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Cocktails

The Bicicletta Rides Again

January 14, 2021

Story: Punch Staff

photo: Lizzie Munro

Cocktails

The Bicicletta Rides Again

January 14, 2021

Story: Punch Staff

photo: Lizzie Munro

Give the lesser-known Milanese spritz a lift.

On paper, the Bicicletta has everything it needs to succeed in modern drink culture. It’s bitter, bubbly, easy to make and has a cute name. What’s more, it’s effectively a codified version of the original spritz. Before it met prosecco in the 1990s, the spritz was a combination of red bitter liqueur, still white wine and soda water. Yet, while the spritz marched into the 21st century with head-turning swagger, the Bicicletta became a footnote in the aperitivo canon, alongside the Giostra d’Alcol and the Campari Shakerato. “Even a temple to all things Italian like Dante couldn’t hand-sell their version on draft,” says Amaro author Brad Thomas Parsons. 

So what is it about the Bicicletta that has kept it from being swept up in the fervor for all things Italian? According to bartender Karen Fu, it’s mostly a matter of it suffering by comparison. “It shrinks in the shadows of other three-ingredient drinks [that showcase Campari],” she says, “and in the category of the spritz, the Aperol Spritz wins prom sash for ‘most popular.’”

But it’s also a problem of construction and balance. While the dryness and quality of prosecco both absolutely count in making a good spritz, let’s face it: Pour any dry bubbly wine on top of a bittersweet liqueur and it has a pretty good chance of being drinkable. In fact, part of the spritz’s selling point is that you basically can’t screw it up (so long as your bubbles make up the majority of the volume in the glass). 

The Bicicletta, on the other hand, requires a more deft hand to avoid it becoming a “long flat and cloying drink,” says Nightmoves’ Orlando Franklin McCray. Much in the same way that the Milano-Torino is a master class in pairing bitter liqueurs and vermouth, opening the drink up to myriad possibilities, the Bicicletta is best understood as a blueprint for integrating still wine into a low-ABV format. It’s worth keeping around as a teaching moment, if nothing else. 

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In polling a number of bartenders on the topic, several solutions emerged for what McCray describes as the drink’s fatal flaw: reconsider the ratio (away from an equal-parts base); pair another white wine with a different bitter liqueur; acid-adjust the wine so it doesn’t lose its bite; or carbonate the entire drink, rather than relying on soda water alone for a hit of effervescence. (Or, yes, we know what you’re thinking: Just drink a spritz.)

Jeffrey Morgenthaler leans on multiple solutions in his Broken Bike: He dials back the equal-parts base to favor white wine, swaps Campari for less-aggressive Cynar, and carbonates and bottles each in a single-serving format. Both Fu and McCray suggest leaning on a bitter liqueur that is a little lighter than Campari—St. George Bruto Americano or Contratto Bitter for Fu, Granada-Vallet or Forthave Red for McCray—while Fu, like Morgenthaler, recommends adjusting the ratio to favor the wine, and leaning on a white, like vermentino, with ample acid, or playing around with a rosato. In other words, “There’s a whole wide world of interesting still wines and amari that can fit into the Bicicletta format,” says Lauren Corriveau, lead developer at Proprietors LLC, the group that runs Death & Co.

If you seek a more modernist approach, do as Vinny Starble does: Acidify the wine base to give the drink a bracing lift. While at Chicago’s Bad Hunter, Starble acid-adjusted a variety of wines—white to red—to get their level of acidity from the normal 2 percent to closer to where citrus sits, at 5 percent, and incorporated them into a number of spritz and spritz-adjacent formats.

It may never command the same devotion or endless revision that the spritz, the sbagliato or the Americano have, but the Bicicletta is built from the same crowd-pleasing DNA; a little zhuzhing goes a long way. As Corriveau puts it: “Sessionable, seasonless—what’s not to like?”

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Tagged: Campari, spritz