Los Angeles, 26 December 2021
A Chinese reader very kindly sent me a comment recently on a post I had written about tomato ketchup. After reading his comment, and re-reading the post in question (I must confess to have forgotten much of what I’d written in that post), I started thinking fondly of the five years my wife and I spent in China (where, incidentally, I started this blog). And as my mind wandered over the Good Old Days, it alighted – in that odd way which wandering minds do – on a bar on the edges of Sanlitun in Beijing where we would go from time to time to have an Aperol Spritz. Yes, I know, it’s odd for a mind meandering through Chinese recollections to land on Aperol Spritz, but there you go, that’s globalization for you.
The thing is, once my mind had alighted on Aperol Spritz I had to investigate: What is this Aperol? What are its origins? And where did this Aperol Spritz thing come from? etc., etc.. What to do, for better or for worse that’s the way my mind works. In any event, I am now ready to report back on the results of my investigations.
I will start my story in Paris, towards the end of the 19th Century. After Baron Haussmann had brutally driven his wide, straight boulevards through the city’s hodgepodge of medieval streets, a thriving café culture sprung up along them, with people of all classes loitering at the tables to sip a drink and natter with friends. We have here a painting by Manet depicting the café scene.
This happy lady appears to be drinking a traditional beer, but a new drink also made its appearance at this time: the apéritif . This apéritif was actually a retooling of a drink originally invented in the Middle Ages as a medicinal product, something to open your body up and let the bad vapours and whatnot escape (aperire being the Latin for “to open”). It was made by steeping and macerating various herbs and roots in wine (first) and alcohol (later). By the time the café culture along Paris’s boulevards came along, the apéritif had lost its medicinal connotations and was promoted instead as something to take before a meal to “open up” your appetite. We have a painting here by Degas of this new custom.
Important for our story is the fact that the French quickly shortened the rather formal word apéritif into apéro, as in “Hey Jean, see you this afternoon at the Café du Peuple on the Boulevard de la Paix for an apéro”.
We now turn our attention to the town of Padova in northern Italy; for reasons which will become apparent in a second, I throw in a photo of the Basilica Sant’Antonio which is located in the city.
There, in 1880, a certain Giuseppe Barbieri set up a liquor business, making and selling various alcoholic concoctions. One of his more popular offerings was Liquore Sant’Antonio, a liqueur made by steeping various herbs and roots in alcohol (“a sugar cube soaked in Liquore Sant’Antonio is an excellent sedative to take before going to bed” used to proclaim the label).
In 1912, Giuseppe handed over the reins of the business to his two sons, Silvio and Luigi. We have a photo of them here in later life.
The two brothers spent the next seven years developing a new drink to add to the company’s line-up. Following the company’s experience with products like Liquore Sant’Antonio, it was to be a concoction of herbs and roots steeped and macerated in alcohol. But Silvio, who had spent many years in France where he had got to know the culture of the apéritif, persuaded Luigi that they should be developing an aperitif-like drink, not too alcoholic, to be taken before a meal to “open up” the appetite. After much tinkering, they came up in 1919 with a bright orange drink which, in honour of its connection to the French apéro culture, was baptized Aperol.
What, readers might well ask, is in Aperol? The label only admits to the presence of alcohol (well, duhh!), water (ditto), sugar, and “flavourings”, which of course come from all those herbs and roots which are left to steep and macerate in the alcohol. Of these, the label only identifies quinine, although various internet sites add gentian, rhubarb, and cinchona, as well the rind of both sweet and sour oranges. One site also claims that a drop or two of absinthe is added to counteract the slightly bitter taste which all these ingredients would otherwise leave. All the other ingredients are, as usual, a tightly held secret (my eyes roll at this point; as I have intimated in earlier posts, I’m no fan of secrecy when it comes to ingredients).
None of these ingredients explain Aperol’s main visual characteristic, its bright orange colour. That no doubt comes from two food colourants which the label confesses to be present in the brew: the yellow E110 and the red E124. Now, it’s claimed that Aperol’s recipe has remained unchanged since its birth in 1919, but the Barbieri brothers cannot possibly have used these two modern, synthetic, colourants. My guess is that for their yellow colouring they used curcumin, extracted from turmeric, and for red they used cochineal.
Whatever gave Aperol its taste, it was an instant hit with the good citizens of Padova, where it was drunk either pure or mixed with a shot of soda water. Its fame spread quickly to other parts of northern Italy, and the serious money started rolling in. Thereafter, the trajectory followed by the Barbieri brothers was very similar to that taken by Davide Campari for his eponymous drink, a story which I have told in an earlier post.
First, like Davide Campari, the brothers abandoned their father’s artisanal approach and built a modern factory to make their Aperol on an industrial scale.
Second, again like Campari, recognizing that they were selling a product based on desire and not on need, Silvio and Luigi invested heavily in the black arts of enticement – or, if we are to be more polite, in what was then the new art form of advertising. Here are a few examples of the posters which the company created in the interwar years.
If I’m to be honest, I think Campari did a better job in its advertising. I think readers would agree with this if they go to my post on Campari and look at the examples I give there of the advertising posters which Campari commissioned. The last one at least has the advantage of admitting publicly to three of Aperol’s ingredients.
The Second World War was not kind to the Barbieri brothers. Apart from the fact that sales must have been down, the Barbieri lost their factory to a bombing raid (the Campari family was luckier; they managed to keep their original factory, now a museum dedicated to the Campari story). Luckily for us, the Barbieri were undeterred and rebuilt after the War.
Which brings us – finally – to the Aperol Spritz, the drinking of which all those years ago in Beijing set me off on this post. The story of Aperol Spritz starts in the 1950s. But actually, we first need go back a little further. Originally, a spritz – a common drink in the Veneto region (of which Padova is part) – consisted of a glass of white wine into which sparkling water had been splashed (spritzen in Austrian German; Veneto was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time). Then, in the 1950s, and specifically in the province of Padova, bars began adding a shot of bitters to the traditional spritz. One of these bitters – but only one – was Aperol. Depending on the barman’s or drinker’s inclinations and on what was available behind the bar, the bitter added could be Cynar, Select, Campari, China Martini, maybe some locally-made bitter, as well as Aperol. In fact, it is still possible to find barmen in the Veneto region who will serve you a spritz with one of these other bitters. In any event, this new take on the spritz went well with the dolce vita which took hold of Italy in the fifties and sixties, captured so well in Fellini’s film of the same name.
By dint of persistent advertising, especially in the new medium of television, Aperol became a national brand. There was an incredibly famous (for Italians) TV show called Carosello which ran pretty much every day of the year for all of the 1960s and much of the 1970s. The show was basically a way for the Italian Television monopoly RAI to get around the strict rules on advertising. Carosello was made up of a series of skits which each ended with an advert for some product or other. Aperol was a regular contributor. My wife used to religiously watch the show every evening and speaks very fondly of it. Even today, nearly fifty years after last seeing it, she can quote some of the more famous advertising tag lines. I’m sure she remembers Aperol’s, which had the presenter smack his forehead and exclaim “Ah! Aperol!” Here we have him doing it with a bunch of young people who of course were now the intended target audience for Aperol.
In parallel, the Barbieri (by now, the next generation had taken over) aggressively pushed Aperol as the bitter of choice for the new-type spritz. Here are some examples of the advertising posters they used to promote the Aperol Spritz.
As we can see, the ads began to appeal to a hipper, cooler, more chilled set. This was typified by a famous (to Italians) TV ad from the late 1980s, featuring a pretty woman in Miami hitching up her miniskirt provocatively before getting on her motorbike and setting out to meet her cool, chilled friends for an Aperol Spritz.
In the meantime, the Barbieri got caught up in the Great Game of brand purchases by Corporate behemoths, which I have bemoaned in previous posts. In 1991, the family sold Aperol and a few other brands to the Irish company Cantrell & Cochrane, itself part of the multinational Allied Lions. The new owners began to internationalize Aperol and Aperol Spritz. The German world was an early market (where the Aperol Spritz was germanized to Aperol Gespritz), and then the US market opened its arms to the orange concoction.
In 2003, the Great Game of brand buying and selling saw Cantrell & Cochrane sell Aperol to Campari (which explains why I have sneakily been making comparisons to Campari as I went along). Campari put heavyweight advertising behind Aperol and the Spritz, which turbocharged Aperol’s global diffusion. Thus, hopping from one bar to another, the Aperol Spritz eventually made its way to that bar in Sanlitun where my wife and I would go from time to time to sample an Aperol Spritz, sitting at the bar’s terrace, watching the world go by. Since we are neither hip, nor cool, nor chilled, by this time (we are talking 2010 or thereabouts) Aperol Spritz had clearly gone mainstream.
I have since discovered that we had joined a Global Movement! On 29 June 2012, some 2,600 Aperol fans descended on Piazza San Marco in Venice to attempt a Guinness World Record for the “Largest Aperol Spritz Toast”. Here we have the joyous crowd clinking their glasses (I like the T-shirt! Wonder where I can get one?)
And so we come to 2019, the centenary of Aperol. To celebrate this earth-shaking event, Campari commissioned a series of designs for centenary labels.
So, dear readers, buy yourselves a bottle of Aperol! Go ahead and make yourselves an Aperol Spritz this evening! Bring in the New Year with an Aperol Spritz! FYI, in case you’ve never made one yourselves, the International Bartender Association’s recipe for the Aperol Spritz has you mixing 9 cl of prosecco with 6 cl of Aperol and as much as soda water or seltzer as necessary.