APEROL SPRITZ

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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Watch the video here

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?)

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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.

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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.

Cheers!

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BITTER CAMPARI

Milan, 26 February 2021

Two weeks ago, my wife and I had decided to go up to Lake Como for a hike. We got ourselves all prepared, we arrived in good time at the train station … only to discover that the railway workers had gone on a half-day strike!

We were floored. It was such a beautiful day! The sun was shining, not a cloud in the sky, we couldn’t let it go to waste! I suggested we do instead a long urban hike through Milan and its suburbs. My wife immediately upped the ante and suggested we walk all the way to Monza. After a moment’s hesitation (“Monza? How far is that!?” Answer: a mere 16 km), I agreed and used Google Maps to find us a route.

It was … an interesting walk, shall we say, taking us as it did past the hulking remains of Milan’s industrial past mixed in with what must have once been smart villas owned by the owners of those same industrial remains; past areas which still showed vestiges of an agricultural past but which now were just dead lands squeezed between train lines and highways; past cheap suburban housing erected in haste in the 1960s and ’70s for all those people who commute to Milan and back every day.

I may one day include this walk in a more general musing about industrial decay in the developed countries. But all I want to say today is that along the way, quite by chance – as I say, I merely followed Google Map’s suggested route – we passed the old factory where, once upon a time (in the early decades of the 20th Century, to be precise) the Italian alcoholic drink Campari was made. (As the photo shows, the building is now enveloped in a massive modern building)

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I made a mental note and carried on walking. Then, a few days later, when my wife and I finally did make it to Lake Como, we came across this fountain, erected in the 1930s, which, as readers can see, also acted as a promotion of Campari.

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I knew immediately that these two chance encounters with Campari within a few days of each other were A Sign. It was clear that I had to write a post about that most Italian of alcoholic drinks! But also a post about a company which did not become one of the hulking ruins that my wife and I walked by on the road to Monza but managed to turn itself into a hulking multinational.

For those of my readers who might have been living in a parallel universe all their lives and never heard of Campari, I start with some basics. First, the look of the drink:

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As readers can see, it is incredibly red, almost scarlet, in colour. This is achieved by adding cochineal to the recipe (at least, in the original; Lord knows what artificial colourant they use nowadays) – cochineal is the protective carapace of a tiny insect that lives on prickly pears (I only mention this irrelevant fact because it allows me to make a link to a previous post I wrote about prickly pears). Here is a pile of carapaces.

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And here is a pile of the colourant extracted from these carapaces.

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As for the other ingredients, we have pure ethanol of course – it wouldn’t be an alcoholic drink without it. We have water – drinking undiluted ethanol would be undrinkable and probably illegal. For taste, we have “bitter herbs” not further specified – as I’ve discovered with other herb-infused drinks, the identity of these “herbs” is always a tightly held secret (although one article I read claimed that during the writer’s visit to Campari’s modern bottling plant outside Milan he was told that two of the herbs used were rhubarb and ginseng). We also have chinotto, a sour citrus fruit closely allied to the bitter orange.

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Those two sets of ingredients make for a bitter taste, and in fact Campari’s proper name is Bitter Campari. Finally, we have the bark of the cascarilla, a plant that is a member of the Croton family and is native to the Caribbean.

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The cascarilla adds to the bitterness but is also a so-called stomachic, something that is supposed to stimulate the taste buds, thus producing reflex secretion of gastric juices, which in turn increases appetite. This is why, rather than being considered a digestif, to be drunk after a meal as an aid to digestion, Campari was touted right from the start as an aperitif to drink before starting the meal; it got your stomach ready for what you were about to eat. I’m not sure if there is any real science behind this claim (or behind similar claims that digestifs aid digestion, for that matter), but in the old days it surely gave men (always men, of course) a good excuse to pop into the local bar and have a drink (or two) before they wended their way – perhaps a little unsteadily – home for lunch or dinner (and then they could wend their way back to the bar for a digestif or two – nice life!).

That’s the basic product. But how do you drink it? Not neat, that’s for sure (maybe there are people who drink it so, but they are weird). Nowadays, of course, when every barman – sorry, barperson – between Milan and San Francisco to the west and Sydney to the east wants to distinguish themselves from every other barperson, there are a variety of concoctions available in bars which include Campari: the Milano Torino (Campari and red Vermouth in equal parts – explanation of nomenclature: Campari was invented in Milan, Vermouth in Turin), the Negroni (Campari, red Vermouth, gin), the Americano (same as the Negroni but replacing the gin with soda water), Negroni sbagliato [Negroni gone wrong] (same as the Negroni but replacing the gin with a sparkling white wine), the Cinque a Zero [5-0] (8 parts white wine, 2 parts Campari), the Pirlo con Campari [Wanker with Campari] (white wine, sparkling water, Campari), the Garibaldi (Campari and orange juice), the Anita (Campari and bitter orange juice – explanation of nomenclature: Anita was Garibaldi’s wife), etc., etc., etc. But the real – the original – the only – way to drink Campari is with a shot of cold soda water: no more, no less. Anything else is just froth and noise.

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That’s the way the originator of Campari, Gaspare Campari, used to serve it, in the 1860s and beyond, in the bar he owned on Piazza Duomo in Milan, at the corner with the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. The bar was, appropriately enough, called Caffè Campari. Here’s a photo of it in a later period.

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Interesting fellow, Gaspare. Born in 1828 into a family of humble agricultural workers in the province of Pavia, he had a passion for the black arts of distillation. In a different era, I could imagine him ending up as a rural alchemist or sorcerer. Instead, in the 1840s he went off to Turin and learned how to distill properly and make cordials, liqueurs, digestifs, aperitifs, and other alcoholic elixirs. He kept inventing various alcoholic concoctions all his life, giving them colourful names: Elixir for a Long Life, Oil of Rhum, Rose Liqueur, and so on. But with his bright red concoction he hit a sweet spot among his Milanese customers. Originally, he called it Bitter as Used in Holland (in reference to the apparent Dutch fondness for bitter cordials), but it became so popular and so tied to his bar that it became known as Mr. Campari’s Bitter. From there, it was but a short hop, skip and a jump to it simply becoming Bitter Campari.

I don’t know if Gaspare was just lucky or if he had an instinctive understanding of marketing – I want to believe the latter – but his decision to open a bar in Milan’s spanking new, swanky Galleria was a stroke of marketing genius. His bar became the hang-out of the Milanese chatterati, ensuring a bourgeois respectability for his bright red concoction. The business boomed. Here we have a picture of him in his prime, with his family.

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Unfortunately, Gaspare died in the early 1880s when he was in his mid-50s. Without probably meaning to, he had taken the first small steps towards creating an industrial product. While he was first and foremost a caffe owner, he also bottled and sold his beverages. But this was very much an artisanal affair: he had a room behind the bar where he did his “production” and bottling.

It was his son Davide who turned the company into a real industrial business. After taking over after the death of his father, he started by decoupling the production activities from the bar. He built a modern production plant – the one my wife and I walked past – in the outskirts of Milan, selling the products through multiple outlets and not just the bar. He ran the production side, leaving the running of the bar to his younger brother Guido.

Not that the bar was not a good business. It continued to be a mainstay in the lives of Milan’s bourgeoisie. It even was honoured in 1910 by being the backdrop of a painting by the futurist artist Umberto Boccioni, Rissa in Galleria, Fight in the Galleria.

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And Davide even expanded the bar business. In 1915, he opened a new bar, opposite the Caffè Campari on the other side of the Galleria, which he called the Camparino (the little Campari). It still exists. It’s a lovely little bar, decked out in what was then the latest fashion in interior design.

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But about five years after opening the Camparino, Davide decided to sell off both bars and focus the business on making the Campari products. This was where the real money was.

Davide’s next step was to focus the company’s production on its best selling products and shed the rest. This meant dropping all those fancifully-named products his father had created and concentrating on just Bitter Campari and one other popular product, a raspberry-based cordial. After that, he only created one more new product, the Campari Soda, which came onto the market in 1932. It was really a clever knock-off of Bitter Campari, being simply a ready-made mix of Bitter Campari and soda water. A touch of genius was to get a famous futurist artist, Fortunato Depero, to design the bottle. Depero did such a good job that the bottle became iconic and is still in use today.

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Davide also started a global expansion of the company, opening production plants in France and Argentina (in the latter case, no doubt to serve the large Italian immigrant population there pining for products from the Old Country).

Finally, Davide invested heavily in advertising (Gaspare had never used advertising to promote his liquid wares). He had understood that for a product like Campari for which there was no need, but only desire, advertising was key to increase the product’s desirability and therefore its sales. He started with some fairly standard advertising.

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But he went on to use some of the biggest names in the advertising business. Leonetto Cappiello created this poster for Campari, which is still very well known.

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Fortunato Depero – he who designed the bottle for Campari Soda – came up with various proposals, this painting being the one I like best (its title is “Squisito al Selz”, “delicious with soda water”).

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But it seems that Davide preferred using Depero’s style in black and white advertizing in newspapers, like this one (the joke is in what’s written: “If the rain were Bitter Campari”).

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In the same black-and-white vein, Ugo Mochi produced a series of posters. This example brings together in one place a number of individual posters he made for Campari.

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In his more serious (but perhaps less remunerative) moments, Mochi, who was known as the Poet of the Shadows, was an illustrator of animals, like in this example.

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In the same mode of elegance as Mochi, we have this poster by Enrico Sacchetti.

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While in a very sensual mode, we have this poster by Marcello Dudovich.

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I’m actually surprised this poster was allowed by the censorship authorities (we’re talking 1904), but they let it through (perhaps the censorship committee had been at the Campari bottle a little too much before they started their work).

Davide died in 1936, when he was just shy of 70. He and his wife had had no children, so the company was taken over by his younger brother Guido, a sister, and a nephew – as in all good family businesses, the business stayed in the family. They – and later generations – kept following Davide’s business strategy, not really trying anything new, and the company ticked along. So there’s really nothing new to report, not even in the advertising field. Finally, in 1982, the last of the Campari family sold out to two of the company’s senior managers, one of whom – Domenico Garavoglia – came out on top (how the second fellow was eliminated I have failed to establish). It is his son, Luca Garavoglio, who now runs the company.

Actually, he doesn’t run a company, he runs an empire. Like the poet, Luca came to two roads in the wood. It was the 1990s, and the growth strategy for companies in the food and drinks sector (and in the consumer products sector more generally) was to snap up well-known – and profitable – brands and create vast income flows by the savvy management of this stable of brands. Luca was faced with a choice. Either he could continue Davide’s strategy of concentrating on just one product, with the almost mathematical certainty that Campari would be bought up and become just one more brand in someone else’s stable of brands. Or he could start snapping up brands himself and manage his own stable of brands. He chose the latter road in the wood, and his decision paid off handsomely.  Luca is a billionaire and Campari currently owns 38 brands; I list here a few, the ones I am personally familiar with: Aperol, Grand Marnier, Cynar, Cinzano Vermouth, Bisquit, Glen Grant, and Crodino – in addition to, of course, Campari Bitter and Campari Soda.

Is this a good turn of events? Well, on the one hand Campari still exists, it’s not a concrete shell on the road to Monza, with broken windows and weeds growing in the old carpark. On the other hand, it exists only as a soulless multinational, buying and selling brands like kids swap in the school playground the images they find in their breakfast cereal packages. It’s no longer an Italian company – its headquarters have been moved to the Netherlands – it no longer has any real roots in the culture from which it sprang. I have already mourned this loss of local identity in an earlier post on mustard, which I think is especially critical where food is concerned. I mourn it again here.  Foods – and drinks – come from a “terroir”, as the French call it; if their link to that terroir is severed, they are merely an artificiality, a compendium of chemicals. And we are all the poorer for that.