Unlike the Italian wine industry, which strictly enforces production techniques and nomenclature, other categories of alcohol are decidedly less regulated, a reality that breeds creativity and confusion in equal measure. Take the word aperitivo, for example. Today, depending on its context, it can refer to any pre-dinner beverage: vermouth, wine, a cocktail, beer, even Campari’s own non-alcoholic, orange-toned Crodino. While fare un’aperitivo is the ritual of consuming said drink, often for a flat fee with a side of complimentary snacks.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, aperitivo culture, which was based primarily in northern Italy, consisted of appetite-stimulating aromatized wines and bitter liqueurs. The latter category, which is experiencing a very recent boom in distribution throughout the U.S., can be divided into two broad styles: “aperitivo” and “bitter,” both roughly defined as red-hued, wine- or spirit-based products infused with citrus, herbs, spices and roots, then mixed with sweeteners to offset their intensity. In general, the former is lower in alcohol—think Aperol, Select Aperitivo or Casoni 1814 Aperitivo—while the bitter genre—Luxardo Bitter, Campari or Meletti 1870 Bitter—contain about double the alcohol and are often more, well, bitter. Here’s a survey of what has made it to the U.S. from Italy.
Universally recognized as the industry leader, this deep crimson liqueur was first created by Gaspare Campari in 1860. Over the past century and a half, Campari has grown from a tiny basement business into a dominant global brand that features prominently in Italian classic cocktails, including the Negroni, the Negroni Sbagliato and the Garibaldi. Campari has expertly leveraged marketing and education to carve out and expand its worldwide reach, and it exports its bitter liqueur—along with notions of Italian style and elegance—to virtually every country on the planet. Although the company states their recipe—which is composed of chinotto, cascarilla and a proprietary mixture of herbs, fruits and spices—has never changed, Campari did discontinue use of its natural cochineal-derived coloring agent in 2006. Its distinct herbaceous bitterness is laced with notes of quinine, orange zest and herbs and clocks in at 24 percent ABV. ($24)
Unlike many of northern Italy’s aperitivo liqueurs, Aperol isn’t exactly red, but rather reddish orange. It was conceived by Fratelli Barbieri in Padova in 1919 and consists of an infusion of bitter and sweet oranges, rhubarb and a secret mixture of herbs and roots. In 2004, the year after Gruppo Campari bought Aperol, the parent company embarked on an aggressive marketing campaign positioning the new acquisition as the quintessential ingredient for the Venetian Spritz. Their official Spritz recipe—three parts Aperol, two parts Cinzano Prosecco (another Campari-owned brand) and soda—landed on bars and beaches all over the world, and, in the course of a few years, Aperol and Spritz were securely fused in consumers’ minds, propelling the pair from a northern Italian regional obscurity to global sensations. Unlike its sibling Campari, Aperol is fairly low in alcohol—just 11 percent ABV—and is quite sweet. ($20)
The Luxardo company, which was founded in Zadar, Croatia, in 1821, is best known for its Maraschino liqueurs and cherries in syrup. But in 1895, they registered the name for “Amer D’Or Bitter,” a popular aperitif consumed along the Dalmatian coast, which was produced until WWII. Unfortunately, documents detailing its precise ingredients and history were lost when the distillery was leveled during the war. The sixth-generation family business is now headquartered near Padova—the original home of Aperol—where cherry red Luxardo Bitter is made with sweet and bitter oranges and herbs including rhubarb, mint, thyme and marjoram. Weighing in at 25 percent ABV, it is a great deal more potent than Luxardo Aperitivo, an orange-hued aperitif with a strong orange-driven flavor profile and an ABV of 11 percent. ($25)
Cappelletti Aperitivo Americano “Il Specialino”
This ruby-red aperitif is made by the family-owned Antica Erboristeria Dott. Cappelletti in Trento, at the edge of the Dolomites. Their Aperitivo Americano (called “Americano” in reference to both its wine base and the use of gentian root as a bittering agent), known locally as “il Specialino,” is naturally colored with carmine obtained from cochineal beetles, setting it apart from many in the genre, which rely on artificial pigments. The 17 percent ABV “Il Specialino” consists of a Trebbiano wine base infused with a proprietary mix of alpine herbs and spices. ($20)
Meletti 1870 Bitter
Meletti was founded in 1870 in Ascoli Piceno and, although it is mainly known for anise-flavored liqueurs, the company recently launched a historically inspired bitter liqueur. To create Meletti 1870 Bitter, the family dug deep into their archives and recovered a forgotten recipe, which they adapted and released in the U.S. in early 2015. The liqueur combines three separate distillates—sweet orange, bitter orange and a spice and herb infusion—which are blended with pure spirit to create a 25 percent ABV mildly bitter aperitif with notes of citrus, gentian, coriander, cinnamon and clove. ($22)
Casoni 1814 Aperitivo
Founded in Finale Emilia in 1814 by Giuseppe Casoni, this historic distillery is known mainly for its anise-based liqueurs and has adapted an antique recipe combining orange, quinine, local herbs, fruits and seeds for a bittersweet liqueur that clocks in at just 11 percent ABV. Casoni Bitter, which is richer in flavor, color and alcohol, reaches 22 percent ABV. ($20)
In the current ad campaign for Select Aperitivo, a bottle of bright red liqueur hovers over the Grand Canal. The words “Nato a Venezia 1920” (“Born in Venice in 1920”) appear on the label above two stylized gondola prows. Meanwhile, in the background, a gondolier navigates turquoise waters. The words “Very Veneziano” mingle with the clouds above. Make no mistake: Select Aperitivo was founded in Venice and it is still at home there, holding its own against Aperol as a base for the classic Venetian Spritz (some claim that it was, in fact, the first bitter to make its way into the formula). The deep red liqueur balances bitter and sweet notes, which mingle with vanilla, cardamom and ginger root in a 14 percent ABV package. The amaro company Montenegro, which acquired Select in 1988, is poised to launch the aperitif in the U.S. in 2016. ($20)
With a base of grape brandy derived from Italian barbera grapes, Piedmont-based Contratto’s red bitter liqueur has its origins in a recipe from 1933. It’s similar to Campari in that it’s best used in drinks like the Americano and Negroni, but is less aggressively bitter and sweet with a more subtle, herbal backbone owing to a cold maceration of 24 different spices and herbs including aloe, hibiscus, wormwood and juniper. It’s colored naturally with beets and has an ABV of 22 percent. ($30, 1L)
Colored with natural carrot and beet extracts, Contratto Aperitif is made from a recipe that dates back to 1935. At 13.5 percent ABV, this orange bitter (similar in style to Aperol) is brandy-based, infused with everything from wormwood to angelica to orange to juniper, and pleasantly bittersweet and herbaceous. ($30, 1L)