La Dolce Vita
Bitterness is back. After years of pandering to palates sweeter than a puppy in a tutu, bartenders are witnessing a shift towards cocktails that draw in the cheeks and something savoury that gets our salivary glands going.
And nowhere does bitter better than Italy. It’s the birthplace of both the ‘aperitivo’ and the ‘digestivo’, archetypal Italian elbow-bending occasions essential for those seeking the true “La Dolce Vita”.
The ‘digestivo’ demands Amari, a more herbal and reflective after-dinner affair that is currently on the cusp of cult status among British bartenders and their more discriminating drinking guests. Meanwhile, unless you’ve been stuck doing a stocktake for the last five years, you will be well-aware of the quite extraordinary success of the Italian ‘aperitivo’.
Sales of both Aperol and Campari have soared thanks in no small part to the respective popularity of the Spritz and the Negroni – two of the classic cocktails to come from Italy.
The success of the Aperol Spritz, (a 3-2-1 part blend of prosecco, Aperol and soda) is not overly surprising – its colour catches the consumer eye, it’s easy to make, it’s easy to drink, it’s unisex in its appeal, it’s remarkably refreshing and it’s low(ish) in alcohol.
The popularity of the Negroni, however, is far more puzzling. It really wasn’t that long ago that the Negroni was the exclusive domain of the connoisseur drinker with a developed palate. Perceived wisdom is that debutante drinkers require 20 attempts at a Negroni before they can truly manage the acutely bitter burst of botanicals, gin, Campari and vermouth.
Yet now, buoyed by the gin boom, the Negroni has gone from cult cocktail to mainstream bar-call and is, arguably, enjoying more global adoration than it ever has since it was first created back in 1919 – when, purportedly, Count Camillo Negroni ordered an Americano, with an added jolt of gin, in Florence’s Caffe Giacosa.
“AS A GOOD ITALIAN MAN, THE KIND OF THE APERITIVO IS THE NEGRONI, PERFECTION IN A GLASS. THREE SIMPLE INGREDIENTS THAT MAKE THE GREATEST APERITIVO IN THE WORLD.”
A century later and the Negroni is driving a revival in other Campari-driven classics such as the Boulevardier (bourbon, sweet vermouth and Campari) and, indeed, the Americano (Campari, Martini and soda).
In Britain, despite us all being ‘time poor’, the Negroni (and , of course, the Aperol Spritz) has inspired a remarkable renaissance in the aperitivo moment and rejuvenated interest in age-old classic Italian spirits such as Galliano, Cinzano and Martini.
An iconic advocate of the aperitivo moment is Quaglino’s, the renowned restaurant in Mayfair, London. Inspired by its Italian-born founder Giovanni Quaglino, and designed by the bar team in conjunction with executive head chef Piero Leone, Quaglinos unveiled ‘Q Aperitivo’, a seven-strong selection of appetite-inducing Italian cocktails made from classic liqueurs and accompanied by live music and a selection of tasty bar snacks – including burrata surf ‘n’ turf, tomato arancini and smoked beef carpaccio,
According to Davide Arcucci, Quaglino’s head bartender, the mostly Italian bar team were looking to breathe life into the hours of 4pm and 7pm which, back home, was synonymous with the aperitivo moment.
Using an array of iconic Italian liqueurs including Cinzano, Cynar and Martini Ambrato, they worked closely with Chef Piero to really make something special. “The cocktails and food are all made with ingredients coming from Italian culinary traditions,” added Davide, who has designed drinks to complement specific dishes.
“The perfect aperitivo needs to stimulate the appetite and the stimulating properties in vermouths and bitters are essential for this,” he added. “The biggest challenge when creating these cocktails was to maintain the structure of the classic cocktails yet put a twist on them.
“It hasn’t been easy to find the right balance, we didn’t want to make it too complex, so the cocktails are simple but full of different flavours,” added Davide. “I love to create cocktails that are multi-layered in terms of flavour – but everything needed to be harmonious.”
“As a good Italian man, the king of the aperitivo is the Negroni, perfection in a glass,” he says. “Three simple ingredients that make the greatest aperitivo in the world; strength, bitterness and that hint of sweet and herbal notes makes this cocktail peerless in my opinion.”