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Modern Aperitivo Cocktails Beyond the Spritz

Ten bartenders share their lightly bitter, low-ABV takes on the style made with L’Aperitivo Nonino Botanical Drink.

Nonino New Aperitivo

So often it seems that the category of aperitivo drinks gets equated with only a handful of cocktails—the spritz, the Negroni Sbagliato, the Americano, the Garibaldi. No shade to tradition, but the range of lightly bitter, low-ABV drinks and their early evening–loving brethren now stretches far beyond the codified Italian classics.

In part, that’s thanks to a new wave of liqueurs from producers thinking outside the traditional aperitivo box, in turn inspiring bartenders to do the same. New bittersweet liqueurs, red and otherwise—such as L’Aperitivo Nonino Botanical Drink, from the legendary Friulian distillery—have lately been claiming their place on bar shelves. Lightly bitter, subtly sweet, bright with citrus and, most notably, golden in color, this new liqueur exemplifies the current revolution taking place in the aperitivo world. As bartenders experiment with this fresh, new category of spirits, innovative golden-hour drinks are emerging, from Los Angeles and New York to Chicago and Houston.

Take the L’Aperitivo Caffè, from Julia Momose of Kumiko in Chicago. “At its most simple, it is a highball,” says Momose, who conjures up the ephemeral time of day in an Italian café—“afternoons spent … sipping on spritzes and recharging with espresso”—with a touch of delicate shochu, a measure of coffee liqueur, bittersweet Nonino and a splash of tonic water. “I was thinking about one of my current favorites, the Americano, a combination of fortified wine with bitter liqueur, topped off with soda. This is just a couple of steps away from that.”

In reinterpreting aperitivo in Los Angeles, Dan Sabo of the Paligroup takes cues from a modern classic, the Paper Plane, which makes use of Amaro Nonino along with bourbon, lemon and red bitter liqueur. Sabo swaps in Japanese whisky and L’Aperitivo Nonino, and integrates a pink peppercorn and chamomile syrup to play up the floral aspects of the liqueur. “[This] new expression of the aperitivo format … had a lot of classic elements with some new fun flavors,” he says. “I also really love a product that focuses on who made it, and the strength of the women who made it. That’s a fascinating and timely story to tell,” he says.

Alicia Perry, of San Diego’s Polite Provisions, rethinks the very classic Pisco Sour with a low-ABV twist in her Tre Sorelle (meaning “three sisters” in Italian). “A traditional cocktail variation utilizing not-so-traditional ingredient pairings,” Perry’s aperitivo refresh blends pisco, L’Aperitivo Nonino, muddled grapes and lemon juice for a fragrant, fluffy, wholly modern drink.

Taking a fresh look at aperitivo, many bartenders note that a balance of flavors is key when layering ingredients: You have to let each one shine. When Kristina Magro, of Lone Wolf Tavern in Chicago, created her autumnal sour, The Chill of the Night, she chose ingredients that wouldn’t overpower one another. “The aged tequila creates a nice backbone … while complementing the other flavors and adding a slight vegetal quality to the drink,” she says.

Stacy Swenson, of aperitivo bar Pisellino, says she approaches the aperitivo from a place of simplicity, so her flavors can sing. In creating her Meleto Highball, she focused on the flavor of apple and built around that. “The Japanese Highball, which although [not] low-ABV, still feels like an aperitivo, as it’s light, refreshing and easygoing,” she says. She balances Japanese whisky with honey, lemon, apple and L’Aperitivo Nonino, which, Swenson says, has complementary fruit and spice notes—qualities that “make it perfect for spritzes and long drinks.”

Though the culture of aperitivo is entirely Italian in origin, it’s the tradition’s air of freewheeling looseness that allows it to translate the world over. Today, the aperitivo—spritz, Sbagliato and all—is most recognizable in its classic form, but also wholly open to interpretation. It’s exactly this sense of openness that has allowed the tradition’s liqueurs and cocktails, as well as experiments born of them, to become firmly established in stateside cocktail culture.

Ten Takes on the Modern Aperitivo

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