Big in Japan

Bitter, fluffy and bright, the Tokyo-born Spumoni is Italian aperitivo filtered through a Japanese lens.

When Bar Pisellino opened its doors in New York’s West Village earlier this summer, it unleashed a conundrum of a cocktail that puzzled even the most well versed in Italian aperitivi.

Spumoni. On paper it sounds thoroughly Italian, loosely translating to “froth” or “foam,” a natural fit for the unequivocally Italian-inspired cafe. In composition, too, the Campari-grapefruit-tonic water concoction appears to be a close sibling of the better known Garibaldi cocktail, a combination of orange juice and Campari that has become something of a stateside sensation. Bar Pisellino’s version of the drink sits somewhere between the two, blending Campari with fluffy grapefruit juice, plus the addition of gin, pink peppercorn syrup and, of course, tonic water. Yet, for all its Italianate qualities, the drink doesn’t appear to have originated in Italy. In fact, not even the most avid students of Italian aperitivi have ever come across it.

“I’ve never made one in my life,” says Naren Young, creative director of Dante, a leader of the American aperitivo movement, who has played no small role in spreading the gospel of the Italian way of drinking in the States. It’s a sentiment echoed by Italian food and culture expert Katie Parla, who reported: “I have never heard of a Spumoni cocktail in Italy.”

That’s because, counterintuitively, the drink is Japanese.

“My introduction to it was the Japanese anime Bartender episode called ‘Menu of the Heart,’” says Pisellino bar manager Jon Mullen, referencing a Japanese animated series following the life of a Ginza-based bartender. “It’s briefly mentioned in the beginning of the episode as the most popular drink for women.”

But the drink is more than just a fictional refreshment dreamed up for television, like the Flaming Homer or the Samarian Sunset. Before Mullen put it on his opening menu, Suntory, the Japanese spirits conglomerate, had created (and dissolved) a canned version of the Spumoni for the Japanese market, purportedly consisting of Campari and grapefruit juice, with instructions to top with tonic water to taste. A quick internet search reveals a number of YouTube clips showing Japanese bartenders making the drink to similar specifications, as well as a variation built on Midori rather than Campari. While the components rarely change from video to video, each bartender demonstrates their own flair and technique in building the Spumoni.

“Many bartenders have their favorite or signature tonic water—some bartenders make their own—and have a method to make the grapefruit juice and a process to build Spumoni,” says Nana Shimosegawa, a Japanese bartender currently working at New York’s Katana Kitten, who likens the cocktail’s popularity in Japan to the Aperol Spritz in America. “Many types of places serve Spumoni: cocktail bars, standing bars, restaurants, izakayas, clubs and even at karaoke,” she says, adding that the drink’s low proof (and low pour cost) make it a popular choice for nomihoudai, an all-you-can-drink menu option within a one- or two-hour time frame.

While it might seem odd that an Italian-inspired cocktail would find traction some 6,000 miles away from Campari’s homeland, it’s hardly the first Italian import to make it big in Japan. Italian food, or Itameshi, as it’s better known, has been on the rise in Japanese dining culture for several decades, with spaghetti appearing on menus as far back as the 1920s. It’s a trend that has only increased in recent years. In fact, Eataly opened an outpost of its Italian marketplace in Tokyo in 2008, two years before the first store opened in the United States.

It’s this cross-pollination between Japanese and Italian culture that likely spawned the Spumoni. “As far as I’m aware, [it’s] an ode to the aperitivo aesthetic, from either the late ’80s or early ’90s Roppongi/Ginza,” says Ben Rojo, co-owner of New York’s Japanese-leaning Black Emperor Bar, citing the epicenter of Tokyo’s cocktail scene as ground zero for the Spumoni. “[It’s] in line with the massive popularity of Italian cuisine during that time frame,” he adds.

That the Spumoni has surfaced stateside is the latest example of America’s ongoing bar-world exchange with Japan, a phenomenon that has persisted since the days of Prohibition, when American bartenders, seeking work, landed there in large numbers. Throughout this cultural back-and-forth, Japan has acted as both a preservationist and an innovator, maintaining the use of tools that might otherwise have fallen by the wayside while fine-tuning cocktail technique in a manner that has since become idolized in American bartending. It’s only natural that Japan’s national interest in Italian cuisine would filter into American cocktail culture, especially given the current reign of Italian modes of drinking.

In many ways, it’s the perfect drink for our current moment: an Italian aperitivo cocktail filtered through a Japanese lens that’s making its name at an American bar modeled after an Italian café. In other words, as Shimosegawa puts it, “If you are a cocktail drinker, you should know about Spumoni.”

Related Articles