Bartenders will be the first to tell you: There’s no single way to make a spritz. Increasingly, those behind the stick are putting local, seasonal and even personal spins on Italy’s easy-drinking aperitivo. For some, that includes incorporating other liqueurs as a change of pace from traditional red or orange bitters, such as the Turin-made bergamot rosolio aperitivo Italicus, a spirit that celebrates native Italian herbs and aromatics.
Created by noted bartender and champion of Italian drinking culture Giuseppe Gallo in 2016, Italicus features dried peels from the fragrant Calabrian bergamot; the citrus fruit, which some may recognize as the dominant whiff in Earl Grey tea, is often used as an ingredient by perfume makers. Chamomile, Sicilian cedro, gentian root, lavender, lemon balm and rose petal also feature as notes in the relatively low-proof liqueur. The end result balances slightly sweet and lightly bitter tones against juicy citrus and enticingly floral aromatics. The aperitivo’s unique profile and subtle bergamot, citrus and herbal notes have a growing number of bartenders embracing it, especially for unexpected takes on the classic spritz.
“Bergamot here plays an incredible role,” says Miami-based bartender and Shōshin Art Club founder Valentino Longo, an Italian native, born in Rome. “Not many people are very familiar with how it actually looks or tastes, but we are all very familiar with the smell, as 90 percent of the perfumes that we use contains bergamot.”
His A Summer Sip cocktail builds on the subtle bitter orange qualities of Italicus’ bergamot by boldly layering it with seasonal Florida citrus, in the surprising forms of a vermouth-fortified blood orange “sherbet” and grapefruit saline. A half glass rim of blood orange salt adds to the mouthwatering effect.
Yet, it’s the aroma of the liqueur—that hard-to-describe note found in Earl Grey tea—that really lifts the drink, Longo says.
Meanwhile, in Las Vegas, fellow Italian native Dario Doimo—who grew up in the region known for producing bubbly Prosecco, a quintessential spritz component—found that the aperitivo’s “elegant, delicate” bergamot and citrus notes offered the right jumping-off point for his refined, stone fruit–accented Peachie cocktail. His version is elevated with peach liqueur and grapefruit bitters, but remains firmly in the classic vein, lengthened with soda water and, of course, Prosecco.
“The cocktail is not overpowering or booze-forward. It’s nice and refreshing,” explains Doimo, now assistant general manager at Hank’s Fine Steaks & Martinis, within the Green Valley Ranch resort. “Especially where I’m from, at aperitivo time, you sit down, and it’s spritz, spritz, spritz.” His sessionable variation is one he can envision quaffing at the end of a long workday: “I wanted to create something that I can sit down and have that half-hour, that hour, at the table with my friends and chat about life.”
Elsewhere, Stacey Swenson, bar director for restaurant group Matter House, has her own aperitivo bona fides. With previous stints at Dante and Bar Pisellino, Swenson has a history of building low-ABV drinks; now, she’s working on opening Caffè Lodi, an Italian-style café coming this fall to New York City’s Rockefeller Center.
“I’ve been a big fan of Italicus since it came out,” Swenson says. “I love the flavor of bergamot, and there wasn’t anything on the market like that.”
Most importantly in cocktail-making, she notes, the liqueur shows how complex bergamot can be and how well it works with so many other elements. “It has good structure and body, and the perfect amount of sweetness that pairs well with other ingredients, alcoholic and nonalcoholic,” she says, noting that it works not just as a modifier but also as a base. “It’s also really elegant and aromatic.”
Swenson’s lively Sunset Spritz is tinged with spicy Calabrian pepper—a shout-out to the Calabrian bergamot used in Italicus—and a piquant watermelon shrub, topped up with sparkling rosé. “I’m a big fan of both shrubs and watermelon,” she says, noting how vinegar-based shrubs tend to “lighten and brighten” the profiles of spritzes in particular. Further, the “bold but not overwhelming” flavors allow the nuanced citrus of Italicus to shine through.
This is just one of many spritz variations in Swenson’s arsenal: She has an all-spritz menu planned for Lodi’s opening.
“I want people to understand there’s a wide world of spritzes out there,” Swenson says. “We can take liberties within that category and be really creative within it. It doesn’t just have to be what people assume it to be.”