On a recent afternoon in early August, I was in Raleigh, N.C., where it was hotter than hell and half of Georgia with humidity of roughly 1,000 percent. “Do you want a glass of white wine?” my friend asked. “Sure,” I moaned, “but put some ice cubes in it.”
No matter that this was an interesting, naturally made Grüner Veltliner. It was simply too damn hot not to drink it on the rocks, just as it was too damn hot to walk very far or wear much in the way of “pants.” And let me tell you, that condensation-beaded spritz sure hit the spot.
That’s right, I called white wine on ice a spritz.
I’m technically not wrong. The name “spritz” — now a catchall for Italian wine-based cocktails incorporating Prosecco, digestive bitters, and soda water — purportedly traces back to the 1800s when portions of northern Italy’s Veneto region were controlled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Soldiers and visitors from other parts of the empire who found Italian wines too strong were said to have lightened them with a splash (or “spritz” in German) of water.
Of course, the spritz eventually traded flat water for pricklier soda and bubbly wine, and supplemented its base with fortified wine and liqueur — most famously Aperol, which lends sweet, rhubarby notes and stains the drink the color of golden hour on an Italian piazza. The drink even adopted its own official formula: three parts sparkling, two parts bitters, one part soda. However, none of this fancy evolution changes the fact that its origins live squarely in the realm of “f*ck it, water it down.”
“No, no, in France it’s called a piscine, ‘swimming pool,’” Robert Cervantes says of my iced-down wine “spritz.” He’s a sommelier and the owner of Apero, a little wine bar that recently opened near my house in Chicago’s North Center. “In summer you drink these huge goblets of rosé heaped with tons of ice.”
Indeed, the sentiment is more or less the same, he says. “You’re already sweating, why drink something so boozy? If you’re schvitzing, have a spritz.” Or a piscine.
A Spritz Contains Multitudes, None of Which Give a Damn
I wasn’t much of an Aperol Spritz drinker until recently, finding the titular build a little syrupy for my liking. Then in 2019 a certain food writer named Rebekah Pepplar broke the internet for a whole summer by deeming the Aperol Spritz “not a good drink” in a “New York Times” piece. She reasoned that it’s overly cloying, owing to its makeup of cheap Prosecco and, essentially, basic-bitch aperitivo. Not long thereafter, some friends and I went out for a round of Aperol Spritzes in explicit rejection of said hot take. One round quickly turned into four, and with that our goading toasts to the spritz grew louder and more — ahem — spirited. Ultimately this middle finger to the takedown proved the catalyst for my exploration of this low-ABV, devil-may-care cocktail category.
On occasion I’ll follow the script and make an Aperol Spritz, though I’m more apt to swap in drier Cava or Champagne and Campari because I like the latter’s more pronounced bitterness. Luckily, a spritz doesn’t care if we make substitutions like, say, a shot of Lillet Blanc, amaro, grappa or red vermouth, or even the last few sips of a bottle of white or red wine, if that’s all we have. I imagine it would applaud us for being resourceful. In any case, its “f*ck it” origins explicitly forbid it to shame such doctoring.
In fact, if a spritz were a person, I’d probably tell it about the tendency we have in my family to accidentally top off someone’s wine with a different wine, which we’ve taken to calling a Florida Blend. Unfortunately, these “experiments” almost never taste good. Maybe they just need a couple ice cubes or a splash of soda water.
“I haven’t been to every town in Spain or Italy or southern France; I don’t know how they drink their aperitifs. I’m not a master at that, but I am a master at curiosity. Let’s keep innovating and enjoying the way we drink.”
As much as a spritz signifies going pants-less and icing down wine with abandon, it can also be — as Peppler intimated — the sole drinking reason to leave the house on the stickiest days that feel like we’re trudging through clam chowder with the weight of the world on our shoulders. We will be rewarded at the trek’s end with a refreshing cocktail that seems to signal, nay demand, being leisurely, like putting on flowy white linens.
The right sort of spritz can crack the firmament open in a small way, as Apero’s do. Cervantes builds them around aperitifs out of the ordinary, like Misoo Aperitivo, an American Campari alternative that’s bitter yet round and herbaceous with thyme and lime leaf notes; and citrusy, peppery, biting Mommenpop Blood Orange liqueur. He garnishes them with fat lime wedges, a small yet bold choice that hits your senses like a red-nailed middle finger. The results are beguiling and bittersweet, quenching and inarguably sexy. As they dilute, I start discovering each unique flavor note. They’re still f*ck it drinks, but all dressed up, like when I wear my favorite, cartoonishly oversized suit on a night out.
All this might suggest that I agree with Peppler’s initial dismantling, which rightly called out Aperol’s comparative lack of complexity as an aperitivo and the cloying nature of what she dubbed “garbage bubbles,” comparing the end result to a Capri Sun. (For the record, I find those delicious.) I understand the argument’s basis as a plea to make spritzes with “good” ingredients. And yet the watering-down part is where the spritz effectively shields itself from takedowns dispensed from on high.
In the case of Aperol, whose flavors I like but find a bit sweet, my fondness for it increases as it dilutes, and even more when I accompany it with Lay’s potato chips and a few briny green olives. In the case of an interesting, fruit-forward wine, a vegetal amaro or clovey, zesty red vermouth, I find I’m able to decipher and appreciate its individual flavors better when I drink it on the rocks or with seltzer. This likewise makes it a fine gateway drink for those who’ve historically shied away from bitter or quinine flavors.
“I haven’t been to every town in Spain or Italy or southern France; I don’t know how they drink their aperitifs,” Cervantes says. “I’m not a master at that, but I am a master at curiosity. Let’s keep innovating and enjoying the way we drink. There’s no one way.”
A spritz can and should contain multitudes, much like a person. Sometimes it wants to dress in its weirdest and finest, beguiling all who cross its path; but because it lives in the hottest, muggiest time of year, it more often can’t be bothered to care. And what kind of f*ck it drink would it be if it did?