The Art of the Apéritif

The Art of the Apéritif

Martinis, watch your backs. Manhattans, take heed. Another style of drink is hot on your trail, one that whets your palate instead of numbing your taste buds.

There is no consensus on its exact origins, but the word “apéritif” comes from the Latin verb aperire, meaning, “to open.” Apéritifs act as a setup for your evening, according to Sebastian Zutant, wine director at Washington, D.C.’s Proof restaurant. Taken before a meal, the apéritif is a kind of liquid appetizer, designed to stimulate the appetite without dulling the palate the way more potent cocktails can do. The Spanish are fond of serving sherry along with small plates of tapas before a meal, while the French prefer Pastis diluted with water, resulting in a milky, cloudy drink that tastes of anise and licorice.  (The similar Greek liqueur ouzo is served either with water or straight up.)

Zutant favors vermouth, the wine-based liqueur flavored with aromatic and often bitter herbs and spices. He makes both dry and sweet styles from scratch, though the bottled versions work just fine, especially during the hectic holiday entertaining season. Take a cue from Proof’s apéritif menu, and serve dry vermouth with a lemon twist, or sweet vermouth with a twist of orange. Zutant likes using vermouth because of its simple, clean notes, which pair with many kinds of cocktail nibbles. Since it’s wine-based, vermouth is also an appropriate start to a dinner party, as it won’t compete with wines served during the course of the meal.

For a bright and festive apéritif option, try Campari, which can also be enjoyed as a digestivo after a meal. Made in Italy with over sixty ingredients, only Campari’s maker knows the exact formula, though bitter herbs, quinine, pomegranate, bergamot oil and orange peel are included in the blend. Its resulting bright red color lends a dramatic flair to any holiday cocktail party. While the classic Campari cocktail is the Negroni, Aisling Fitzpatrick, Bar Manager at Vermilion restaurant in Alexandria, Virginia, currently offers the tart “Italian Cran,” which is Campari and white cranberry juice served over ice. If you prefer cocktails with some spritz, try one part Campari to two parts club soda, and garnish with a twist of lime.

Speaking of spritz, sparkling wines also fare well in apéritif recipes. Beyond looking festive, their playful bubbles refresh and tickle your taste buds. Zutant prefers prosecco and cava, as they are “lighter on their feet” than Champagne. For a bubbly-based apéritif, fill a flute a quarter of the way with pomegranate juice, and then top with sparkling wine. Or use cranberry juice and Grand Marnier for a cranberry-orange holiday party starter.

If you are entertaining this holiday season, consider the apéritif. To keep it simple, select and serve one signature drink, along with wine and beer. “Be fresh and seasonal,” says Fitzpatrick, by using grapefruit or cranberry juice in apéritif recipes. She suggests mixing up a large batch before guests arrive, and adding only ice as the drink is requested, which frees up your time to mingle. Try one of these recipes, or create your own concoction, for a classy and memorable “opening” to your party.

Vermouth apéritifs
Courtesy of Sebastian Zutant of Proof restaurant

Shake 1½ ounces of dry or sweet vermouth in a shaker with ice, and strain into a small cordial glass. If using dry vermouth, garnish with a lemon twist. If using sweet vermouth, garnish with an orange twist.

Italian Cran
Courtesy of Aisling Fitzpatrick of Vermilion restaurant

1½ ounces Campari
3 ounces white cranberry juice

Pack a rocks glass with ice. Add Campari and white cranberry juice. Stir to mix.

Classic Negroni

1 ounce gin
1 ounce sweet vermouth
1 ounce Campari

Shake all ingredients in a shaker with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Serve with a twist of orange.

Cranberry Orange Sparkler

Cranberry juice
1½ teaspoons Grand Marnier

Fill a flute a quarter of the way with cranberry juice. Add 1½ teaspoons Grand Marnier and top with prosecco. Garnish with an orange twist.

Kelly Magyarics is a wine educator and freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area. Kelly can be reached through her Web site,

Published on December 24, 2007
Topics: Apertifs, Cocktails, Recipes, Vermouth

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