Though the aperitif is both linguistically and culturally native to Europe, it has experienced a gradual but significant uptick in exposure within the stateside bar scene in the past several years. In large part, this growth has come as a result of worldly, taste-making bartenders who have made it a point to expand upon the concept of the aperitif in ways consumers can access and enjoy.
To grasp the full picture of the aperitif’s rising relevance in America, look to the overarching concept of the aperitif bar, which synthesizes the spirit of this versatile drinking category under a welcoming roof. These casual, low-key establishments strive to capture what is already de rigueur throughout France, Italy and the greater Mediterranean, specializing in low-alcohol, appetite-stimulating beverages accompanied by a light spread of snacks and small plates. But many of them aim to channel the cultural significance of the aperitif.
“It’s not just a category of drinks—it’s aperitif as a lifestyle,” says Naren Young of Dante, the European cafe and aperitivo bar he runs in New York’s Greenwich Village.
From his front-row seat behind the stick, Young has witnessed the aperitif inch closer to the mainstream among discerning Americans, with more of an emphasis on relaxing after work, rather than rushing through the pre-supper proceedings. “It’s much more civilized than the American style, which is, by and large, more of an aggressive drinking culture.”
While his “Negroni Sessions” menu, which drops in price from late afternoon to early evening, lures in guests interested in his variations on the Italian classic, Young extends his experiments beyond a single cocktail or country-based tradition. See drinks like the not-too-sweet Al Fresco Spritz, combining Italian vermouth, St-Germain, London dry gin and lime juice, all topped with a generous slug of effervescent Prosecco.
“We want to champion aperitifs, in all their glory, wherever they come from,” adds Young.
This spirit has proliferated around the country. In Seattle, Barnacle serves a seafood-centric menu (Italian and Spanish sardines; octopus terrine), complemented by a staggering Italian amari list and tipples both old- and new-school. The airy, high-ceilinged Bar Clacson in downtown Los Angeles pairs its simply made low-ABV selections with a number of très continental touches, like a 27-foot indoor petanque court. Locale, in Portland, Oregon, runs from morning to night, encouraging guests to linger for expertly made aperitivi after enjoying their locally roasted espresso.
Back in New York at the Lower east Side bar Nitecap, aperitif hour—6-8 p.m. daily, featuring complimentary bites and discounts on refreshing, low-octane drinks—has replaced the typical postwork drinking deals. Owner Natasha David’s creations in this lane can include crisp offerings like the Rivington Punch, a rosé-based spritz variant that combines St-Germain, a bittersweet Italian red spirit, raspberry liqueur and fresh fruit.
In structure, “the aperitif is pretty straightforward, honest and clean,” says Alex Day, David’s partner at Nitecap, who owns several other bars around the country. As such, it’s the ideal canvas for like-minded bartenders to “articulate happy hour in a more adult manner” by subtly shifting the emphasis away from draining glasses toward appreciating who you’re with, shepherded by what you’re sipping.
Day is sure, however, to draw an important distinction between this drinking style and the vague idea of “luxury.” The concept of the aperitif hour, while elegant and inviting, is never high-minded or snobby. It’s not a replacement for the traditional American happy hour so much as it is a welcome alternative—one that proves there is more than one way to toast the evening ahead.