Picture yourself sitting and sipping on something in an Italian piazza — what’s in your glass?
This isn’t a test or a trick question, because, chances are, it’s probably a spritz — and more precisely, an Aperol Spritz. Such is the popularity of the drink, it could leave one to wonder whether the third color on the Italian flag should be orange rather than red (although the Irish likely wouldn’t be so fond of that.)
All jokes aside, the Aperol Spritz’s ubiquity comes as no coincidence. Excellent marketing has made the drink not just synonymous with aperitivo hour but curated a modern aperitivo culture for Italy.
How, though, do Italians feel about this phenomenon?
Italian culture is far from homogenous. Its regions — each with its own history and culinary tradition — have only been united under one flag officially since 1871. The way one town makes a Sunday ragù most likely differs from another 20 miles down the road. The same is often true of drinking customs.
With tourism returning to pre-pandemic levels, spritz-thirsty visitors will descend upon the country this summer with hopes of endless orange aperitivi. But how culturally correct are these dreams?
Defining the Spritz Life
Spritz culture has existed in the Veneto since the 19th century, though Aperol wasn’t created until 1919. This was the year that the two Barbieri brothers, running their father’s liqueur business in Padua, concocted a vibrant, low-alcohol orange elixir. It proved a brilliant addition to the existing spritz, which was just sparkling white wine in Padua or still white wine in Venice, a nod to the drink’s Austrian beginnings. “Spritz” means “splash” in German, a term that evolved in the late 19th century when Austrians in the Veneto supposedly found local wines too intense, and therefore requested a spritz of water.
In the 1950s, Aperol (as well as Select, another popular bitter in Venice) saw its popularity rise as the economy in post-war Veneto and Italy thrived. Aperol slipped into the spritz easily, capturing the thirst of locals with its vibrant color and bartenders with its simplicity.
While Aperol’s website proudly boasts “together since 1919,” the reference really only applies to the Veneto region. Aperol’s sales would remain mostly confined to the north until the early 2000s, around the time Gruppo Campari acquired the brand in 2003.
At this point, Campari did something brilliant. Before making Aperol the global sensation it would eventually become, the company first needed to get all Italians on board. So, the company went south — which makes sense, as Raffaele Bellomi, a Veneto native and owner of bars Amaro and Archivio in Verona, points out: “If you’re Aperol and you want to market your product, you’re not going to market it where you already sell it [i.e., Veneto, Fruili, and Lombardia.]”
Yet, Campari didn’t just market Aperol to the south because of opportunity — the company did so to capture the summery la dolce vita lifestyle that would become synonymous with the spritz. Ironically, while many associate the drink with imagery of the Italian south — home to the illustrious vistas portrayed in reels or TikToks — the region didn’t have an established aperitivo culture like the north. “This is the land of aperitivo,” Bellomi says. “But, not really. The more south you go, the less aperitivo you have.”
Before the so-called “Aperol Spritz revolution” (a phrase Campari coined), many southern Italians didn’t drink much before dinner. “We drink espresso. That’s the drink,” says Giacomo Vanacore, who grew up in Vico Equense, a Campanian town that neighbors the more famous Sorrento.
Now running his family’s restaurant, La Sorrentina in North Bergen, N.J., Vanacore vividly remembers the moment Aperol took over his hometown. “The year I came back to Italy to work when I was 18, what I saw was the first real change in my town — everything was orange,” says Vanacore, who returned in 2003 to work for the restaurant during tourist season. “I felt like it was invaded — I felt like I was in Holland!”
Now, this dialogue isn’t intended to stir up arguments over if and how the North took over southern culture. As Vanacore explains, tourism, togetherness, and embracing the “new” were natural to his home region, so he wasn’t surprised by how quickly the spritz caught on. But, chilling in the piazza before dinner and drinking — especially for younger folks — wasn’t a thing until the Aperol Spritz arrived. “If you’re 18 or 20 years old, if you sit and have a beer in my hometown, people would think something’s wrong with you,” Vanacore says.
Then came Campari’s provocative summer campaigns, with orange umbrellas and bikini-clad women handing out more than just sunglasses — they sold a lifestyle. The Aperol Spritz became a social symbol for the southern Italian youth. “Once the spritz came in, kids were like, ‘You’re not drinking a spritz? What’s wrong with you?’” Vanacore says.
Hats off to Campari for achieving this, because who wouldn’t want to spritz it up on the Sorrento or Amalfi Coasts? After all, it’s the perfect setting for the #spritzlife. “If you want to market it to other countries abroad, you’re not going to show people in November in Verona in the fog — you’ll show it in a nice piazza in Rome,” Bellomi says. Riding the coattails of the rising social media age, it was only natural that this youthful, sexy, and summery aperitivo lifestyle would take off. And boy did it.
The Global Takeover
With its beautiful piazzas and idyllic coastlines, the newfound idea of aperitivo culture wasn’t too hard to market once it found its ideal setting. Italy has long had a revolving door of tourists. Yet, it wasn’t visits to Italy that ignited interest in aperitivo culture — it was projecting the concept of this reality outward. “Ten or 15 years ago, so many tourists came to Verona and were like, ‘What’s that orange thing?’” Bellomi says. “Back then people didn’t know it and would order it and not like it.”
Then came the social media rush of the 2010s, and with it, Campari’s crusade to take spritz culture global. The company pushed the Aperol Spritz as the real “Italian aperitivo” through its very colorful American media campaign in 2017. The first stop: the brunch crowd.
Inaugurating the “Aperol Brunch Society,” the campaign nudged influencers to create videos on why they should be the “Chief Brunch Officer.” It resulted in an impressive 200 million media impressions and up to 45 percent growth in Aperol sales.
The fruits of these efforts made the Aperol Spritz the “rosé all day” of 2017 and 2018. The drink’s summer promotions painted cities like New York orange and pleased bartenders with its simple “3-2-1” recipe.
As if to fully cement the trend came contrarian backlashes against the drink. A controversial 2019 New York Times article titled “The Aperol Spritz Is Not a Good Drink” caused a stir on Twitter — and every popular social media channel of the time, for that matter. Still, that didn’t stop the love, because the Aperol Spritz is, in fact, a decidedly good drink. And the spritz’s success has never been about the quality of the drink itself, but rather the image behind it.
“In my opinion, [the] Aperol Spritz captures something ethereal, something that exists, but also might not exist,” Bellomi says. “And, that projects outside of Italy.” With Aperol sales nearly doubling since 2017, we can comfortably assume that the #spritzlife lifestyle continues to thrive. But — once again — how do Italians feel about projecting an aperitivo culture that isn’t entirely authentic to the entire nation?
Italy’s Coca Cola
Twenty years since Gruppo Campari’s acquisition of Aperol, orange spritzes are now inescapable in the Itailan bar scene. With tourism returning to normal following intense pandemic restrictions — some figures show 2022 saw a 94 percent increase in visitors — we can only assume the spritz sales will thrive as well.
Italian bartenders are prepared and grateful. Tourists support the Italian economy. However, that doesn’t eliminate the cultural discrepancies that come with the Aperol Spritz in its homeland.
As a bar owner, Bellomi sees daily how locals and tourists engage with bar culture. He also sees how tourist behavior differs with that of locals in Veneto. To him, the spritz enlightened tourists to aperitivo culture, an excellent thing for the bar industry. Yet, that doesn’t mean that Italians are hanging out all afternoon, drinking bubbly orange aperitifs. It isn’t summer vacation all the time for Italians.
Even Vanacore, who does proudly drink an Aperol Spritz on vacation, finds the drink seasonal. “It’s strictly a summertime thing,” he says, a contrast to the drink’s history in the Veneto as a pre-dinner custom.
What stands as most impressive, though, is how the Aperol Spritz became one of the single unifying symbols in a country with a fragmented history — where dialects and dishes differ from region to region and even town to town. Today, you can probably find the spritz on every bar menu from Milano to Reggio Calabria.
Now, this doesn’t mean all Italians are hanging out in piazzas and sipping spritzes. Many don’t even like the drink — the Jerry Thomas Speakeasy in Rome famously refuses to sell them — and lots of people, like Vanacore, didn’t grow up with the tradition.
Regardless, Gruppo Campari has successfully manufactured a new image of Italian drinking culture. The company painted Italy orange, flew the Aperol Spritz overseas, seduced countless drinkers, and brought them back to Italy thirsty for more. It’s been an indisputable win for the nation’s tourism sector, though the accuracy with which it portrays Italian traditions remains a more subjective topic.
Irrespective of where you fall in this debate, the Aperol Spritz — much like Coca-Cola in America — is not going anywhere.
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