It’s summer in America. That once meant Gin and Tonic time, or Margarita time or Mojito time. Now, whether you like it or not, it’s spritz time. Italy’s classic low-ABV, bitter, fizzy, iced drink took roots in the United States a few years ago and today has grown into a mighty oak, with spritz menus springing up willy-nilly and aperitivo-makers both old and new fanning the flames as they fight for a piece of the Aperol pie.
“There has been a lot of discussion about the Aperol Spritz lately,” said PUNCH features editor Leslie Pariseau, coauthor (with PUNCH editor in chief Talia Baiocchi) of the 2016 book Spritz, which arguably helped kick off the trend. “It’s definitely timely. We’ve come to a point where everything is a spritz. But is it a spritz?”
On a recent afternoon, PUNCH learned just how diverse the notion of the spritz has become when ten of the country’s best bartenders submitted their formula for an Italian-style spritz. Part of the drink’s identity is the general looseness of its construction. Still, there are some basic boxes to tick: PUNCH asked that the drink contain an Italian, or Italian-style, aperitivo bitter liqueur; wine; and bubbles of some kind, contributed by either wine or water. It was also required to be low proof. Yet even with guidelines in place, few recipes displayed what could be considered classic spritz characteristics.
“The spritz is in its adolescence,” said Pariseau. “Everyone feels they’ve got to do their own thing.” Joining me and Pariseau as judges were Paul McGee, co-owner of Lost Lake in Chicago, and bartender Sarah Morrissey, recently of New York’s Frenchette.
With a spritz, “simple is the best way to go,” said Morrissey. When she orders one, she’s not looking for a complex riff with a hundred working parts. “I want bubbles and I want booze,” she said.
McGee agreed. “It doesn’t have to be overly creative,” he said. “There’re plenty of white and red bitters on the market now, so you can be creative with that, but I don’t need a house-made bitter.”
As with other seemingly simple drinks past PUNCH panels have tasted, the judges felt there were certain things they did need in order to be happy. All the adjudicators preferred that the drink be served in a goblet or wine glass. Noting that the drink is basically wine-based, McGee reasoned, “it should be in a wine glass.” Pariseau agreed, adding, “It’s partly visibility. It’s also about getting a lot of ice in there. I like to see the olive and orange bobbing in there.”
About that orange and olive—Pariseau preferred those garnishes as the classic Italian spritz adornments. They were, in her opinion, “an indicator of the connection to the Italian-ness—the salty and the sweet.” The other judges were willing to accept alternative garnishes such as cucumber, mint and grapefruit. However, whatever the fruit or herb, they wanted it to play a role in the flavor. “I think it should enhance the drink,” Morrissey said. “If it’s just there to be there, it’s stupid.”
On another point, all were in fierce agreement. There should be ice, lots of ice. That the drink simply be cold was not enough; it had to stay cold. When one of the competing drinks arrived without ice, the judges all but recoiled. This would never survive an afternoon of piazza- or sidewalk-drinking.
The lineup of drinks brought to the fore other issues the judges had not expected to address. Two called for a syrup, something that was deemed unnecessary, as the aperitivo liqueur should bring all the requisite sweetness—and, frankly, quite unheard of in classic spritz-dom, which eternally favors the laissez-faire. Another two contained beer and were quickly dismissed for falling outside the traditional fray. Other drinks were only dimly recognizable as an Italian spritz. At a certain point, the panel prayed for the arrival of a classic Aperol Spritz, if only to reset the cosmic equilibrium.
They didn’t quite get that, but they did encounter a few satisfying drinks that came close, or at least answered to the name “spritz.” The winning drink came from Joe Campanale, who, as an owner of the Italian restaurant Fausto in Brooklyn, knows a thing or two about aperitivo culture. The Fausto Doppio Spritz surprised the judges by containing no wine, but instead, as the name suggests, two bitters: an ounce each of Contratto Aperitif and Forthave Red. This was topped with an ounce of tonic water, then soda water, and garnished with an orange wheel and a green olive. The drinkers found it simple, approachable and, though wineless, fairly classic.
Second place went to bartender Jon Mullen from the newly opened Greenwich Village all-day café Bar Pisellino, operated by the Via Carota team. His Aperol Spritz called for two ounces of Aperol, three ounces of brut prosecco, one ounce of cold soda water, and dashes of saline and citric acid solution. “It tastes like an Aperol spritz,” said Morrissey approvingly. “It’s one note—in a good way.”
Coming in third was Chantal Tseng, of Washington, D.C.’s Petworth Citizen and Reading Room, who put together a winning combination of one ounce of Cappelletti Aperitivo Americano, a popular option with bartenders in place of Campari or Aperol; two ounces of Perrier; and three ounces of rosé Champagne.
All three, the panel thought, would please any spritz-seeking consumer. And that, perhaps, is the final irony of the current mania for the drink that has gripped the country. Americans may want more spritzes, but the template has yet to open up to interpretation the same way other drinks like the Margarita or Cobbler have. Beyond Campari and Aperol, none of the newer aperitivo bitters on the market are recognizable—or called for—by customers. But that’s perhaps to be expected. Nobody orders a spritz because they’re in a thinking mood or want to debate cocktail construction.
“They’re just happy with a spritz if it looks the bill,” said McGee.