"Whenever I ask what is the most popular amaro in the world, people start saying Fernet or Montenegro and I'm like no, silly, it's Coca-Cola,” says Toby Cecchini, the owner of The Long Island Bar in Brooklyn. "What do you think Coca-Cola is? It was originally made with many of the same botanicals in vermouth and amaro."
Like many American sodas, Italian sodas also began as medicinal elixirs that evolved to become recreational, subbing into golden hour as a soft replacement for a classic aperitivo cocktail, with distinctive aromatics and flavors derived from extracts of botanicals found in bitter liqueurs. Their adoption as a part of Italian drinking culture coincided with il boom economico, the period of economic growth in Italy that stretched from the end of World War II until the late 1960s, when the spirit and prosperity of la dolce vita took hold. Today, you’re likely to find these diminutive sodas at coffee bars or restaurants and stocked in at-home fridges from north to south.
On our side of the Atlantic, the convergence of both an insatiable appetite for all things potable and Italian, as well as the rise of the nonalcoholic cocktail, has given new relevance to the diminutive bitter soda, both from classic Italian brands like Sanbittèr and Crodino to American upstarts like Casamara Club. It felt like high time to take a closer look at not only what defines the bitter soda, but the spectrum of styles captured with the category.
To do so, I assembled an intimate group of Italy-loving drinkers to sample 25 classic and modern takes on the bitter soda. The panel included Cecchini; Punch editor-in-chief Talia Baiocchi; and Matt Chavez, the bar manager of the Italian restaurant Ci Siamo in Manhattan. When evaluating the sodas we tasted, we considered the packaging and the design of the bottle or can, along with carbonation, overall taste and the balance of bitter and sweet. Here are the results of our efforts: a mostly Italian squad of spirit-free options with a couple of worthy domestic expressions to seek out.
Seven Bitter Sodas to Try
Stappi Red Bitter
Our favorite of the tasting, Stappi (which is sometimes spelled Stappj) was created in 1980 by Di Iorio, which was founded in 1896 by Filippo Di Iorio, who used mineral water from a spring in Sant’Elena Sannita to create some of Italy’s first soft drinks. The name Stappi is derived from stappare, the Italian word for “uncork,” a nod to the sound of a popping bottle. “This has the most bitter grab to it,” said Cecchini “It’s not that it’s not sweet, but it’s dry on your tongue… it feels the most like an aperitivo or red bitter.” Chavez was taken with Stappi’s “incredible bubbles,” and in a category with fluctuating levels of carbonation—from barely-there to aggressively refreshing—the layered effervesce of Stappi had a fizzy hit that came on like a composed aperitivo cocktail.
- Price: 24 100ml bottles, $29.99
- From: Sant’Elena Sannita, Isernia, Molise, Italy
St. Agrestis Phony Negroni
In a photo-finish with Stappi was St. Agrestis’ Phony Negroni, a nonalcoholic cocktail that was released in the thick of Dry January. As the name implies, this is intended as a spirit-free substitute for the genuine article, but the soft, beer-like carbonation allows it to stand in for a classic Italian soda. Indeed, classic brands like Stappi and Sanbittèr, which were staples in owner Louis Catizone’s childhood home, were considered in the drink’s R&D. The final product is sweetened with cane sugar and composed of nearly 30 botanicals, including gentian, seven different types of citrus, hibiscus and juniper. “This is the closest American expression of a classic Italian bitter soda,” said Baiocchi. Cecchini and I were both smitten with the unexpected, frizzante-level of carbonation, which brought to mind a Negroni Sbagliato. “They really nailed it,” said Chavez. “The addition of juniper makes it special, and it really comes through.”
- Price: 12 200ml bottles, $59.99
- From: Brooklyn, New York, USA
The most popular nonalcoholic aperitif in Italy, Crodino—created in 1965 and later acquired by Gruppo Campari in 1995—is made from natural spring water from the small town of Crodo, in the Italian Alps, and is flavored with a maceration of bitter orange peels and aromatic roots and spices, including cardamom, nutmeg and clove, aged for six months. Crodino’s distinctive bottle immediately won the panel over. “I mean the packaging is amazing,” said Cecchini, holding up the bottle of sunset-colored soda. Crodino now positions itself as the perfect nonalcoholic solution for the aperitivo lifestyle, best enjoyed among friends in a stemmed wine glass filled with ice and adorned with an orange slice. “You won’t look like a big American clown consuming this—you’ll look like an elegant Italian having your cicchetti with a little cool bottle of something bittersweet that draws the eyes of passersby.” The panel was impressed with the level of carbonation and the interplay of earthy bitterness and bright citrus.
- Price: 10 100ml bottles, $39
- From: Crodo, Verbano-Cusio-Ossola, Piedmont, Italy
Chinotto, a type of slightly tart and bitter citrus from the myrtle-leaf orange tree, is a distinctive flavor profile of many Italian sodas. Among the popular styles of chinotto sodas we sampled, Lurisia, the Italian brand who has long sourced their mineral water from Fonte Santa Barbara di Lurisia in the Western Alps, was our favorite. The primary ingredient is the Slow Food-protected Savona chinotto, which originated in China and is now cultivated along the Italian Riviera. The distinctive carbonation and bittersweet balance of the hazy, amber-colored soda was noted by the entire panel. “The citrus element tastes like it’s not just peel, but a little bit tart too,” said Cecchini. I picked up, and appreciated, that it channeled the cream sodas of my youth. Baiocchi found it to be “the most nuanced and subtle of [the chinotto sodas],” while Chavez called out how the citrus backbone stood out among the other chinotto styles he had tasted through while developing the drinks menu at Ci Siamo. The only criticism was the 275ml serving size of the bottle, which felt like a bit too much chinotto for one sitting.
- Price: 4 275ml bottles, $47.95
- From: Lurisia, Cuneo, Piedmont, Italy
San Pellegrino Sanbittèr
The most famous of the Italian sodas, ruby-red Sanbittèr is the brand you’ll most likely encounter at your local Italian-American market or pork store. First launched in 1961, and acquired by San Pellegrino in 1974, the 100ml bottles feature no labels—just a simple embossing of “Sanbittèr” running up the side. “The packaging is super—I mean, it’s so beautiful,” said Cecchini. “You can tell these bottles were all designed in the 1960s.” It’s not just the color that puts you in the mind of Campari; the mildly carbonated soda, often put into service as a mixer in drinks, has a similar pop of orange and grapefruit, and while it leans toward the sweeter side, there’s a lingering dry finish. “It’s sweet but there’s enough there to make it a spicy, complex, floral thing,” said Cecchini.”Even though it has this artificial saccharine quality to it, it’s what you expect when you think of a bitter soda,” added Baiocchi.
- Price: 10 100ml bottles, $29.98
- From: San Pellegrino Terme, Bergamo, Lombardy, Italy
Casamara Club: Onda
First launched in 2017 by Jason LaValla and Erica Johnson, Casamara Club’s portfolio of amaro-inspired Italian “leisure sodas” have found a home among those looking for nonalcoholic options at home or out and about. The four bottled expressions (Alta, Como, Onda, Sera) and two new canned releases (Fora, Isla) lean more in the direction of a bitters-and-soda profile, as they are bracingly dry in comparison to their Italian counterparts. (Chavez called them the “thinking person’s La Croix.”) But the inspiration, both in the brand’s stylish packaging and overall spirit of sprezzatura, is undeniably the Italian bitter soda.
Onda, Casamara Club’s take on an herbaceous lemon spritz—which is flavored with rhubarb root, lemon, chinotto, juniper, sage and Mediterranean sea salt—was a standout. “It’s the most complete expression in their lineup,” said Baiocchi, who compared the aroma to the iconic alpine amaro, Braulio. She suggested serving it alongside a small shot of espresso, preferably consumed al fresco.
- Price: 12 355ml bottles, $45
- From: Detroit, Michigan, USA
This soda, from Italian craft brewer Teo Musso, isn’t a ginger beer or ginger ale, nor does it actually contain ginger. Likely named for its distinctive color, I first encountered it on the menu at New York’s Caffe Dante, where it stands in for the traditional soda water in the house Americano, made with Martini Bitter, Mancino Vermouth Rosso and a dash of saline. It’s flavored with a proprietary blend of spices and botanicals along with bitter orange peel, lemon juice and brown sugar. We all appreciated the level of carbonation and the aroma, which reminded the panel of a grown-up version of orange soda. “Candied orange is dominant on the nose, but on the palate it’s really aromatic and spicy and interesting,” said Baiocchi . While delicious and unexpected on its own, taking a cue from Dante, this would make a fantastic mixer for aperitivo-style drinks. “I would definitely use this in a cocktail and have it run parallel with an Italian red bitter,” said Chavez. Cecchini agreed, adding that the Baladin Ginger would also be a “slam dunk” paired with rum.
- Price: 1 250ml bottle, $2.90
- From: Piozzo, Cuneo, Piedmont, Italy