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Milan Cocktails Merge Past, Present & Future

Once the center of Italy’s industrial revolution and long considered a hub for global design, Milan also has a rich drinks history. Recognized as the birthplace of the aperitivo, the Northern Italian city is also known for iconic drinks like the Negroni Sbagliato and Milano-Torino, and today, Milan’s bartenders are merging that history with a modern style to form a forward-thinking cocktail scene. “Milan’s link with fashion and design has allowed the cocktail scene to develop a lot in a very short time,” says Iter bar manager Nicola Scarnera, who moved to the city five years ago. “The average bar level is very high, so it’s not rare to drink very well, even in little-known bars.”

Milan’s cocktail story stretches back to the early 1900s, when the city was a center for the social movement known as Italian Futurism, when artists (most notably F.T. Marinetti) expanded the use of the country’s iconic bitters and liqueurs to include mixed drinks. Futurist cocktails, called Polibibite, were fiercely Italian, featuring native ingredients like amari, vermouth, grappa and limoncello. Few of these cocktail recipes stood the test of time,  but they did set an early tone for Milan’s modern cocktail approach.

Milan’s aperitivo culture is alive and well in areas like the Navigli, a charmingly bohemian neighborhood highlighted by a series of interconnected canals, where locals flock to open-air patios for Negronis and Spritzes. But today’s bartenders aren’t restricted by the same rules and philosophies as the Futurists. Many also embrace globally inspired techniques and ingredients.

Creative cocktail menus can be found at places like Backdoor 43, a tiny bar (about four people can fit inside) where the bartender mixes drinks in a V for Vendetta-style mask, or at nearby Mag Café where it’s not unusual to find ingredients like rhum agricole sharing billing with Italian-made Cynar. In the Road to Maluku cocktail, vodka meets coffee, garam masala and tea bitters. Nearby, at the chic Rita & Cocktails, an impressive number of contemporary Negroni variations supplements a menu with intriguing cocktails such as Fermento, which combines Zubrowka vodka, Fernet-Branca, allspice, lemon, honey, Laphroaig and sage.

aperitivo with the seasons
The Americano at Iter blends Amaro Lucano with Chinato.

One of the best examples of the local-meets-global sensibility can be found at Iter, an airy aperitivo bar that also calls the Navigli home. With the tagline, “From Italy to the World,” the menu and interiors rotate through a new theme every six months based on the staff’s interpretation of an international R&D trip taken twice a year. “Italy gives us the possibility to have a great variety of spirits and liqueurs, digestives and wines to be used in drinks,” says Scarnera. “Each of our cocktail lists emphasize this variety and show that our culture is not only traditional and conservative, but also suitable to be mixed with those of the whole world.”

In drinks like the Aperitivo del Nonno and Lucano #2, Scarnera reimagines the standard spritz with local amaro, while cocktails from a recent Panama-inspired menu blend cultures: The Fresa mixes Aperitivo del Professore with rosé, strawberry and papaya, and the So Sorrel blends Italy’s Carpano Antica with hibiscus and 12-year-old Panama rum. “We are a bar that breaks down every barrier. In Italian we say: Il mondo è bello perché è vario—the world is beautiful because it is varied.”

Outside of Navigli, Octavius at the Stage Milano greets guests with a glowing, warm interior that feels like the hearth of a wood-paneled steamliner cabin. Steady-handed bartenders pour pitch-perfect Martinis from bottles stored in the fridge to achieve maximum chill, and a 900+ bottle backbar delivers everything from the newest local distillate to vintage bottles of Scotch and rhum.

Milan has also emerged as a hub for experimental and molecular mixology, thanks to places like Nottingham Forest, where flashy techniques thrill guests in a space filled with eclectic antiques and treasures. TALEA and Surfer’s Den take a similar approach, and at the invite-only 1930 bar (part of the same  group that manages Iter and Mag Café) progressive bartending techniques meet a speakeasy-style environment. 1930 is a standout for Canadian expat, journalist and blogger Shane Eaton. “As you enter, it’s as if you’re being swept back in time, to an elegant piano bar during Prohibition,” he says. “Although the atmosphere is vintage, the drinks are anything but—Marco Russo, Benjamin Cavagna and Gabriele Calise use the latest mixology toys to prepare stunning original creations. Although Milano’s drinking culture is rooted in history, the city leads Italy in terms of innovation.”

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