Cocktails

It’s Not Tiki. It’s Not Aperitivo. It’s Aperitiki.

September 11, 2020

Story: Brad Thomas Parsons

Photo: Lizzie Munro

Cocktails

It’s Not Tiki. It’s Not Aperitivo. It’s Aperitiki.

September 11, 2020

Story: Brad Thomas Parsons

Art: Lizzie Munro

It was only a matter of time before our thirst for the tropical converged with the vogue for Italian drinks.

For nearly half a decade, we’ve been celebrating the Summer of the Spritz—the seemingly unending parade of orange-hued Aperol Spritzes serving as a Trojan horse stateside, inspiring countless bubbly, low-ABV variations.

The rise of the spritz, and the aperitivo category, has run tandem with the revival of tiki, both in its original form and in new takes on the genre that seek to reckon with its complicated past. Of course, aperitivo and tiki are worlds apart culturally, but place two pervasive trends in proximity to each other and it’s practically inevitable that they’ll end up a portmanteau. Enter “aperitiki.”

While the features of each seem divorced on paper (low-ABV vs. high-octane, minimal vs. layered), the complementary bond of these two drinking traditions makes sense when you begin to dig a bit deeper. Consider the built-in spice profiles packed into bittersweet and botanical-rich amari and aperitivo liqueurs, which align with the tiki hallmark of layering spirits and complex proprietary blends of spice-driven syrups and fruit juices. But perhaps more importantly, the matrix of sweet-sour-bitter just works together, unlocking new ways to see ingredients that wouldn’t normally meet in one drink. “‘Aperitiki’ was just something we started sticking into our vocabulary,” says Linden Pride, co-owner of Dante and the newly opened Dante West Village in Manhattan. “What we found was when you start using Italian vermouth or bitters as a driver, rum and some of these flavors just take on a whole different angle.”

The word “aperitiki” seems to have developed organically, with references first popping up on social media around 2013 and gaining modest traction in Italy, the United Kingdom and Australia shortly thereafter. In 2017, things began to pick up. In November of that year, Italian bartender Daniele Dalla Pola, of Bologna tiki bar Nu Lounge Bar, presented an evening of aperitiki drinks at Miami’s Broken Shaker. The following spring, the Los Angeles outpost of the Broken Shaker hosted a “Bitter Tiki” night around the same time that bartenders Chris Amirault and Jake Kolack were dreaming up their Parm Boyz concept and wrapping aperitiki drinks around it. But it’s really only in the past few years that the word “aperitiki,” and the drinks that go with it, have begun to represent a discernible category. Pride’s Dante is proof of that.

In late June, the bar launched its first aperitiki menu as part of a six-week, Wednesdays-only pop-up in the Hamptons, featuring low-ABV drinks like the Zombie Spritz (Aperol and Lillet rose) and the Aperi ‘Tea’Ki Punch (a coconut tea punch with Mancino Bianco Ambrato vermouth and amontillado sherry) and, the inspiration for the concept, the Dante Jungle Bird, a tropical take on their signature Garibaldi made with pineapple rum, Campari, Zucca Rabarbaro amaro, “fluffy” pineapple juice and lime. It proved so popular, they brought it back to Greenwich Village. “We had been playing with the Jungle Bird at Dante Genuine two and a half years ago so that’s probably when we started talking about it,” says Pride. “It was really this summer when it seemed like the right thing to do.”

While the garnishes on the Dante aperitiki drinks lean avant-garde, the glassware is intentionally outside the tiki tradition. “We want to be transportive on some level, but we really wanted to celebrate the flavors and the recipes without it being culturally insensitive,” says Pride. “We wanted to just make it a little bit more about the occasion as opposed to any connotations that were related to historical components of tiki drinks.”

Recipe

Flamingo Milanese

The Campari Shakerato heads to the beach.

Recipe

Zombie Spritz

The bitter, bubbly, low-ABV spritz template tangles with the Zombie's famously layered build.

Recipe

White Negroni Piña Colada

The fairer Negroni goes tropical.

For Parm Boyz, serving aperitiki cocktails, like the White Negroni Piña Colada (mezcal, Suze, coconut liqueur and fresh juices), at their twice-monthly Italian-American pop-up made perfect sense. “When most guests think tiki, they imagine sugar bombs or heavier drinks,” says Amirault. For the team, the concept of aperitiki offered a way to bring the unexpected to a red-sauce concept in the form of tropical drinks, but do them in a way that keeps the Italian through-line while leaning low-ABV, so the drinks are better companions with food. Of late, the Pashtag, an assertive mix of Campari, rum, passion fruit and hibiscus grenadine, is poised to edge out the White Negroni Piña Colada as a crowd favorite. It’s also the perfect archetype for the genre: sweet, sour, bitter, tannic and relatively low-ABV.

The aperitiki trend, it turns out, isn’t just an American curiosity. If you take a trip across the Pacific from Los Angeles to the harbor city of Newcastle, in New South Wales, Australia, you’ll find aperitiki drinks tucked into a more-traditional tiki experience at Blue Kahunas. “We’re not sure where we saw the term ‘aperitiki’ but it just sort of formed beautifully with the fun nature of our brand,” says Prudence Farquhar, who co-owns Blue Kahunas with Byron Marzinotto. The two have featured an Aperitiki Hour at Blue Kahunas since opening in 2018. Their approach combines Italian and tropical ingredients within more minimal templates, as in their Cubano Cooler (their vermouth-driven spin on a Mojito, made with Cinzano Bianco vermouth) and Montenegro Sour (pairing the namesake Bologna-made amaro with an East African rum), alongside housemade items like their rum-based house amaro.

While a tropical bar through and through, they too cite a reexamination of our collective understanding of tiki as an impetus for aperitiki, as well as their decision to eschew more traditional tiki iconography. (To wit, they’ve largely supplanted mugs depicting totems in favor of custom nature-themed glassware, like one depicting a sloth clutching a barrel and another featuring a koala chewing on a eucalyptus leaf.) “Cultural appropriation is something we need to consider moving forward with tiki,” says Farquhar.

Back in the birthplace of aperitivo culture, aperitiki has a different motivation. At Rita’s Tiki Room in Milan, aperitiki was born of practicality. (When asked, owner Edoardo Nono insisted that grappling with tiki’s checkered past was not a topic of conversation in Italy.) According to Nono, who opened Rita’s Tiki Room with Chiara Buzzi in 2018, the concept of a tiki bar in Italy is new to most Italians, so wrapping the experience around the word “aperitivo” made it easier for customers to understand. “The point is to take your Milanese customer drinking his Negroni with a spicy kick to a completely different atmosphere, without realizing it,” says Nono.

In addition to tiki classics like the Painkiller and the Fog Cutter, head bartender Andrea Arcaini’s menu features new takes on some of the top-selling cocktails served next door at sister bar Rita & Cocktails, with a tropical twist. The Banana Boulevardier starts with Campari, bourbon and vermouth rosso, but gets an added kick from banana liqueur and Pusser’s Gunpowder Proof British Navy Rum, while the Flamingo Milanese takes the austere Campari Shakerato into a new dimension, rounding out Campari with Galliano, cachaça, lime cordial and absinthe. Another great aspect of aperitiki in Italy: the gratis bites that still come with.

While there are some common denominators in the philosophy and execution of aperitiki across the globe, there is still plenty of room for improvisation. What unites all of the drinks is that (bitter)sweet spot of appealing to fellow bartenders and passionate cocktail nerds, as well as the casual drinker simply looking for a pre-dinner drink with a side of escapism. “There are certainly guiding principles,” muses Dante’s Pride. “But I think part of the fun is to break those rules.”

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