For cocktail parties, many of us might pour a martini, a scotch or a bourbon. With respect to them all, none of them whets your appetite like an apéritif. Apéritifs (ah-pay-ree-teef) — wine- or spirit-based drinks that are fortified with other flavors — have a unique combination of sweet and bitter elements. Champagne, much more than still wine, fills the apéritif role well, too. There are several kinds of apéritifs, all of which are easy on the wallet and easy to enjoy simply.
Aromatized wines are made by infusing white wine with herbs, bark, roots, and other plant extracts. Each blend can contain as many as a hundred herbs or more, and the exact recipe is a secret that’s closely guarded by the particular manufacturer.
Bitters, a sweet and bitter blend of many herbs and botanicals, is quinine based, which is what gives the drink its pronounced bitterness. As with aromatized wines, the exact recipes remain secrets of the trade. Campari, Cynar, Punt e Mes, and Fernet are some you may run across; try them neat, on the rocks, or with soda. A bitters drink isn’t just a delicious apéritif, it’s an excellent digestif and the perfect way to top off a hearty meal. Bitters was originally used by medieval monks for medicinal purposes (and many people also believe that bitters is the best possible cure for a hangover.)
There are scores of cocktails you can make with apéritifs. Here’s a short list of personal favorites.
In a champagne flute, combine 1/2 teaspoon fine sugar and 2 dashes Angostura bitters. Fill with Champagne or other sparkling wine; garnish with a lemon twist.
To a glass of Champagne or other sparkling wine, add a splash of crème de cassis (black currant liqueur). Garnish with a lemon twist.
Combine 1 ounce each Campari and gin, and 1/2 ounce each sweet and dry vermouth. Serve over ice or up in a martini glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.
Fill a highball glass with 1-1/2 ounces Pimm’s No. 1 and soda. Garnish with a lemon wedge and slice of cucumber.
In a highball glass, blend 2 ounces each Campari and sweet vermouth. Add ice, fill with soda, and garnish with a lemon twist.
In a Champagne flute, combine 3 ounces each Champagne (or other sparkling wine) and chilled peach juice (available in health-food stores). Add a dash each of fresh lemon juice and grenadine.
Mention pastis and images of Toulouse-Lautrec prints and the Belle Epoque might come to mind. This is because absinthe, the original pastis, was all the rage in late nineteenth century Parisian café and bistro society, and was often imbibed to the extreme. Although absinthe has long been banned in all but a few European countries, two much milder descendants — Pernod and Ricard — are easy to find. Both are licorice-flavored, but each is produced differently: Pernod is made from star anise seeds; Ricard from licorice extracts and herbs. Both are traditionally served over ice, with one part liqueur cut with four parts water so that their clear yellow color becomes opaque and milky.
Champagne and other sparkling wines are also delicious apéritifs in their own right: Light body, fizz, and crispness make them one of the most versatile choices for a wide variety of starters. There are several Champagne cocktails worth trying, too: Kir Royale, Champagne Cocktail, and Bellini are some of the most popular (see the sidebar at left). Just be sure to use a good (but not great) sparkling wine: For Champagne-type cocktails, a fine sparkler is a waste of money, as mix-ins would overpower its subtle flavors.
Any number of glasses are right for apéritifs, from white-wine glasses and short “rocks” glasses for vermouths or other apéritifs served over ice, to taller highball glasses for mixing with soda. For specialty cocktails like those above, a martini glass or a Champagne glass is most appropriate.
Here are some good bets for matching apéritifs and starters.