How Britain killed the Aperol spritz

What was originally an affordable, social occasion has become a London status symbol—and ordinary Italians are paying the price

August 05, 2019
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Since arriving in a small town near Venice five years ago, there is one part of my daily routine that hasn’t changed. As the heat of a summer day begins to abate around 7pm, I sit outside my local bar in the piazza with a tumbler of bright orange spritz and a plate of pre-dinner snacks selected from the free buffet, meeting friends or simply enjoying the convivial atmosphere.

It is what most travellers expect to find when they visit nearby Venice, but ironically the new-found international love of Aperol spritz has meant this genuine social moment with cheap drinks and free food has almost all but disappeared from the city.

A combination of Aperol, prosecco and soda water, the spritz is a long-established drink in Italy—water and wine has been a combination popular since Roman times, and the 1920s saw a nationalist call for the production of Italian-made bitters like Aperol, Campari, and Venetian Select to be added to the combination. In the north of Italy, a spritz of any kind is one of the most ordinary, ubiquitous drinks, aligned with no particular age group, class, social status or trend.

In London, however, it’s fashionable bars that now all seem to offer the orange nectar or some kind of spin-off. The Aperol spritz has shown itself to be the ideal product for commodification and consumption by the new millennial ‘hipster’ generation, a group which Elias le Grand, senior lecturer at Stockholm University, defines as “engaged in a particular set of reflexive and trendy consumption practices, often performed in gentrified urban spaces and linked to the creative industries.”

Playing on the predictability of such ‘hipster’ tastes, Campari mostly bypassed traditional marketing techniques and focused on social media-friendly events and pop-up bars. Last year, trendy Shoreditch was home to the Aperol Spritz Social, where guests could row down a lurid orange canal, sit on a carousel of stools mimicking the back half of a Vespa, and drink beneath glaring neon lights forming a giant spritz glass.

Other bars around the UK have hosted their own Spritz Socials, decking out their interiors in Campari’s standard strident orange merchandise like an outdoor bar with fake orange shutters attached to each side, an orange Vespa, or a cardboard cut-out version, equipped with matching helmets ready for the perfect “it-could-be-Italy” shot, and a plentiful supply of garish Aperol-branded accessories, from flip flops to sunglasses, to pepper Instagram photos.

The Aperol spritz is photogenic, foreign without being too exotic, and caters to the desire for ostentatious public consumption. As Guardian writer Padraig Reidy comments, “what’s 'hip' these days ... is entirely an issue of conspicuous consumption in the most literal form—eating on the street.” A British friend visiting me recently commented that my prolific spritz-drinking in Italy was unabashedly “middle-class.”

It is this elevation of the spritz to the latest middle-class symbol of sophistication—and the assumption that it holds a similarly bourgeois status in Italy—that is now causing problems. The bright Aperol spritz lends itself perfectly to aesthetic consumption when drunk on a sunny canalside in Venice, smartphone at the ready.

The international Aperol spritz of today, however, bears little resemblance to the original Italian versions. Few British drinkers may know that the spritz is typically served in a water-glass style tumbler in Italy, not in a wine glass—and certainly not in a jam jar. The spritz has been ‘repackaged’ to suit the young British and American middle classes. Indeed, the New York Times recently published attention-grabbing article ‘The Aperol Spritz is Not a Good Drink,’ in which writer Rebekah Peppler defines the Aperol spritz as:

“Served in branded, jumbo wine glasses, the sugary apéritif is paired with low-quality prosecco, soda water and an outsize orange slice, resulting in something that drinks like a Capri Sun after soccer practice on a hot day.”

While intending to refer to the Italian product, Peppler has inadvertently betrayed that her knowledge is only of the repackaged version marketed and aimed at a foreign audience—hence the large, branded, Instagram-friendly wine glasses. Although done unintentionally, she is quite right to criticise this ‘spritz,’ which has been alienated from its unassuming origins.

As this warped image of Spritz and aperitivo drinking has spread abroad, it has begun to have a reflexive influence on Italy’s market, too. Tourists arrive in the country with an expectation, a fantasy image they expect to be fulfilled, and savvy bars are catching on to the commercial opportunity and restyling themselves to resemble those of America and Britain. The aperitivo in Italy is a social ritual that is played out in communal spaces like bars and squares during which one interacts with friends, acquaintances, and bar workers. However, in the touristy city of Venice, the popularity of Spritz and aperitivo, and their international reinterpretation, is alienating locals from their social spaces.

This takeover of spaces which were once the domain of locals and residents is due in part to overcrowding by tourists living out their dolce vita fantasy till late at night. Furthermore, the popularity of these spaces with tourists has inspired bars to alter their aesthetic to cater to social media friendly millennial tastes, instilling with it a greater selectivity of clientele. Previously, these bars were typically dim, with dark wood and an eclectic mix of wall decorations, and welcomed customers from families to overall-clad workers.

Refurbishments, however, generate a bland, comfortable look creating—“[s]paces which are dully sanitized of any edge and rendered un-intimidating enough for the middle classes to inhabit”—while excluding a bracket of local clientele, who struggle to pay the rising costs prompted by tourists willing to pay British prices for their Aperol fix.

The adaption of the spritz and, in turn, bars and social spaces, is just one example of a larger issue of cultural appropriation and tourism gentrification in over-visited cities such as Venice. Rather than attempting to experience other cultures as they exist, there is a desire to find a preconceived version that doesn’t deviate from an aesthetically driven fantasy of foreign travel motivated significantly by representation on social media.

While spritz-drinking may seem a harmless, genteel pursuit, the gentrification of the drink and the spaces where it is consumed in Venice is yet another step towards a city owned by tourists rather than by the dwindling resident population. Perhaps we'd better be thanking Peppler's criticism of the spritz in the New York Times if it helps move millennials on to their next middle-class mania.