Apéritif Cocktails

Choosing libations with a lower alcohol content and a lighter touch doesn't mean sacrificing flavor or fun.


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Forget about big, boozy cocktails. Increasingly, you’ll find apéritifs in the glass. Consumers are seeking out easy-drinking cocktails with less alcohol (and yes, fewer calories). Coincidentally, a flurry of delightful spirits with relatively gentler proofs is reaching U.S. markets.

Mixologists are responding to this perfect storm of supply and demand by creating delectable new creations, and even reinventing drink menus to showcase lower-alcohol libations.
The following three restaurants/bars focus on apéritif cocktails for very different reasons.

At OAK at fourteenth in Boulder, Colorado, Co-owner and Beverage Director Bryan Dayton drew inspiration from time he spent in Europe, where the apéritif (or the Italian equivalent, aperitivo) has its roots.

In Italy, France and other parts of Europe, the predinner tipple was once commonplace. A lightly alcoholic drink was considered a civilized way to sharpen the appetite and ease into the dinner hour—particularly during warm-weather months. Now, American bartenders like Dayton are rediscovering this tradition.

Meanwhile, at New York City’s Northern Spy Food Co., drinks made with vermouths and other wine-based spirits were a creative work-around when the establishment was denied a full liquor license.

At Atlanta’s Holeman & Finch Public House, the selection of suppressor cocktails (cocktails in which traditional spirits as an ingredient are not used, but vermouths, fortified wines like Sherry and amaros like Cynar are featured instead) began as a friendly competition among bartenders seeking a low-octane alternative to revivers, a drink category often fortified with several hard liquors.

“This is a driving town,” says Greg Best, co-owner and bartender at Holeman & Finch. “We wanted drinks that aren’t lacking in complexity, just lacking in booze.”

See how the bartenders approach modern apéritif cocktails.

Dancing Lightly

Holeman & Finch Public House, Atlanta

When a group of Atlanta bartenders sought a way to dance lightly with cocktails, the result was a range of mellow, food-friendly suppressors, like #21, from Pura Vida Tapas & Bar in Atlanta (recipe below). At Holeman & Finch, a selection of suppressors are featured on the daily lunch menu, under the heading “Errands to Run.” High-proof options are listed under “The Day Is Shot.”

“We broke away from the normal approach to building a cocktail,” Best says. “It’s a new way to explore old ingredients.”

Suppressor #21

Recipe courtesy Paul Calvert, mixologist of Pura Vida Tapas & Bar, Atlanta; on the menu at Holeman & Finch Public House, Atlanta

A luscious and complex drink to savor, thanks to the harmonious combination of bitter-edged Cynar, spiced Barolo Chinato (infused Piedmont wine) and the honeyed notes of Sherry.

1 ounce Cynar
1 ounce Barolo Chinato
1 ounce Amontillado Sherry
2 dashes of Regans’ Orange Bitters No. 6
Grapefruit peel, for oils

Stir together the Cynar, Barolo Chinato, Sherry and bitters, and strain into a rocks glass over a large cube of ice. Express oils from the grapefruit peel over top of the drink and discard the peel.

Key ingredient: Cynar

Although Cynar is an artichoke-based liqueur, it doesn’t taste like artichokes. Rather, it’s an intensely herbal and bitter Italian amaro that practically begs to be mixed.
Best says he likes Cynar because it “adds a savory quality” to drinks, as well as welcome viscosity and spice.

Although it can be mixed simply (with tonic, lemonade or iced tea) it also works well to add punch and complexity to more spirited rum or whiskey drinks, as in The Art of Choke from The Violet Hour in Chicago (made with white rum, Cynar, lime juice and Green Chartreuse). Other bitter-tinged spirits to try include Campari and Aperol.

European Influence

OAK at fourteenth, Boulder, Colorado

Here, the mixed drink menu is deliberately delineated into three sections: No Alcohol, Low Alcohol and High Alcohol. Dayton says he drew inspiration from time he spent in Europe, “where drinking is not such a taboo,” and drinks might progress from apple cider at lunch to Calvados at dinner.

The world has grown smaller, he says, and many of Europe’s apéritif spirits—like Barolo Chinatos and quinquinas—have made their ways to other countries.

“So many bartenders are going to Europe and coming back here, taking that inspiration and making apéritifs a truly American thing,” says Dayton.

The French Open

Recipe courtesy Bryan Dayton, co-owner and beverage director of OAK at fourteenth, Boulder, Colorado

Originally, this drink was made with gin, but Dayton found that the wine-based spirit Lillet Blanc provided similar botanical notes, so he dropped the gin from the recipe.

2 fresh raspberries, plus 1 additional berry for garnish
1 ounce Lillet Blanc
½ ounce honey simple syrup (1 part honey to 1 part water)
¼ ounce lemon juice
Dry sparkling wine, such as Prosecco

Muddle the raspberries in the bottom of a mixing glass. Add the Lillet, simple syrup, lemon juice and ice. Shake well, then double strain into a Champagne flute. Top with sparkling wine. Float one fresh raspberry on top as garnish.

Key Ingredient: Lillet

Pronounced lil-LAY, this blend of 85% Bordeaux wine and 15% citrus liqueurs comes in three variations: Blanc (or Blonde), Rouge and Rosé.

“We order Lillet Blanc and Rouge by the case,” Dayton says. “Everyone else probably orders by the bottle. We’re very into apéritifs.”

The French apéritif wine, established in the late 1800s, can be subbed for vermouth in virtually any cocktail—Dayton uses it in his variation on a Manhattan (Bulleit Bourbon, Benedictine, Lillet Rouge, bitters and honey). But the simplest route for a hot day is a pour of Lillet on the rocks, with a generous squeeze of lime.

Creative Solutions

Northern Spy Food Co., New York City

At Northern Spy, the motivation for a strong apéritif cocktail was simple: the difficulty in securing a full liquor license. But that didn’t stop Co-owner and Beverage Director Chris Ronis. Instead, it became a creative challenge.

The New York City restaurant, which focuses on rustic farm-to-table cuisine, brought in San Francisco’s Erick Castro, bar consultant with Possessed by Spirits, to help build out a cocktail menu using only products legally classified as wine and beer as the alcohol component. Luckily, that meant the fortified and aromatized wines known as vermouth were fair game.

As a restaurant owner, Ronis has another reason to showcase apéritifs. He insists that food tastes better with them, compared to regular cocktails. “If you have two or three cocktails, by the time your food arrives, your mouth is numb.”

Pomona Coupe

Recipe courtesy Erick Castro and Chris Ronis, Northern Spy Food Co., New York City

“Most people don’t realize that this is an apple-based drink at first,” Ronis says. Pommeau is a French apple brandy that’s lightened with unfermented apple cider, which blends beautifully with sweet vermouth in this sophisticated sipper.

Lemon wedge to rim glass
2 parts fine white sugar
1 part ground ginger
2 ounces pommeau
1 ounce Cocchi Vermouth di Torino
½ ounce demerara (unrefined sugar) simple syrup
¼ ounce lemon juice
3 dashes Bar Keep Baked Apple Bitters

To rim the glass, rub the lemon wedge along the top ¼ inch of the outside of a coupe glass (you only want to sugar the outside of the glass). Put the ginger-sugar mix on a small side plate or in a shallow bowl and invert the glass, twisting the edge of the glass in the sugar mix to coat the rim.

To build the cocktail, combine the pommeau, vermouth, simple syrup, lemon juice and bitters in a mixing glass over ice. Shake and strain into the rimmed coupe glass. 

Key Ingredient: Cocchi Vermouth di Torino

“Not a lot of people know what vermouth tastes like,” Ronis says. Often a bit is dashed into a martini or other cocktail, but it’s worth sampling straight up to see what flavor profile you prefer.
Vermouth comes in two varieties: white (dry), which is what’s dashed into martinis or Vespers, and red (sweet), which is often paired with dark spirits, such as whiskey in a Manhattan, and is a key ingredient in the classic Negroni.

Wine Enthusiast-recommended white vermouths include Dolin, Cocchi di Torino and Vya; reds include Carpano Antica, Cocchi di Torino and Punt e Mes.

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