Having only recently celebrated its 100th birthday, the Aperol Spritz might not date back as far as other iconic cocktails, but is now one of the world’s most recognizable. More remarkable still is how it has spent the vast majority of its life in obscurity, confined to an Italian region, before exploding in popularity in the 21st century.
Aperol is now a staple of bars and restaurants, and its famous spritz is the (un)official cocktail of the summer.
The story of the drink dates back to 1919 and a pair of entrepreneurial brothers from the town of Padova, near Venice. Luigi and Silvio Barbieri took over their father’s liqueur company in 1912, and after seven years of experimenting, they finally settled on the orange aperitif we know today.
By fusing orange peels, gentian root, bitter rhubarb and cinchona (a tree bark used to give tonic its distinctive taste), Aperol was born. It still lacked its signature spritz recipe, though the history of the spritz in northern Italy dates back to the 19th century, when the region was controlled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Soldiers from other areas of the empire found Italian wines particularly strong, and therefore added water. Aperol was a development of this where the local fizzed wine – prosecco – was mixed with water and an additional aperitif.
When Aperol itself was established, it was first advertised as a healthy alternative to other drinks, largely due to its ABV of 11%. It grew in popularity, particularly in the Padua region and in the bars of Venice, however it was largely seen as a pre-dinner aperitif, or – according to Roberto Pasini, who wrote A Guide to Spritz in 2013 – “the drink of the old salts and the old drunks”.
The brand saw a bit more success came in the 1950s. The first Aperol television commercial aired, and, more importantly in the long term, the recipe for the famous Aperol Spritz cocktail was born. The traditional recipe was as follows: ⅓ glass of Aperol, ½ glass of prosecco, a splash of seltzer water, a pickled green olive, an orange slice and two cubes of ice. There is now typically more Aperol, more ice and no olive.
Aperol’s story changed in 2003, when it was bought by fellow Italian aperitif, Campari, and began being served in the large, thin-stemmed wine glasses we know today. Before, Pasini explained: “It was served in sturdy rock tumblers, which were indestructible and could be slammed down on the counter of the osteria.”
Another key factor in Aperol’s recent success has been its prominent position in sponsoring events. Its distinctive orange marketing is a feature of many music festivals and sporting tournaments, while its orange color and elegant glass make it rather “Instagrammable”. Don’t discount the power of the ‘Gram.