Italy’s tradition of the aperitivo down through history

Italy’s tradition of the aperitivo down through history

The aperitivo is a beloved ritual that has been part of Italy’s culture for centuries. It is an occasion for unwinding after work, socialising with friends, and indulging in delicious drinks and snacks. The aperitivo is typically held in the early evening, just before dinner, to ‘open up’ the stomach and whet the appetite. We take a look at the wide range of drinks that are now an intrinsic part of the Italian lifestyle.

Italy is famous for its wines, but it is also home to a wide range of beers, spirits and liqueurs. Each region has its own unique drinking culture and customs, making Italy a fascinating destination for any connoisseur of alcoholic beverages.

The term ‘aperitivo’ comes from the Latin word ‘aperire’, which means ‘to open’.

The aperitivo was first introduced in Italy in the 1300s when distillation techniques were improved. It was then used as a medicinal drink to aid digestion and stimulate the appetite, and soon became a popular pre-dinner ritual and part of the Italian lifestyle for the new generations. By extension, it is also now known as a category of popular drinks in Italy.

The origins of the aperitivo

The roots of the aperitivo can be traced back to ancient Rome. However, the modern concept of the aperitivo emerged in the 18th century, when vermouth became popular in Turin.

“The term ‘aperitivo’ comes from the Latin word ‘aperire’, which means ‘to open’, implied to whet the appetite”

During the Middle Ages, monks were some of the most important practitioners of medicine and pharmacology in Europe. They were often the only people who could read and write, so they were responsible for creating and copying any kind of manuscripts. This included writing and recording recipes for food, drink and medicinal concoctions. They also grew herbs and other plants in their gardens, which they used to create medicinal preparations. Monks thus indirectly played an important role in the development of many liqueurs and spirits, including Chartreuse, Benedictine and other herbal liqueurs, thanks to their knowledge of herbs and their use in the so-called elixirs.

Elixirs were highly concentrated medicinal preparations made from herbs, spices and other ingredients. They were often sweetened with honey to make them more palatable. Over time, their use expanded beyond the monasteries and into the broader population.

The arrival of sugar cane in Europe was a significant development in the history of elixirs in Italy, as the addition of sugar greatly improved their flavour and texture. It was then possible to add alcohol to improve the shelf life of the drinks, as along with sugar the elixirs were still quite enjoyable. Thus was born ‘Rosolio’.

The dawn, and sunset, of Rosolio

Rosolio was originally created by monks in monasteries, who used it as a medicinal preparation to treat digestive issues and other ailments. There are different theories about the origin of the word ‘rosolio’, but is believed that it comes from the Latin ‘ros-solis’, which means ‘sun dew’ or ‘morning dew’. According to this theory, the name refers to the practice of collecting herbs and flowers early in the morning, while they are still covered in dew, to make the liqueur.

Then came the sugarcane: the addition of sugar and the resulting sweetness made the new rosolio a prized drink among Italians. Over time, its recipe became more refined, and it began to be enjoyed as a beverage rather than just a medicinal preparation. Before the emergence of vermouth, bitters, or amaro in Turin and Milan, rosolio was the aperitivo of choice for the King of Savoy and was often served as ‘Aperitivo di Corte’ to guests during royal parties.

Sadly, and even though rosolio was never officially banned by any government or institution, its popularity fell commensurately with the rise of a new type of drink, stemming from a king’s decision in the 19th century. The rosolio category almost disappeared subsequently from shops and cocktail bars, until 2016 when ITALICUS Rosolio di Bergamotto created by Italian aperitivo expert Giuseppe Gallo, was launched.

@Picture credit – Italicus

The rise of Vermouth

Vermouth is a fortified wine that is infused with botanicals and spices, giving it unique flavours and aromas.

The history of Vermouth is extremely ancient. Four centuries BC, the Greek doctor and philosopher Hippocrates was already prescribing his patients a drink made from dessert wine in which he macerated absinthe and oregano, to combat rheumatism, anaemia or painful periods.

It differs from other aromatised wines in that it must contain a specific plant, ‘artemisia absinthium’ or absinthe, known in German as ‘wermut’, meaning ‘wormwood’, after which it is named. The plant contains thujone, a terpene similar to menthol and known for its therapeutic and restorative properties. It also lends its name to another well-known drink: absinthe.

The modern history of vermouth, however, began in Turin, Italy, when Italian apothecary Antonio Benedetto Carpano created the first commercial vermouth in 1786. Unlike his predecessors, Carpano used good quality Muscat to which he added plants, spices and sugar, then fortified the wine using brandy. The brand was an instant success, so much so that it was embraced and recommended by Amedeo III, the Duke of Savoy. Soon after, other producers began making their own versions of vermouth, such as Cinzano and Martini & Rossi, two brands that are still very popular today. Vermouth also became popular in France, where it was produced in the region of Chambery.

“In 1786,  Carpano used good quality Muscat to which he added plants, spices and sugar, then fortified the wine using brandy. The brand was an instant success”

@Picture Credit – Giorgio Trovato

At the beginning of the 19th century, Vittorio Amedeo III of Savoy, who ruled over the Kingdom of Sardinia, encouraged local farmers to produce white wines in order to increase the production of vermouth, because most vermouth is made from white wine. He also cancelled the Royal House annual order of Rosolio and replaced it with an order for vermouth. This royal endorsement pushed the popularity of vermouth among the fashionable upper classes of society, to the detriment of the rosolio.

Over time, different varieties of vermouth emerged, including sweet vermouth and dry vermouth. Sweet vermouth is made by adding sugar to the wine, while dry vermouth has little to no added sugar.

Additionally, the rise of vermouth* was also influenced by the emergence of the new afore-mentioned social ritual, the aperitivo, which became popular among the urban middle classes in the late 19th century. With its complex flavours and aromas, vermouth was a perfect fit, quickly becoming the drink of choice for many Italians during the pre-dinner hours.

*Fun fact : the popularity of vermouth in the 20th century can also be explained by the successful lobbying campaign by the wine lobby to secure a ban on the very popular absinthe. Seeking to recover the market shares lost during the phylloxera crisis which had been wrested by the much cheaper absinthe of the time, an urban myth ascribing psychoactive effects to the ‘green fairy’ was spread among consumers. And what was the safer alternative? An aromatised, fortified wine infused with the same artemisia absinthium, i.e. vermouth.

The rise of bitters and amari

Bitters and amari are herbal liqueurs, originally used for medicinal purposes, which became popular as aperitifs and digestives with the rise of the Aperitivo custom. Amari are bitter liqueurs that are usually served after a meal, while bitters are often used in cocktails, before the meal.

Campari, one of the most famous Italian bitters, was created in 1860 and soon became a symbol of Italian aperitivo culture all around the world. Other popular bitters include Aperol, Cynar and Fernet Branca. Amari, on the other hand, comes in many varieties, each with its unique flavour and recipe. Popular amari include Averna, Montenegro and Braulio.

“Amari are bitter liqueurs that are usually served after a meal, while bitters are often used in cocktails, before the meal.”

@Picture credit – Kelly Visel – Fernet Branca

The golden age of the aperitivo

During the early 20th century, the aperitivo became a social phenomenon in Italy. The cafes and bars that served aperitivo became hubs of intellectual and artistic life, attracting writers, artists and musicians. The aperitivo became a symbol of the Dolce Vita lifestyle, which celebrated pleasure, beauty and elegance.

In the 1920s and 1930s, aperitivo cocktails also became popular in Italy: the Negroni for example, made with gin, vermouth and bitter, was created in Florence in 1919 and soon became a classic Italian cocktail, now one of the best-selling drinks around the world. Other aperitivo cocktails, such as the Americano and the Spritz, also gained popularity during this period.

Forgotten Italian cocktails

The first ever Italian cocktail is believed to be the Milano-Torino, which was later renamed the ‘Americano’.

The exact timeline of the creation of Italian cocktails is not clear, but here are some Italian cocktails in the order they were believed to have been created:

  1. Milano-Torino: Created in the mid-1800s, this cocktail is said to have originated at the Camparino bar in Milan. It is made with equal parts bitter di Milano and vermouth di Torino, representing the two cities in its name.
  2. Americano: The Americano cocktail is said to have been created in the 1860s at Gaspare Campari’s bar in Milan. The drink was originally called the ‘Milano-Torino’ but was later renamed when it became popular with American tourists during Prohibition by adding a splash of soda to reduce the bitterness of its flavour.
  3. Negroni: The Negroni is believed to have been created in Florence in 1919 when Count Camillo Negroni asked his bartender to strengthen his Americano cocktail by replacing the soda water with gin after a trip he made to the United Kingdom where he discovered a new spirit called gin.
  4. Negroni Sbagliato: The Negroni Sbagliato was born as the result of a happy accident. Legend has it that in the early 20th century, a busy bartender at the Bar Basso in Milan accidentally grabbed a bottle of sparkling wine instead of gin while making a Negroni. The customer loved the result, and the Negroni Sbagliato was born. The name ‘sbagliato’ means ‘mistaken’ or ‘wrong’ in Italian, referring to the mistaken use of sparkling wine instead of gin. Today, the Negroni Sbagliato is a popular variation of the classic Negroni cocktail and is enjoyed by many around the world.
  5. Bellini: The Bellini was created in Venice in the 1930s by Giuseppe Cipriani, the founder of Harry’s Bar. It is made with fresh peach puree and Prosecco.
  6. Bicicletta: The ‘Bicicletta’ cocktail is believed to have been created in the 1960s or 1970s in Italy. It is a refreshing summer cocktail made with white wine, Bitter di Milano and soda water.
  7. Garibaldi: The Garibaldi cocktail is a simple and refreshing drink made with Bitter di Milano and fresh orange juice. It is named after Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Italian general and politician who played a key role in the unification of Italy in the 19th The Garibaldi cocktail is said to have originated around 1960/1970 in Caffè Camparino, a historic bar in Milan that was a favourite of Garibaldi himself. Legend has it that Garibaldi enjoyed drinking Bitter di Milano with a slice of orange, and the Garibaldi cocktail was created to honour his memory
  8. Aperol Spritz: The Aperol Spritz was created in the early 2000s as a modern twist on the classic spritz. It is made with Aperol, Prosecco and soda water and is often served with a slice of orange.

The spritz cocktail

The spritz cocktail is believed to have originated in Venice, Italy, as a way for Austrian soldiers to add the local wine with soda water (to make a spritzer), to enrich it with bubbles, lengthen its content and make it lighter. Over time, the drink evolved into what we now know as the spritz, with the addition of bitter liqueurs like Aperol, Campari, Select or Italicus, and sparkling wine or soda water.

In recent years, the spritz has become increasingly popular around the world. Its success is often attributed to its refreshing taste, bright colour and low alcohol content, which makes it a popular choice for daytime drinking and socializing.

Many new brands are taking over the spritz market, each with its own unique twist on the classic recipe. These brands are often marketed as premium or artisanal products, appealing to consumers who are looking for high-quality ingredients and unique flavour combinations. But despite the influx of new brands, Aperol remains one of the most popular and recognizable names in the spritz world. Its bright orange colour and bitter-sweet flavour have made it a staple of the Italian aperitivo scene, and it continues to be enjoyed around the world.

The aperitivo and Italian drinking culture are an integral part of the country’s history and tradition. The country’s love for food, wine and spirits has made it a top destination for any connoisseur of culinary delights and its offerings are showing huge production growth all around the world, setting the trend for the spirits and drinks industry.

Alessandro GERACI

New brands like ITALICUS are leveraging the popularity of the spritz by offering their own versions of the drink. ITALICUS spritz, for example, creates a unique and premium twist on the classic spritz by offering new flavour profiles and the unique citrus taste of Bergamotto from Calabria.

One of the ways that Italicus has differentiated itself from other brands is by serving a modern spritz with an olive instead of the traditional orange slice. This gives the drink a unique flavour profile and visual appeal.

@Picture credit – Italicus

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