Add a splash of glamour to your life
Here's the perfect little something to take the edge off life’s petty frustrations
Saturday 03 July 2021
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Rituals are important even when we don’t really notice them. As we emerge blinking from our workday toil each afternoon we need something to ease us into leisure-mode. For the unlucky it’s a grinding commute; for homeworkers, something less defined. A spell of drifting around the house perhaps, to stare briefly into each room for no particular reason.
Neither option draws the cordon sanitaire we crave between work and play. For this we need something better. Booze, my friends. It’s booze. Wine or beer o’clock isn’t just hidden middle class alcoholism, it’s an important psychological buffer.
But Anthony, you wail, I’m trying to drink less during the week! Never fear. I have the answer. Spritzes are your lower-ABV choice with a bitter edge, the perfect little something to take the edge off life’s petty frustrations.
Richard Beatty makes a reasonably strong claim to have (re)introduced the spritz to the UK. “It’s ubiquitous now but everyone’s probably forgotten how it all started,” he says.
Richard is the co-founder of Polpo, a small-dish restaurant based on Venetian bàcaros, that he owns together with his wife Florence Knight. Spritzes were “the first thing on the menu, the first day we opened,” he tells me.
That was back in 2009, and the drink’s image had for some time been rather tattered and tired. It was a naff 80s throwback to faddy diets, lycra and leg warmers. It was a white wine spritzer — implication: a drink for wimps — that briefly turned Ned Flanders into a Las Vegas bigamist.
Old-school spritzers were a simple mix of wine and soda water. This mirrors the drink’s supposed origin story of Austro–Hungarian soldiers watering down German wine in Italian port-towns, but lacks one crucial element that elevates the modern spritz.
Richard introduced classic northern Italian recipes that included the liqueurs, or amari, that are the bitter beating heart of the modern drink. Aperol and Campari add a splash of la dolce vita that deepens and rounds out the flavour profile.
In northern Italy spritzes are served with cicheti, light dishes a bit like Italian tapas. They’re a drink that won’t drag like an alcoholic anchor when you move on to the rest of your evening.
They are emblematic of a more laid back approach to drinking that was just right for the UK at a time when we were beginning to shake off the laddish excess of the late 90s and early 2000s.
“It’s a much more sophisticated palate we have in the UK now,” Richard says. “There’s been a sea change in our attitude to alcohol in general. Young people drink an awful lot less and they’re much more interested in a breadth of experience rather than getting drunk.”
Making a lighter choice
It was a case of the right drink, the right place and the right time. “Some years later we were invited to an event at the Italian embassy with the head of Campari Global,” Richard says. “He said we sold more Campari and Aperol in Polpo in Soho than any other establishment outside Italy, for some years in a row.”
Richard sticks to classic spritz recipes at Polpo. “I’m quite conservative in that respect,” he tells me. But even here there are options to play with. “Two years ago we developed our own mix for spritz, called Nostrano, which was designed as a digestive but works really well [in a spritz].”
Old-school spritzers were a simple mix of wine and soda water
The Nostrano Spritz is woody, herbal and light, with a slightly vegetal bitterness that stands up but doesn’t shout. It hits up front then quickly softens and broadens out. Served in a tumbler over ice rather than up in stemmed glass, it feels casual yet elegant.
He also serves a non-alcoholic spritz made with Crodino. Polpo has been selling this Italian soft drink for years, and it recently began to make its way into some UK supermarkets. Its flavour sits somewhere between Irn Bru (but not as sweet) and Fever Tree cucumber tonic water. (Crodino contains quinine.) It is dry, light, and gently bitter but only just.
Have it your own way
Spritzes are easy to make. They don’t call for shakers or muddlers or any of that faff. They barely require measuring. The name spritz comes from the German verb spritzen meaning to splash. That’s a good way of approaching it: plunk some ice into a glass, add a splash of this, a splash of that… As long as all the elements are in roughly the right proportion you’re good to go.
They’re also very forgiving when it comes to experimentation. The classic recipe for a Venetian (a.k.a. Aperol) Spritz is bitter liqueur, soda water and Prosecco in a 1:1:2 ratio served over ice and garnished with an olive and a half slice of orange. But it doesn’t have to be Aperol. You could try Contratto Americano, which is also orange like Aperol, but brandy-based, bittersweet and herbaceous; or Cappelletti Aperitivo Americano, which behaves like a mix of red bitter and sweet vermouth all in one. You can make your changes more incremental by splitting the Aperol fifty-fifty with something else. Cutting it with Campari adds a ghost’s breath of bitterness and wraithlike herbal flavours.
I’m a big Campari fan so I like Americanos. These are equal parts (30 ml each) of Campari, sweet Vermouth and soda water. It’s basically a Negroni made with soda water in place of the gin. If you keep the Campari and soda on a lock, you’re free to play about with the sweet vermouth. Martini Rosso is a good starting point. It’s balanced and works well. Punt e Mes amps up the dark, woody bitterness. Carpano Antico Formula softens it somewhat and rounds it out with rich vanilla.
The name spritz comes from the German verb spritzen meaning to splash
You can also swap out the water instead. There’s a version called the Americano Perfecto which uses a dash of pilsner in its place. This is just one beery step away from a Negroni Sbagliatto, in which the pilsner (or gin, if you’re coming from the other way round) turns into Prosecco. You can also use tonic water to provide the necessary bubbles, but keep in mind that many commercial examples — I’m looking at you, Schweppes — can be rather sweet and overpowering. In which case just use less or opt for a drier tonic, such as Fever Tree.
Stopping for pleasure
Just like these drinks, we are not any one thing. We are different versions of ourselves at different times. I quite like the version of myself that drinks spritzes. I feel a little bit more stylish and continental. Like the sort of chap who one day might find himself purring along a Venetian canal in a walnut-trimmed speedboat.
If the past eighteen months or so have taught us anything it’s that you must take your pleasure where you can. At the end of another working day, as we shift between what we have to do and what we want to, these drinks are a nice reminder that life can be a little better. This is the power of rituals and the role a drink can play in them.
Cover photo: Olena Sergienko
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