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A Bar Crawl Through the Aperitivo Capital of South America

The mashup of Argentine ingredients and Italo-Spanish drinking traditions has made Buenos Aires home to the most vibrant aperitivo culture outside of Europe.

“To understand aperitivo culture, I need to tell you about the Argentina of yesteryear,” says Guillermo Blumenkamp, owner of Doppelgänger, a beloved bitters and vermouth bar in Buenos Aires’ historic San Telmo barrio. Blumenkamp motions to a photo on the wall from 1927 of workers at frigorífico “La Negra,” an important slaughterhouse in Argentina. He asks if I can identify his grandfather. I can. They have the same round face and rosy complexion.

“People may not know Argentina has an aperitivo tradition similar to Italy, France and Spain,” he says. “It’s important to understand its origins. These young men in this photo, like my grandfather, represent that story.”

Argentines, who are mostly of Italian and Spanish descent, have a long history of drinking a pre-dinner vermouth. “As the sun set, the working class, mostly immigrants, found refuge in bars and pulperías [convenience stores],” Blumenkamp tells me. “La hora de vermút [vermouth hour] was a melancholic moment at dusk before laborers hopped on the train to face their families. With what little money they had in their pockets, they ordered a drink and reminisced about the motherland.”

This custom began around the turn of the century—before aperitivos were ordered by name. Instead, customers requested the size (like a farol, a small glass), at which point the cantinero (bartender) would serve the house aperitivo and a soda water dispenser. Instead of replicating European drinking ways, bitter liqueurs, referred to locally as amargos, were consumed both as aperitifs and digestifs. Popular bottles included Hesperidina, the bitter orange liqueur that became Argentina’s first patented product in 1876; Amargo Obrero, a versatile light brown bitter known as “the aperitif of the Argentine people”; Pineral, an herbaceous bitter famed in the tango world; and ubiquitous Italian-imports like Fernet, Campari and, of course, sweet vermouth.

As generations passed, aperitivo culture shifted. “To my grandfather, aperitivo meant a drink after work, but to me, it was Sunday family asado [barbecue],” says Blumenkamp. “Fire, smoke, charcoal, a fucking beef slab on the grill—that’s the aperitivo.” He remembers his father preparing the asado in the backyard while his mother cut salami, olives and made drinks in the kitchen. Her specialty: Gancia, an Americano aperitivo, plus ice, a splash of lemon juice, soda water and sugar-dusted slice of lemon.

Argentina’s aperitivo culture is still vibrant. And in Buenos Aires, the aperitivo now extends beyond the pre-dinner drink as an integral pillar of the city’s craft cocktail scene. Bartenders, many of whom are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those European immigrants, are honoring their ancestors by borrowing the same ingredients and traditions of the past, and fusing them with global drink trends. That’s why I’ve joined Blumenkamp, who is known for bridging this generational gap at Doppelgänger, on an aperitivo tour of the city.

A Buenos Aires Bar Crawl

We make our way from Doppelgänger to Los Galgos, a classic café in the heart of the theater district. The straightforward menu includes five Negroni variations, Cinzano on tap and over a dozen beloved bitter liqueurs—like Hesperidina, Cynar and Fernet—all served alongside a soda water siphon and a few slices of cured meat and cheese. The owner, Julián Díaz, restored the 90-year-old bar notable (historic café) after it shuttered in 2015, resurrecting a piece of porteño heritage. “Los Galgos is a meeting place for all ages, socioeconomic backgrounds and types of drinkers,” he explains as he dispatches vermouth from a tap. An old man sips Cinzano with soda on one barstool, while a 20-something takes a selfie with his Negroni at another. “It’s this mix of generations that gives us vitality,” he says.

Next we take a ten-minute taxi ride to Ocho7Ocho, aka El Ocho, the 13-year-old Villa Crespo speakeasy also owned by Díaz. In the 2000s, while most bars copied trends abroad, Ocho7Ocho sought to revive classic Argentine aperitivos in a format rarely seen in modern-day cocktail bars. “Traditional bars serve aperitivos with soda water in the afternoon,” Blumenkamp notes, “but El Ocho was the first to reintroduce classics like Hesperidina, Pineral and Fernet in elaborate craft cocktails.” Blumenkamp asks Javier Sosa, the head bartender, to make an aperitivo of his choice. Without skipping a beat, he prepares El Amargo, his signature drink, a riff on an Old-Fashioned with vodka, Punt e Mes and Fernet. “The idea here is to revitalize aperitivos, but never forget where we came from,” says Diaz.

Next, we make our way across town to Retiro to visit SHOUT, a new-school aperitivo bar located inside a 19th-century Belle Époque mansion. Here, bartenders Sebastián Maggi and Sebastián Alorcón have sought to combine aperitivos with another beloved Argentine drink: yerba mate, the country’s national herbal beverage. “We were inspired by juleps and transformed aperitivos in the form of tererés,” Maggi explains (tereré being the iced version of yerba mate, which is consumed in warmer regions of Argentina). Though it’s typically served in a gourd with loose-leaf herbs and citrus juice, and passed around to share with friends and family, Shout takes this ritual and adds booze to the mix. “Both drinking aperitivos and mate are social, interactive and filled with history,” says Maggi. “So we continue these traditions.”

Our last stop of the evening is located underneath a florist shop a few blocks from SHOUT. Florería Atlántico is owned by famed bartender Tato Giovannoni and was built as an homage to those who crossed the Atlantic to relocate in Argentina. The entire menu is organized by European country—Italy, France, Spain, Poland, Ireland and Great Britain—and each drink tells an immigrant story. Head bartender Leandro Gil Báez offers me a Balestrini, Giovannoni’s riff on the Negroni, which he created in honor of his Italian grandfather’s 99th birthday. It’s made with Principe de los Apóstoles, the house’s yerba mate gin alongside pine- and eucalyptus-smoked seawater from Argentina’s Atlantic coast, where Giovannoni grew up. He then prepares a Padre Fahy for Blumenkamp, a variation on the Horse’s Neck (Jameson, Hesperidina and homemade ginger ale) that pays tribute to the first leader of the Irish-Argentine community, Anthony Dominic Fahy, and one of the first priests in the country.

As we finish our drinks amid the bar’s collection of antique Argentine bitters, Blumenkamp is wistful. “The aperitivo means many things,” he says, as he pauses to consider the importance of Buenos Aires’ new scene to the identity of the city. “It is our parents, our grandparents, our ancestors. It is loneliness, friendship, struggles, joy. It is folklore. We drink and take a trip into the past, yet there is much more to discover.”

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Allie Lazar is a food writer based in Buenos Aires. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Eater, Saveur, Munchies and Lucky Peach, among others. Allie's website turned TV series, Pick Up the Fork, covers the culinary scene in Latin America.