The Art of the Aperitif

You know those posters you see in your favorite French bistro or that small Italian trattoria? The art deco posters featuring old liqueurs like Lillet and Dubonnet that evoke visions of smoky European jazz clubs and the Riviera of the 1920s and ’30s?

Well, those old aperitifs are back in a big way ... in forms old and new.

While the term aperitif (or apertivo in Italy) can refer to almost anything consumed before a meal, the term most commonly refers to a class of low-alcohol beverages made from fortified wine or diluted spirit with a proprietary mix of medicinal herbs. Historically, these liqueurs were seen as a delivery vehicle for medicine.

Made in both red and white versions, and produced almost entirely in France and Italy, Vermouth is arguably the most famous and most versatile aperitif wine. Traditionally, white styles have tended towards dryness, while red styles have been sweeter, and both became key ingredients to several celebrated 19th and early 20th century cocktails. The quality of Vermouth, as well as consumer interest, dwindled post-World War II, when it became a common joke that the best Martini was made by using vodka or gin and then looking across the room at a bottle of Vermouth.

Over the past few years, several producers have returned to producing high-quality Vermouth. The most notable and beloved of mixologists is Carpano Antica, red Vermouth from Italy that is stunning in its complexity. Served simply on the rocks, or in a cocktail that calls for red Vermouth, it will change your mind about Vermouth.

The French produce several aperitif wines that have been immortalized in posters. Dubonnet is the best-known red aperitif wine. It was invented in the 19th century as a way to get Foreign Legionnaires to consume quinine to help combat malaria, but later become a popular cocktail ingredient.

The aperitif wine Lillet comes in white and red versions, and recently a rosé version has been added to the line. The wines are based on Bordeaux varieties, and the white version is far and away the most popular with consumers. While it is enjoyable over ice on a summer day, it also adds a fusion of sweet and bitter to many cocktails.

Two Italian apertivi have seen a major increase in American sales over the past several years. Cocchi (pronounced with a hard “c”) Americano has captured the hearts of mixologists across the country.

Invented in 1891, and based on Moscato d’Asti, this bright wine-based apertivo is frequently interchanged with Lillet Blanc. Its quinine notes more closely resemble Lillet Blanc before a formula change in the 1980s rendered Lillet softer.

While Campari remains perhaps the most famous Italian aperitif, the recently imported Aperol has quickly found a place on bar shelves. Less overtly bitter and medicinal, Aperol can be enjoyed straight up on the rocks or in a top notch cocktail. For an amazing Negroni, use Aperol and Carpano Antica in the mix!

For a splendid precursor to a wonderful meal, try mixing up an aperitif parfait with the recipes on page 140. These delightful drinks are sure to infuse a little European panache into your dining experience.

Top Shelf Negroni
• 1 ounce gin
• 1 ounce Aperol
• 1 ounce Carpano Antica Vermouth (or other Sweet Vermouth.)
For a “blonde” version, substitute 1 oz Lillet Blanc.

Pour all ingredients together in a mixing glass with ice. Stir. Strain into a rocks glass (ice optional). Finish with a twist of orange peel.

Vesper Martini
• 3 ounces Tanqueray gin
• ½ ounce 100-proof Stolichnaya vodka
• ½ ounce Lillet Blanc (or Cocchini Americano)
• 2 dashes of bitters

Pour all ingredients together in a shaker with ice. Shake well. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Finish with a twist of lemon peel.

Dubonnet Napoleon
• 2 ounces gin
• ½ ounce Grand Marnier
• ½ ounce Dubonnet Rouge

Pour the ingredients into a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake well. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

Corpse Reviver #2
• 3/4 ounce gin
• 3/4 ounce lemon juice
• 3/4 ounce Cointreau or Triple Sec
• 3/4 oz. Lillet Blanc (or Cocchini Americano)
• 1 dash absinthe

Pour all ingredients together in a shaker with ice. Shake well. Strain into chilled martini glass.


photos: Steve Puppe