Drinks News

What is a Spritz anyway?

A spirit of innovation is making for intriguing iterations of the effervescent Spritz, writes Max Allen

By Max Allen
I drank my first Spritz in a piazza in Venice one golden afternoon in the early 2000s. It was a revelation. This sparkling, incandescent drink seemed the perfect thing for that lazy, liminal hour between work and play. It tasted fantastic with the selection of salty, savoury snacks on the table in front of me. It felt like people had been drinking this glorious concoction in piazzas in Venice for centuries. It felt timelessly Italian.
Turns out that the version of the Spritz I was drinking - a blend of sparkling prosecco, bittersweet liqueur and fizzy water, served over ice in a wine glass with a slice of orange and a green olive - was a relatively recent arrival on the Italian drinking scene, albeit one with a long and fascinating prehistory.
As Talia Baiocchi and Leslie Pariseau reveal in their 2016 book, Spritz: Italy's Most Iconic Aperitivo Cocktail, the practice of pouring a dash of sparkling soda water into still white wine to spritz it up probably began in the early years of the 20th century. When American cocktail culture arrived in the 1920s and '30s, bartenders across Italy's north started adding a dash of bitter liqueur such as red Campari (to make what we now call the Bicicletta) or the then newly invented orange Aperol.
But it wasn't until the 1990s that bartenders in the tranquil beach resorts in Venice decided to use bubbly prosecco rather than still white wine as the base of the Spritz, and increase the bitter liqueur content. It's this recipe that we've come to recognise as the "classic", and we've become familiar with it in a relatively short space of time. When I tasted my first Spritz in Venice, it wasn't a common sight in bars outside Italy; now you'll find people drinking Spritzes everywhere. Wine giant Jacobs Creek has even jumped on the bandwagon, launching pre-mixed bottles of Prosecco Spritz earlier this year.
Much of the modern popularity of the Spritz is thanks to a concerted marketing campaign by the makers of Aperol, Gruppo Campari, the huge global drinks company that has owned the Aperol brand since 2003. Indeed, thanks to this marketing push, many people both in Italy and outside now assume that ordering a Spritz automatically means you'll get an Aperol-flavoured sparkling drink.
Despite this, Baiocchi and Pariseau report that there are still bartenders across Italy's north who are maintaining fiercely regional Spritz traditions - and refusing to buy into the Aperol groupthink - by using other liqueurs: Cynar or the local red Select bitter liqueur in Padua; elderflower cordial and mint in Alto Adige; Campari, sweet vermouth and prosecco to make a Negroni Sbagliato - a Negroni-Spritz hybrid - in Milan.
You can find a similar spirit of diversity and innovation in bars and restaurants across Australia. Some, such as Sydney's 10 William St, stick proudly to the classic formula (albeit without the soda water) and do it bloody well. Others, like Embla in Melbourne, swap out the Aperol for more obscure liqueurs such as Rondo, an artisan organic aperitivo from Sud Tirol in northern Italy.
Some take the drink on a journey elsewhere, as with the Mirto Spritz at Sydney's Banksii: a combination of Sardinian myrtle liqueur, prosecco and lemon zest. And some pay tribute to the drink's colourful northern Italian past by using more than one of that region's liqueurs. The Have It All Spritz, from The Everleigh bar in Melbourne, incorporates Champagne, Aperol, Cocchi Americano and Cocchi Rosa - and is garnished with both orange and lemon. And others see the Spritz as more of a concept than a recipe. This Must be the Place in Sydney's Oxford Street, for instance, is billed as a Spritz bar and always has a few variations on offer - but the Gloss Spritz, for example, with its strawberry, Ketel One Citroen, watermelon riesling and rosewater, is not something you'd be likely to encounter in Italy.
Ever since my first Spritz encounter in Venice (it was a Campari Spritz, by the way), I've experimented with various ingredients and combinations. I've found - as have many others - that the 3-2-1 rule is a good guide to mixing a perfect version of the drink: three parts sparkling wine, two parts bitter liqueur, one part soda water. Some people advocate using a rocks glass, some a large-bowled wine glass. I like to go halfway with a stemless wine glass that's roomy enough for plenty of ice and a citrus slice.
And I know the Spritz is a classic Italian aperitivo, but I find myself mixing an all-Aussie version on warm, golden Australian afternoons, using a good prosecco from Dal Zotto in Victoria's King Valley, the brilliantly dark, bitter Red Økar riberry-based liqueur made in the Adelaide Hills, Capi soda water, a slice of Mildura-grown blood orange, and a home-cured green olive from my backyard.
  • undefined: Max Allen