Attempts at turning aperitivo icons zero-proof have yielded mixed results. It’s difficult to capture the exact formula that makes a pre-dinner drink so well-suited to the task, but it’s a task worth pursuing. Long before the “Nogroni” became a flex, from as early as the 1960s, the crimson-red miniature bottles that define the nonalcoholic bitter soda category were answering the call for nonalcoholic aperitivo with their citrusy tang and dry finish. Today, they’re perfectly suited to become a home bar staple—and not just as an alcohol alternative.
Originally intended for drinking on their own—first medicinal, then recreational—sodas from brands like Crodino, Lurisia and Stappi are booming. Their stateside popularity makes sense especially given current drinking trends, namely, the adoption of all things aperitivo, the rise in ready-to-drink options and sober curiosity. But the sodas’ effervescence and more elaborate profile than typical mixers (like tonic or soda water) also make them poised to glide seamlessly into cocktail culture.
Because the sodas are zero-proof, they naturally work well when mixed into low-alcohol classics. The Americano, developed for Prohibition-era American expats who, less acquainted with the bittersweet profile of the Milano-Torino, asked for a splash of soda in the drink, is a prime candidate. By switching out the typical soda water for the botanical bitter soda Baladin Ginger, the Americano 2.0 at Dante in New York subverts the original drink’s purpose, making the highball more aromatic, spicy and complex.
Elsewhere, the Negroni Sbagliato serves as the template for the Cetara, a spritzy drink from Clementine, in Edmonton, Alberta. In their take, Punt e Mes and Campari harmonize with Italian bitter soda (the bar has used both Crodino and Stappi Red Bitter), brightened with lime juice that echoes the acidity of grapefruit peel–infused London dry gin.
Naturally, since several Italian sodas draw comparisons to Campari, the aforementioned Negroni is another classic into which bartenders have experimented with introducing the bubbly ingredient. At Brother Wolf, an aperitivo bar in Knoxville, Tennessee, the Faux|groni turns the template nonalcoholic, relying on San Pellegrino Sanbittèr, a mildly carbonated soda that channels Campari with its vibrant red look and its dry finish, to complement N/A vermouth and Seedlip Spice 94.
Outside of N/A drinks, though, the bar uses a range of Italian sodas across its cocktail menu. “The world of specialty Italian sodas is actually fairly vast,” says Jessica King, owner and operator of the bar. Primarily using offerings from the brand Lurisia, King says “their flavored sodas are a no-brainer if you want to add depth and complexity, uniqueness and a touch of sweet to any cocktail.” Brother Wolf uses Lurisia’s Chinotto soda, made from the fruit of myrtle-leaf orange trees, in the refreshing La Danza, for example, where it “offers an almost root beer or cola flavor, with natural coloring, lots of effervescence and a touch of pulp,” says King.
With varying notes of juniper, cardamom and orange peel, Italian sodas are a shortcut to layered flavor when mixing. In the Fizz Italiano, a cocktail from the forthcoming Los Angeles bar The Let’s Go Disco and Cocktail Club, Lee Zaremba puts a bitter spin on the fizz by balancing botanical gin, bright grapefruit juice and tart maraschino liqueur with a topper of Sanbittèr.
Outside of the aperitivo canon, too, Italian sodas can add a hit of herbaceousness to any cocktail. The Gunshop Fizz, a rule-bending cocktail based on the Pimm’s Cup, builds on a full two ounces of Peychaud’s bitters and is topped with Sanbittèr to double down on the bitter quotient and further amplify the aromatics in the drink.
Though a growing number of cocktails call for Italian sodas, the ingredient makes it easy to improvise, even without a recipe. Subbing in red bitter options like Sanbittèr or Stappi, made flat, for Campari or Aperol can lower the proof of a drink, while cola-like options like Lurisia’s Chinotto can pair well with rum for a modified Cuba Libre. King even suggests using a splash of Chinotto when muddling fresh lime and sugar, for drinks that call for it, “to break up the oils in the lime skin” while adding nuanced flavor. The possibilities are endless.
For perhaps the most natural pairing, though, Mitch Caddick, manager at Clementine, recommends combining the sodas with their alcoholic analogues, aperitivo liqueurs. “I’d recommend subbing it in any cocktails that use soda or bubbly,” he says. “Campari and Chinotto—forget about it!”