Italy is one country where sparkling wine cocktails are part of everyday life. Go into any Italian bar during happy hour and you’ll find a big bucket full of chilling bottles of prosecco, a rail full of Aperol, Campari, and vermouth, and bartenders churning out a steady stream of spritzes.
Here, I offer recipes for the Holy Trinity of Italian sparkling cocktails: Aperol Spritz, Negroni Sbagliato, and Bellini — though my Bellini is a little boozier than one you’ll get at a tourist trap in Venice.
Prosecco, of course, has become very popular in the U.S. But to be honest, we get a lot of bad prosecco over here. I think that’s because most of the stuff we see in stores is cheap, and many of us have convinced ourselves that $11 is a fair price to pay for prosecco. Bad prosecco can be cloying or have a really off-putting muskiness. Good prosecco is the opposite, with a crisp tartness, notes of apple or pear, and some minerality. I always advise people to look for prosecco from the Conegliano-Valdobbiadene DOCG. Yes, it’s a tongue-twister (say Conegliano-Valdobbiadene fives times fast). But if you buck up to around $15-18, you’ll be happy you did.
Moving from the traditional prosecco cocktails, I’ll make a sharp left turn, and end on a couple of drinks made with lambrusco. Yes, I know, you remember the sweet Riunite and its cheesy old television ads from 1980s. But I’m talking about good lambrusco here. The good stuff is produced in low-yield vineyards, with an attention to winemaking, in Emilia-Romagna, near the city of Modena. Good lambrusco is actually dry, fizzy, and surprisingly complex. Slightly chilled, it’s fruity, with tangy, lively acidity, but good lambrusco will also have a bit of earthiness and a bit of muscle, and will be “rustic” in the best sense of the word.
News flash to adventurous bartenders: Lambrusco is an untapped cocktail ingredient.
Perhaps the most popular happy hour cocktail in Italy, this mix of low-proof aperitivo and prosecco is light and perfect before a big meal. Bright-orange Aperol is sort of like Campari’s hot younger sister. Brut prosecco is usually too dry for cocktails, so always use extra-dry prosecco instead.
- 1½ ounces Aperol
- 2 ounces prosecco
- Splash club soda
- Slice of orange
Fill an old-fashioned or rocks glass with ice. Add the Aperol, then the prosecco. Top with the club soda and garnish with the orange slice.
A classic Negroni variation that calls for prosecco or asti spumante instead of gin. Sbagliato means “wrong” or “mistaken,” as in, “I screwed up and mistakenly put sparkling wine in this Negroni instead of gin.” Again, use extra-dry prosecco rather than brut.
- Ice cubes
- 1½ ounce Campari
- 1½ ounce sweet vermouth
- 3 ounces prosecco
- Orange wedge
Fill an old-fashioned glass with ice cubes. Add the vermouth and Campari, then top with the prosecco. Stir to combine. Garnish with the slice of orange.
The Gentleman’s Bellini
I’ve always disliked the classic Bellini. This Bellini has been re-engineered with 80-proof peach brandy that retains the peach flavors and aromas, but still deliver a true cocktail kick. Real peach brandy is nothing like the peach schnapps you used to pour in your old Fuzzy Navels or Red-Headed Slut. Peach Street Distillers in Colorado makes the gold standard.
- 1½ ounces peach brandy, preferably Peach Street Distillers
- 1 dash orange bitters
- 4 ounces extra dry prosecco
- Orange peel twist
Fill a shaker halfway with ice. Add peach brandy and bitters. Shake well. Strain into flute, then top with prosecco. Garnish with orange peel twist.
Lambrusco Rosemary Fizz
Originally created as a pretty wedding cocktail by Natalie Bovis in her 2010 book The Bubbly Bride, this also feels like a perfect Valentine’s Day drink. This tipple, however, has many more applications — not least of which is as another replacement for the dreaded mimosa at brunch. Be sure to “slap” the rosemary before garnishing to release aromas.
- 2 sprigs of rosemary (about 2 inches each)
- ½ ounce freshly squeezed orange juice
- ¾ ounce Grand Marnier
- 4 ounces lambrusco (see headnote)
In a shaker, muddle one sprig of rosemary. Add orange juice and Grand Marnier, then add ice, and shake well. Double strain into Champagne coupe. Top with lambrusco. Garnish with sprig of rosemary.
Adapted from Natalie Bovis of TheLiquidMuse.com
Fickt Nicht Mit Dem Raketemensch
And now for something completely different. Bourbon, walnut liqueur, strawberry jam, and bitters? Plus a balsamic gastrique? Topped with lambrusco? Trust me: Just taste it. The name comes from a line in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow: “Don’t fuck with the rocketman.” Enough said. A postmodern cocktail from one of my favorite bartenders.
- 2 ounces bourbon
- ½ ounce walnut liqueur, preferably Nux Alpina
- ½ ounce balsamic gastrique (see below)
- 1 heaping barspoon strawberry preserves
- 2 dashes Angostura bitters
- Ice cubes
- Long orange peel
Fill a shaker with ice. Add bourbon, walnut liqueur, gastrique, preserves, and bitters. Shake well, then double strain into ice-cube-filled Collins glass. Top with lambrusco. Garnish with orange peel.
To make balsamic gastrique: In a small saucepan, dissolve ½ cup sugar in 2 tablespoons of water. Pour in 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar and simmer until slightly reduced. Let cool before using.
From Phoebe Esmon of Emmanuelle in Philadelphia