Is It Afternoon Yet? Meet Your Next Pre-Dinner Libation, The Café Cocktail

We may receive a commission on purchases made from links.

Jeffrey Morgenthaler is Food Republic's contributing cocktail editor and the author of the column Easy Drinking. He currently manages the bars Clyde Common and Pépé Le Moko in Portland, Oregon, and is the author of The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique.

I've had the good fortune to travel a lot throughout my life. I was raised by parents who instilled a deep love of getting to see the world, and my job certainly hasn't hindered that in the least. And, of course, I've gotten to learn a lot about the way people drink in other parts of the world beyond just the city where I tend bar. One style of drinking that I've always been enamored with is the European tradition of low-proof highballs in the afternoon. I've come to refer to them as café cocktails.

I think of the Americano as the prototypical café cocktail: Campari, sweet vermouth, and sparkling water on ice with a citrus garnish. Gary Regan, in his seminal work The Joy of Mixology, classifies the Americano as a Milanese cocktail, which applies to basically anything with Campari in it. But with respect and admiration to Gary, I'll stick to my own classification, as not only are there too many drinks that follow the rules of a café cocktail, but the Americano also gave birth to the Negroni, which I consider in another family altogether.


1.5 ounces Campari

1.5 ounces sweet vermouth

3 ounces sparkling water

1. Combine all ingredients in a tall ice-filled glass.

2. Garnish with an orange wedge or twist, as you prefer.

Looking at the Americano, I see three important elements that I consider the foundation for a café cocktail. First, there is a bitter component. Bitter is crucial for a preprandial libation, as it ostensibly prepares the stomach for digestion. Second, there is a wine component. Wine or fortified wine gives the drink body and provides rich flavor without a lot of alcohol. This is also important when taking one or two drinks in the afternoon, as a higher-proof cocktail defeats the point of something gentle to sip before dinner. And finally, there is a sparkling component. Carbonation is refreshing; it's pleasant on the tongue and in the stomach.

Legend tells us that the Italian count Camilo Negroni created the again-popular stiffer version of the Americano by requesting that his bartender swap out the soda water for gin. I'm wary of these simple origin stories, but until someone comes along to refute the claim, I'll accept it. But gin for soda isn't the sort of swap I'm interested in for this lineage of cocktails, because, remember, we're talking about low-proof ingredients here.

Another legend tells us of a drink that takes its name from the transportation preferred by little old Southern French and Italian men after an afternoon at the café, the Bicyclette (or Bicicleta, in Italy). And when you take a look at the recipe you'll see that it's little more than an Americano with the substitution of dry white wine for the sweet vermouth. The result is drier, crisper, and even more suitable for the height of summer than the Americano.


1.5 ounces Campari

1.5 ounces dry white wine

3 ounces sparkling water

1. Combine all ingredients in a ice-filled wine glass.

2. Garnish with an lemon twist.

Venturing a little further into Italy, one drink has emerged as the modern champion of café cocktails. Popularized, if not created, by the city of Venice is the Aperol spritz. And while my detractors might argue that the Aperol spritz belongs in some sort of meaningless catch-all category called spritzers, I contest that the Aperol spritz is a café cocktail of the highest pedigree. Comprised of the orange and rhubarb liqueur Aperol (the bitter component), sparkling water (obviously) and prosecco (the wine component), the Aperol spritz has taken on a life of its own in recent years as Aperol has become more readily available outside of Italy.

Aperol Spritz

1.5 ounces sparkling water

1.5 ounces prosecco

3 ounces Aperol

1. Combine all ingredients in a tall ice-filled glass.

2. Garnish with an orange wedge or twist, as you prefer.

The great thing about a café cocktail is its versatility. Try experimenting with sparkling flavored sodas, other bitter liqueurs and wine components within this basic framework and see for yourself just how great summer can be with a café cocktail in hand.