Aperitivo Bitters: Spirit of the spritz

Aperitivo bitters have seen a surge in popularity in recent years. Philip Duff examines the factors that have led to this rejuvenation


THE BIGGEST SETBACK for aperitivo bitters isn’t sales – those are surging – but in defining exactly what an aperitif bitter is. We all know that an aperitif is a light, pre-dinner drink and could include wine and aromatised or fortified wines, such as vermouth and sherry. Bitters are easy too – they taste, well, bitter. But where to draw the line between an aperitivo and a bitter? Or indeed, between a bitter and an amaro? There is many an amaro that qualifies as a bitter, and vice-versa. Life, as the Dutch phrase goes, is too short to bang ants. If it’s principally consumed in lower-alcohol and pre-dinner drinks, is less than 40% abv, somewhat bitter and the producer wants to call it something along the lines of ‘aperitivo’ or ‘bitter’, let’s call it an aperitivo bitter. And let’s take a look.

Campari bestrides the aperitivo bitters world like a colossus, clocking in with 4% annual growth in the 2018 Millionaire’s List to finish at 3.4m 9-litre cases. A mega-brand practically since its foundation in 1860, an impressive ad campaign and the continuing cocktail trend keep Campari front and centre on every bar’s order list. The year-on-year growth of Negroni Week must be cranking the production facilities in Italy, Switzerland, Brazil and France into overdrive. Indeed, while in most countries the Campari label describes itself as ‘Campari bitter’, the US label has the words ‘Campari aperitivo’ instead. Whatever it says on the label, it’s doing something right. A recent Shanken News report put Campari in the US at 120,000 9-litre cases, making the US the number two market by value in the world.

Vice president trade marketing at Campari America Steve Chasen confirmed that Campari is seeing massive growth in dozens of markets around the US, driven by both the Negroni, its offshoot the Boulevardier (which Campari recommends be made with its stablemate Russell’s Reserve whiskey), and the Americano, one of the poster-children for the booming low-alcohol cocktail segment. Crucially, Campari is growing in inland American cities too, not just the coastal cities where la dolce vita is less of a cultural stretch.

There’s another aperitivo quill to Campari Group’s bow too – Aperol. If Campari is flying high, Aperol is at Mach 2. The brand, born in Italy in 1919, jumped 18% in 2018 to hit 4m cases globally on the back of a Spritz trend that shows not a sign of stopping. The vertical rise of Aperol has tempted other Italian brands to stake a claim – Gruppo Montenegro recently relaunched the Venetian aperitivo Select, with a heritage dating to 1920 and which claims to be the mainstay of the original Venetian Spritz, arguably the first Spritz to contain an aperitivo bitter of any kind.

Director of international markets for Gruppo Montenegro Francesco Scaglione is buoyant about the prospects for the brand: “Rejuvenating Select has been incredibly timely. [Select Aperitivo] has everything ined up to benefit from a category that is only just beginning to make its way to the awareness of the masses.”