it very well might be the Aperitivo Hour. Here, on our side of the globe we’ve inherited the decidedly more New World-style, Happy Hour. And don’t get us wrong, Happy Hours are great - but Aperitivo Hours are just something different - more relaxed, more convivial, more joyful. Who can say no to a late afternoon in the sun, enjoying a glass of something light, delicious and refreshing? Next week we’re going to go into a bit more detail on Aperitivo Hour as a phenomenon and our secret plan to spread it to our homes and neighborhoods - but for now, we want to chat a little about some of our favorite characters of Aperitivo Hour, the aperitivos themselves.
Very strictly speaking, an aperitivo is an alcoholic drink consumed before a proper meal. The root of the name itself comes from Latin, meaning “to open” - as in, to stimulate the appetite. The liqueurs often associated with this role tend to be bittersweet, often with significant herbal flavors alongside notes of orange and wood. Gentian, the root often used to create the bitter part of the aperitivo flavor is noted for its property to increase salivation, contributing the aperitivo’s role in stimulating appetite for the meal to come.
Last week we talked about the darker, more bitter aperitivos we love to use for our Negroni variations. This week we want to consider some of their lighter cousins, ones we’re more likely to use in a Spritz, or a Highball… or simply enjoy it all by itself. We highlight 7 distinct aperitivos from a diverse collection of places, reminding ourselves once again that even though these traditions started in a narrow slice of places, the growing world of cocktail mixing has embraced them all.
Without further ado, here’s a list of our favorite aperitivos we’re sipping on this summer:
We mentioned Aperol before, and the iconic bottle is probably at least familiar to most. The thing is, Aperol is just such a great light summer cocktail ingredient that we just can't not bring it up again. It is the key ingredient in the Aperol Spritz (possibly the most "summer" drink of them all), and we think any bar is incomplete without it.
Aperol is Campari’s lighter, sweeter cousin. About 60 years younger then Campari, Aperol has been around for just a year shy of 100 years. This lovely, light bottle is the perfect introduction to drinking aperitivos. And while we think it makes a fantastic light Negroni, it really does shine in a Spritz. Mix one up to your own liking or follow the recipe here.
Rinomato, from the Piedmont region of Italy, may have only been around since 2015, but seems like an old classic, something that was sipped at the turn of the 20th century by Italian aesthetes. While a new product, it is very much in the tradition of old aperitivo liqueurs, with a much lighter, more orange forward profile, with some faint vanilla notes coming through as well. Produced from a beet sugar distillate, bitter orange peel, peppermint, chiretta, gentian, cinchona bark, rhubarb, myrrh, wormwood, turmeric root, clove, angelica, vanilla, and licorice are macerated for over a month before being filtered and bottled.
Rinomato works beautifully with tonic water, adding some bitterness to its light profile, or as a substitute for Aperol in a classic Spritz. The vanilla notes also lend it to playing well with barrel aged spirits.
See more about Rinomato here!
Cinque is an aperitivo with quite a bit of tradition behind it, yet it manages to still be quite new and modern. Don Ciccio & Figli is a torch bearing operation. In it's current iteration they make their products in Washington D.C. - a ways away from the picturesque Amalfi Coast where their recipes were first dreamed up. Even though they are made in the New World, they pay careful attention to carry on family traditions to make their products as true to the Old World as they can. Their line up includes alpine and artichoke amaros, traditional citrus liqueurs, and among others, this fantastic aperitivo.
Named "Cinque" (or "5"), it carries on the memory of a family recipe that consisted of 5 botanicals. The modern version consists of 12 botanicals that come together for a superlative orange forward flavor with quite a few subtle notes and light bitterness. The hints of earthiness tie it all together to remind you that you are drinking something of the land, and bring a fresh vitality to the orange notes.
Again, this one is great in a Spritz, but if you use it in a Negroni, we recommend switching out the sweet vermouth for a blanc.
Learn more about Cinque here!
If we're going to be luxuriating in the orange flavors, we might as well travel even further west, from DC to California for a taste of this gorgeous bottle. Though labeled as an amaro, the lightness and the sweetness push us to put it into the aperitivo camp.
We're not ones to often quote spirit tag lines, but in this case, "Uniquely Californian, Distinctly Italian," rings pretty true. The lighter bitter and herbal notes will be familiar to fans of Aperol or similar lighter bitter liqueurs. But the decidedly different orange flavors are wonderfully Californian. Sticking to using California native herbs and fruit yields a soft, pleasant aperitivo to sip on, one that reminds you time and time again: California loves oranges.
Learn more about Amaro Angeleno here!
Leopold Bros., out of Denver, CO, do amazing, and always slightly different takes on all kinds of classic spirits and liqueurs. Their Aperitivo, which was first made for master distiller Todd Leopold’s wedding, is somewhere in between Campari and Aperol in terms of bitterness, with a distinct savory, vegetal note unlike most other bitter liqueurs on the market. Colored naturally with cochineal (insect that used to give Campari its color as well), other botanicals include gentian root, artemesia pontica, hyssop, coriander, and grapefruit peel. It plays beautifully with citrus, in a more bitter, savory spritz, or along with Leopold’s Maryland Style Rye Whiskey in a Leopold-centric Boulevardier.
Grand Poppy Amaro, from Greenbar Distillery in Los Angeles, is an organic, California-centric take on classic Italian Aperitivo, keeping the classic bittersweet character, and adding California botanicals like the poppy flower, orange, lemon, grapefruit, bearberry, dandelion, artichoke, and gentian, among others. The result is a citrusy, refreshing liqueur that still retains enough bitterness to stand up to other assertive spirits or liqueurs. You can use it just as easily in place of an orange liqueur as you can in place of Campari or Aperol.
Try it with club soda as a Highball, in a Negroni, particularly with a light, citrus forward gin, or even in a Margarita or Mai Tai to add a touch of herbal bitterness.
We end our aperitivo primer, which has already showcased some very unorthodox choices, with a bottle that's much simpler, and much more, well, French. In this article we've played pretty loose with the definition of aperitivo (and in this case, it's really an aperitif?), but we really feel that all the bottles we presented carry on the spirit of what makes a great aperitivo drink - and Salers is no exception.
The dominant flavor in Salers is the same gives the pleasant bitterness to all the aperitivos we mentioned previously: gentian. The other flavors take a backseat - it's almost an aperitivo in reverse. What all of this means for our summer sipping is that, if we continue our Spritz-ploration, Salers can stand up to a much sweeter, heavier wine. Most spritzes work best with something light and dry, here we get to reverse the trend and let a bolder wine shine through.