As Italian drinks crowd Indian liquor shelves, we provide a ready reckoner on how to drink the likes of Amaretto, Aperol, Campari, Fernet, Limoncello, Prosecco and many others
It was the spring of 2001 and I was on my first ever road trip, from Lausanne, where I was studying, to Munich via Venice. Over seven hours, the Swiss Alps, grey clouds and expensive glasses of wine gave way to a bright April sun, bouncing off red-tiled roofs and the romantic waters of Italy’s fabled city of canals. We were young and unabashedly touristy and had no qualms about making Piazza San Marco our first stop in Venice. And there began an education.
We learnt about la passeggiata, the most stylish of evening strolls at the heart of every Italian’s social life. We learnt how to eat cicchetti, the traditional small plate of snacks served in Venice, and why they are so much more than just snacks. We learnt about gelato (frozen dessert), polpo (octopus) and baccalà (salted cod), and to never cheer with a glass of water. As we ordered a bottle of overpriced prosecco, the Italian sparkling wine, to toast the first sunset of our road trip. We noticed waiters all around us bounding between tables, carrying large, fiery goblets of orange, garnished with a green olive. It wasn’t until we had partaken in another Italian tradition — flirting with finesse — that we learnt about the orange drink, and the most important Italian tradition of all: the art of aperitivo.
Aperitivo literally means ‘to open’. So think of it perhaps as a little stretch before your workout. But keep all athleisure well away from this tradition, because like all things Italian, aperitivo hour (rather, hours) is perhaps the most classy way to unwind over simple cocktails and lovely food, before dinner. Most legends have a history mired in confusion, and the beginnings of aperitivo are no different. Some will have you believe that it dates back to the Roman elite in the Middle Ages. And others award credit to 18th century distiller Antonio Benedetto Carpano. When he created vermouth (as we know it today) he also claimed that it was in fact the most perfect precursor to any meal — wine fortified brandy, bitters and aromatics in a combination so perfect to whet anyone’s appetite. The good people of Turin agreed and the tradition of a pre-dinner drink spread like wildfire throughout Italy… and then the world.
The next time your clock strikes 7pm, take a little road trip through the delicious array of Italian drinks that have now made an appearance on Indian shelves. Your aperitivo hours won’t be the same again.
A bittersweet liqueur made from apricot kernels, it tastes deliciously of marzipan. Its sweetness varies from one brand to the next, but if you are sipping a real Amaretto you should definitely be tasting the amaro (bitter).
In a cocktail: It’s popularly drunk on ice, in a shot, and even a fruity highball. I like it best in a classic Amaretto Sour garnished with a lemon peel.
Remember the fiery goblet from before? That was an Aperol Spritz, the most Venetian of aperitifs made from the sweetest of the Italian bitters, Aperol. The bright orange liqueur’s recipe has been a secret since it was first tasted in 1919, but some of its ingredients include citrus oil from sweet and bitter oranges, rhubarb, root of the herb gentian and cinchona bark (which also contains quinine).
In a cocktail: Enjoying it in an Aperol Spritz (with dashes of prosecco and soda) is clearly a given, but also try it in a Summer Negroni with gin, vermouth and muddled fresh berries.
The prize for the most inspired comeback of a retro aperitif goes to the crimson red Campari. Another product of a recipe that has remained secret since 1860, all we know about this velvety bitter Italian is that it is an infusion of “bitter herbs, aromatic plants and fruit” in water and alcohol. Often confused with Aperol, Campari has a bolder flavour of bitter orange and a higher proof.
In a cocktail: Traditionalists stick to Campari Soda, and the cocktail crew swear by their Negronis and Americanos, but I say let’s really celebrate the bitter with a Siesta that also features grapefruit and tequila.
Cocchi is an obscure Italian aperitif wine that saw an unexpected revival towards the end of the last decade. It’s another bitter gem from Italy, only this time a fortified wine that is flavoured with cinchona bark, citrus peel and a host of spices and botanicals. The drink has a bit of a bite thanks to the quinine, but is also a zesty citrus to taste; the bitter nicely balanced with some honeyed notes. Many attribute the revival to its sudden favour with mixologists who needed a substitute for the French Lillet that underwent a recipe change.
In a cocktail: Drink it neat, on the rocks, with an orange peel or in an Americano cocktail. Or put on your best Bond and order it in a Vesper Martini.
There is no in between when it comes to Fernet, and you will either love or hate this Italian amaro. And yes, this one too has a “secret” recipe of nearly 30 different fungi, herbs and spices that also include saffron, myrhh and galangal. Named after a fictitious doctor, it was fabled to cure everything from indigestion to hangovers “before they happened”. The latter probably the reason why every chef and bartender in the Western Hemisphere owns a secret stash of this dark, almost medicinal drink that clocks an ABV of 40%.
In a cocktail: Fernet is widely drunk in Italy as a digestif or as a Caffé Corretto, which is with their morning espresso. But take this bold liqueur for a spin with a Hanky Panky (with gin and sweet vermouth) which was first created by the legendary Ada Coleman in 1903 at The Savoy in London. (Whatever you do, don’t drink it the way the Argentinians do… with Coke!)
Limoncello is a most intensely lemony Italian liqueur, with an ancestry claimed by Sorrentinis, Amalfitanis as well as Capresis! Today you will find bottles of this cheery, alcoholic, yellow liquid, with its pleasing sweetness and bright lemony flavour in every bar and restaurant in Italy. Unlike the bitters we have met so far, there is no secret to making a great limoncello which is a simple infusion of the very best quality Italian lemon peels and sugar in alcohol and water that is then set aside to steep for several months.
In a cocktail: Traditionally Limoncello can be drunk as an aperitif or a digestif and is best enjoyed cold. Do try this luscious liqueur in an In & Out Lemontini though. You may never go back to a regular vodka martini ever again.
A prosecco is a refreshing, white sparkling wine made with primarily glera grapes, and can only come from the Prosecco DOC wine region in North Eastern Italy. Before you brush it off as just a more affordable Champagne, I urge you to give this fruity, aromatic sparkler more of a chance. Typically, a prosecco will have bright, fresh aromas, so think pear, peach, melon, honeysuckle. And since it is made with glera grapes, even the most dry proseccos will have a ripe sweetness.
Not in a cocktail: Even though an Aperol Spritz is incomplete without a generous dash of prosecco I would recommend that for a real taste of la dolce vita, your first date should be just you and a chilled bottle of this Italian sparkler.
After a brief tryst with fame in the US in the early to mid-1900s, vermouth all but disappeared from the hearts and minds of mixologists the world over. It wasn’t until the craft cocktail boom of the 2000s that this fortified wine truly got its due. Bittersweet in flavour, it gets its signature taste from an army of botanicals — cardamom, gentian, cinnamon, lavender, rose, angelica and the bittering wormwood amongst many others. It has historical ties to Italy, Spain, France and Germany but instead of dwelling in the past, I am excited to share the future of vermouth. Which by all accounts is complex, crafty and filled with promises of many delicious hours of drinking. It is typically made in two styles – sweet, an Italian-style which comes in red (rosso) and white (blanco); and dry, a French-style, pale in colour and most commonly enjoyed in a martini cocktail (an American creation, not to be confused with the Italian company named Martini that amongst other drinks has been making vermouth for over 150 years). Last year Martini also introduced an orange flavoured vermouth called Fiero.
In a cocktail: Chances are that some of your favourite cocktails are already vermouth cocktails — Manhattan, Negroni, Americano, Martini, Martinez, Boulevardier, El Presidente, Hanky Panky. Need I say more?
(Featured Image Credits: Shutterstock)