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 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 pre-dinner 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.
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.
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.”
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.
At OAK at fourteenth 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
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.