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In Venice, sampling a cocktail revolution

Drinking up the great Italian city's past and present.

There's a three-way intersection about a 20-minute walk from St. Mark's Basilica. It's somewhere between two canals. (Everything in Venice is between two canals.) There, you'll find a small grocer and a couple of bacari, the wine-and-small-bites joints that are the Venetian answer to pubs. Aside from an internet cafe nearby, they're all old-fashioned businesses with modern storefronts in weathered buildings that look like they've been around since the fall of the Republic of Venice in 1797.

But on a chilly afternoon last winter, my attention was drawn to one wide window that looks in on a cozy, sepia-toned bar with nary a wine bottle in sight.

The Time Social Bar was just opening for the evening when I wandered in. The bartender handed me the cocktail menu, an enticing mix of classic recipes, creative inventions, and decidedly Italian-accented versions of familiar drinks. The house Sazerac, for one, substitutes Sambuca for the absinthe  used as a rinse.

The bartender, Eleonora Contessi, had only recently started on the bar after helming the morning coffee shift. As she mixed my drink, she told me  she'd come to Venice after high school in 2012 to study economics and Japanese. After she got her degree, she waitressed at the Hard Rock Cafe in the city center, where she worked with Alessandro Beggio, who opened Time in 2016. With the cocktail wave cresting in other parts of the world, she saw an opportunity to be part of Venice's impending cocktail renaissance.

"Venice has always had grand hotels — legendary ones like Metropole and Danieli — and they all served cocktails in their bars, but more recently, for a long time, people perceived cocktails as something for a disco bar," she told me. "We've also always been famous for wine and wine bars, so maybe that's why the cocktails scene isn't so developed. But that's changing." And with that, she suggested I try the Pear Cheers, a vodka drink with pears and honey shaken with, of all things, ricotta cheese, which is strained out. It was a beguiling balance of rustic flavors with just a whisper of sweet cream. Changing times, indeed.

Venice's imbibing history is long and wonderful. Caffe Florian, an elegant institution that opened on the main square in 1720, is said to be the oldest cafe in Italy. The majestic hotel bars that Contessi named, the epitome of antique grandeur, are the stuff of fairy tales.

The fabled Harry's Bar is an anomaly for not being in a hotel, but it's the most celebrated bar of all, as it lays claim to Venice's most famous drink, the Bellini. The city has been upping its cocktail game lately, but a trip to Venice without visiting Harry's is simply out of the question. Yes, it's part of the mighty Cipriani empire, which is synonymous with extravagant Italian restaurants in New York, Hong Kong, and elsewhere, but Harry's Bar is far more famous for its celebrity habitués (Hemingway wrote about drinking there) and small dishes of giant complimentary olives, and bartenders who wear crisp, white jackets, barely smile, and serve martinis in undersized glasses. I found the room quite drab and the food and drink an exercise in price-gouging, but the stories of times past were captivating. Lauren Bacall, Orson Welles, and Truman Capote drank there — and legends die hard.

If Harry's calls Venice's recent past to mind, Il Mercante di Venezia offers a very modern narrative of ancient history. The bi-level bar, which opened in 2016, is retrofitted into a splendid, historical cafe. There's a marble bar by the entrance, but my friends and I opted to kick back upstairs on comfy couches. The menu features an illustrated Silk Road map and, collectively, the drinks chronicle Venetian traveler Marco Polo's stops along the route.

Those cocktails are as exotic as I imagine his journey east was. Spices and herbs are featured prominently: Valerian and chamomile syrup elevate a cognac drink; a calvados cocktail (dubbed A Tea with the Khan) involves pink-pepper-infused vermouth and matcha tea. My cognac-based Down in the Forest, which included a mushroom tincture — among other eccentricities — was served in a triangular glass nestled in a small globe filled with colorful bits of vegetation, terrarium-style.

"It describes a moment when Marco Polo went to the Khan gardens, where a collection of the most beautiful trees from all over the realm was moved to," said Alessandro Zampieri, a bartender and one of the owners. "Walking through this forest, a swarm of bees stung him and he fainted, falling on the ground. Luckily, the ground was covered by moss."

But before we got to those baroque productions, there was the aperitif menu, highly wrought reimaginings of the straightforward spritzes that are ubiquitous throughout the city.

Enhanced spritzes are one of the draws at Osteria all'Alba, which gives off a punk-rock attitude. The walls are festooned with vinyl and graffiti in 12 languages, or so they say. Patrons stand around watching football or a DJ. We ordered a few appetizers and a round of the house specialty (the Mi To — Campari and soda bulked up with Punt e Mes). Being a Friday at a joint that was far off the tourist-worn path, we watched the locals loiter. It's the kind of place that makes anyone feel like a local, though.

On the last night of my stay, I had old-world intentions.  I made my way to the Gritti Palace on the Grand Canal. Once the residence of the city's chief magistrate, it's now an opulent hotel that underwent a $37 million renovation in 2013. Its Bar Longhi has an aristocratic air about it. Aperol spritzes are the signature, but my interest was piqued by a few bottles of grappa arranged on a silver platter at the bar.

The bartender explained that they all were made by the Nonino family, which for generations has run a rustic distillery about two hours outside Venice. He offered me a taste of Picolit, one of the Noninos' single-varietal grappas. The family pioneered that style, often sourcing from a single vineyard. Accordingly, the spirit tasted fresh and juicy, nothing like the fiery and rambunctious grappas I had tried before. Same goes with the family's merlot grappa, which offered ginlike notes of roses and violets. That explained why it worked so well when he mixed it with tonic. Staring from the window over the Grand Canal at Santa Maria della Salute beyond, it felt like Venice's past and future were mixed the same way.

Weisstuch is a writer based in New York. Find her on Twitter and Instagram: @livingtheproof

If you go

Venice info:

Where to eat and drink:

Il Mercante
Fondamenta Frari, 2564, 011-39-041-476-7305,
This bi-level bar, opened last year in an elegant old cafe, features elaborate riffs on spritzes and a Silk Road-inspired menu of highly wrought cocktails (about $10.75). Open 7 p.m.-2 a.m. Tuesday-Saturday.

Osteria all'Alba 
Ramo del Fontego dei Tedeschi, 380
A cross between a wine bar, a cafe, and a nightclub, this local hangout features sports or music concerts on TV, a vast selection of cicchetti (from about $4) and a variety of spritzes (about $7). Open 4 p.m.-12 a.m. daily.

Harry's Bar
Calle Vallaresso 1323, San Marco, 011-39-041-528-5777
This legendary bar is credited for creating the Bellini (about $21.50). With waiters in ties and crisp, white jackets and a chophouse-style food menu that's epic in length and price, its old-world spirit endures. Open 10:30 a.m.-11 p.m. daily.

Gritti Palace
Campo Santa Maria del Giglio, 011-39-041-794-6111,
Housed  in a former Vatican ambassador's mansion that's now a Starwood hotel, this ornate spot is one of the city's culinary institutions. Bar Longhi features a well-curated collection of grappa, most of it made nearby (from about $10.75).

Time Social Bar
Rio Tera Farsetti, 1414, 011-39-338-363-6951
The cocktail list at this cozy, unassuming space is a mix of classics and modern interpretations of classics and the originals, with a few offbeat creations thrown in for good measure (from about $7) and creative cicchetti, such as eggplant puree and juniper-and-rosemary-spiced lard (from about $2). Open 6 p.m.-2 a.m. daily.