History of the Aperol Spritz
Summer's best drink: The Aperol Spritz
Words— JP Karwacki
It's a sweltering summer evening. You're a bit parched. You know what to do next.
Take a handful of dense ice and let it tumble and clink into the bottom of either a deep, long-stemmed wine glass or rocks glass. Next comes the measured parts—a jigger works well, though a shot glass can work too—that can be remembered as 3-2-1: Take three parts freshly-popped dry prosecco over the ice, followed by two parts Aperol added slowly with a circular motion, and finally topped with a dash of soda. Garnish with a fresh orange slice, give it a slight stir, and there it is: The Aperol Spritz, a classic northern Italian cocktail, and one of the most popular beverages of the summer since the turn of the millennium.
Few drinks have come to embody the season so well. It’s the tangerine colour of a sunset, filled with the beadwork of bubbles, served cold, and is both light and sweet in taste and texture. The sweetness of sparkling wine shores up against the bitter zest and herbal notes of the apértif, creating a cocktail that’s light on alcohol and so incomparably refreshing that it could take the prize for starting the wave of popularity that currently surrounds spritz cocktails.
It’s so popular that one could argue we’ve hit peak Aperol: The cocktail now comes pre-bottled for quick consumption; there are warehouses full of swag, from boat shoes to beach bags, bearing the bottle’s Art Nouveau typography; and it has now extended beyond the world of bartending and into areas that range from tea infusions to dessert recipes. With such a burst of popularity from the combination of European trend-setting and constantly reinvigorated advertising, it’s easy to forget where it came from in the first place in lieu of ordering another round.
The history of the Aperol Spritz is to view its story in three acts: First the spritz, then the Aperol, and finally, the marriage of the two.
The word ‘spritz’ is less of a cocktail itself than a term for a type of cocktail, stemming from the German word spritzen, meaning ‘to spray’ or ‘to splash’. It reaches back to the beginnings of the 19th century, during the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s then-ownership of Italy’s Veneto region. When soldiers tried to drink the wines of northern Italy, they were found to be a bit too strong for their tastes and asked local hosts to ‘spritz’ their glasses with water. As tastes changed over time, sparkling water was preferred, becoming the basis for the general term used today.
While also originating in the Veneto region of Italy, Aperol is another story entirely. Flash-forward a hundred years from and change from the origins of the spritz to 1912, when pre-dinner drinks were growing in popularity across Europe. In the Venetian city of Padua, the Barbieri brothers Luigi and Silvio wanted to create an aperitif unique to their hometown, and spent seven years experimenting with flavours. Their original recipe is said to haven’t changed to this day, one that’s composed of many ingredients—orange zest, vanilla, rhubarb, chinchona, genziana (the latter two used in tonics that have a medicinal taste)—with an additional blend of herbs and roots that remains a trade secret.
The brothers unveiled their creation at the Padua International Fair in 1919 to the Campionara, an exhibition devoted to food, travel and lifestyle that’s still annually held more than a century later. Suffice to say that Aperol was an instant hit, and throughout the 1920s began to spread throughout the entirety of Italy. Advertising first referred to Aperol as “il liquore degli sportivi,” or the "choice alcohol for the active individual" due to its low alcohol content, and was aimed at ‘sporty’ men looking for an active, on-the-go way of staying “lean and fit”. By the 1930s, ads extended to the female population by highlighting that consumption of Aperol is favourable for the “waistline-conscious” woman and could be looked to as an elegant beverage.
By the 1960s and 1970s, Aperol enjoyed further dissemination through the Italian advert and sketch show Carosello, where the actor Tino Buazzelli was known to smack his forehead and exclaim the catchphrase “Ah, Aperol!” as though it were a simple thing he couldn’t believe he had overlooked until that point. As catchphrases go, this one caught on and was oft-repeated by people in bars throughout Italy.
As for the marriage of Aperol and spritzing? The popularity of adding sparkling water to wine and bitters grew as a common practice at the same time as enjoying Aperol. While spritzing can be applied to numerous other liquors like Campari or Cynar, it was Aperol’s aggressive ramping up of advertising which made the product somewhat inseparable from the drink it’s commonly associated with, gradually taking a particular aim at younger crowds. The 1980s and onward—leading up to Gruppo Campari’s acquisition of the brand in 2003—are the best example of this, as Aperol developed the Aperol Girl, a woman who is “beautiful, fresh, and spontaneous (solar and sexy but never vulgar) plus Aperol”. The very first incarnation of this ad featured a mini-skirted Holly Higgins riding a motorbike to meet friends for a drink at a Miami bar, declaring "I don't know about you, but I drink Aperol." Classy.
Today, the drink’s commonly referred to as one of the most famous in Italy, let alone North America; according to Campari's stats in the 2010s, 300,000 Venetians knock back an Aperol Spritz daily, which amounts to more than 200 a minute. All this enjoyment now seamlessly evokes sun-baked afternoons on the terrazza enjoying a cocktail that’s easy on the sauce, none too sweet, and emblematic of lazy days.
The Aperol Spritz
- 3 parts dry prosecco
- 2 parts Aperol
- 1 splash soda
- Serve on the rocks in a wine glass or rocks glass
- Garnish with a slice of orange
What to wear while drinking