Viral cocktails are supposed to follow certain rules. They should be bright, like the Aperol Spritz—drink of the summer of 2018—which is a glowing neon orange. They should be loud, visually not just distinctive but arresting. Take the Espresso Martini, for example. You could not miss it in photographs. You could not miss it in real life. Espresso Martinis were everywhere as pandemic restrictions began to lift, dark and brooding and extremely recognizable, a paean to ’90s-era excess. Following suit, last year was the summer of the coquettish Dirty Shirley. It, too, was instantly identifiable: If the color didn’t tip you off, the technicolor cherries would.
Then came the Hugo Spritz. These days, the mix of elderflower liqueur, prosecco and club soda over ice in a wine glass is many things, but it is not brightly colored. (It is the color of prosecco.) It is not terribly nostalgic. (The drink’s Northern Italian lineage goes back to… 2005.) It is a somewhat obscure regional beverage that, while certainly appealing, does not seem especially well-suited to viral fame. And yet here we are: The Hugo Spritz has been dubiously crowned “drink of summer” 2023.
If every era gets the cocktail it deserves, then this is ours: light, low-alcohol, and… a little boring? Compared to previous Drinks of the Summer, the Hugo is downright unassuming. “They kind of look watery, right?” says Michael McCaulley, beverage director at the Philadelphia-based Schulson Collective restaurant group. And yet this is perhaps a strength. “Aperol spritzes and Espresso Martinis have gotten so popular and so recognizable that I think people love to hate them a little bit,” argues Sarah Louise Rhodes, creator of The Spritz Effect, whereas the Hugo is “a little more under the radar.” It is not simple, but rather tossed-off, effortless, un-made-up and freshly showered—the opposite, in some ways, of its louder summer siblings.
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Delivered in its ice-heaped wine glass, the Hugo is intriguing, in its understated way, says Michael Beck, beverage director at Manhattan’s Union Square Cafe: “It does have the potential to be that thing where, when someone orders it, and you walk it through the room, three more people are gonna say, ‘Hey, can we get that?’”
Indeed we can. Bolstered by the internet, the Hugo Spritz is showing up on more and more menus, although nobody I spoke with could trace the current enthusiasm to a single catalytic event. It does not seem to stem from a single bar or TikTok video; even the brand behind what has become the flagship ingredient doesn’t seem solely responsible. Julian Arreola, the Northern California brand ambassador for St-Germain, told me that the company hadn’t been doing anything outside of normal operations. “It was totally organic,” he says. “Obviously, we all have an influence, as ambassadors, in leading trends, but this was something more powerful than any individual.”
It was TikTok. It was timing. It was the eternal allure of Italian summers. Now more than ever, McCaulley points out, low-ABV cocktails are in, especially among younger consumers. It was the resurgence of travel. At Il Canale in Washington, D.C., regulars returning from Italian vacations began requesting the Hugo last summer, recalls Alessandro Farruggio, the general manager there; this summer, it hit the official menu. It was, perhaps, the heat. “Guests in general are trying to move away from dense beverages,” says Christian Clarke, beverage director at Bacetti Trattoria and Tilda Wine Bar in Los Angeles, who serves a Hugo Ibisco—a hibiscus-spiked Hugo riff. “I would say it’s the weather.”
It was a logical succession. After five years of Aperol, drinkers—now sold on spritzes—were thirsty for other options, and the Hugo is even easier to like. “There’s no barrier to entry with this drink,” says Andy Wright, beverage director at Reveler’s Hour in D.C., who added it to the menu this June, in response to the number of customer requests. “It’s kind of like a beach book. It’s just effortlessly enjoyable.”