This year, it’s time to move beyond bubbly. There are lots of festive apéritif options other than Champagne, so why not give one of these suggestions a try? Cheers to a new holiday drink.
Vermouth may be best known as an ingredient in that quintessential cocktail, the martini. But several high-quality vermouths are excellent sipped solo. Essentially an “aromatized” wine (a wine that has been fortified to around 18% alcohol with the addition of a neutral spirit and then infused with aromatic herbs), vermouth can be either dry or sweet. The Noilly Pratt Dry ($10) from France is one of the finest dry vermouths, with a balance of citrus and herbal notes and a pleasant, crisp acidity. For a good sweet vermouth, try Carpano Antica ($25 for a liter). Modeled after Carpano’s original 18th-century recipe, it offers a seamless balance of bittersweet fruit flavors and spicy vanilla. Also worth seeking out is a relative newcomer from California, Vya Sweet Vermouth ($18) , a delicious blend of spicy citrus and bitter herb flavors.
Regardless of style, serve vermouth chilled in a martini glass with a lemon twist or in an old-fashioned glass over ice with a slice of orange.
Though not much of a tradition in the United States, sipping dry Madeira as an apéritif has long been a ritual in many parts of Europe. Like sherry, Madeira is a fortified wine made in both dry and sweet styles, though arguably, the best apéritif Madeiras are dry versions, such as Sercial and Verdehlo. While both are known for their rich, nutty flavor, smooth texture, and tart acidity, Madeiras made from the Sercial grape are lighter and more citrusy, while Verdehlo versions tend to be richer and fuller in body. Look for either Leacock’s 5-Year Sercial ($20) or Blandy’s 5-Year-Old Verdehlo ($18). Serve chilled in a white wine glass.
The original pastis, a French anise-flavored liqueur, was once known as absinthe. This much-maligned spirit, referred to as “the green fairy” because of its color, contained wormwood, a hallucinogenic plant once believed to be highly addictive. When absinthe was banned in most of Europe and the U.S. in 1915, French absinthe distillers Pernod and Ricard concocted milder versions without wormwood and with much less alcohol, creating what we know today as pastis. The intense licorice and citrus flavors of pastis are best enjoyed over ice with a splash of water, which makes the liqueur appear characteristically cloudy. Pernod Liqueur d’Anis ($30) and Ricard Pastis de Marseille ($30) are both excellent, as is the American Herbsaint Liqueur d’Anis ($21).