Apèritifs 101

Apèritifs 101

There's so much about this time of year that has to do with anticipation. Children obsessing over how many days remain until Christmas, New Year's Eve countdowns, opening windows on an Advent calendar, lighting the next candle on a menorah, and the stress-inciting number of remaining shopping days that annoyingly click away like the US national debt clock.

And then there is our anticipation for holiday meals and gatherings. We await time with friends, for family traditions that must take place on a certain day and in a certain way, or we look ahead for certain seasonal treats. I have a friend who says he knows it's Christmas when he can buy boxes of peppermint bark. Who am I to question another's milestones?

This kind of relentless looking forward makes me think that this is a good time to resurrect the apèritif. Well known in most French homes, as well as Italian where it's called an aperitivo, the apèritif is a light beverage sipped before a meal. It contains alcohol, although usually less than in a cocktail, by which I mean a martini or a few fingers of scotch on the rocks. Instead an apèritif is a refreshing and tempting prelude before the meal.

There are two points to an apèritif. The first is festive ritual. It's to have a glass of something, maybe with hors d'oeuvres or something salty like nuts or olives, to enjoy as people gather and linger before dinner. The second reason is physical as some beverages are thought to help whet the appetite. So if you weren't hungry when you walked in the door, a few sips and you will be soon. Thus its name -- apèritif.

In fact, the apèritif is not something special just for the holidays but is a pleasure to be taken throughout the year. It can be as simple as a glass of dry white wine or Champagne. I do not include the aberration known as a white wine spritzer, in which perfectly decent wine is insulted by a dose of seltzer. What is the point? Better to just have chilled seltzer with a squeeze of tart lime and leave the wine for dinner.

Apèritifs range from dry to sweet, but many also have a complexity that merges herbal and citrus flavors with fortified wines. They are refreshing, and are meant to simultaneously tempt and satisfy our appetites. They are also affordable, costing considerably less than a bottle of spirits; instead they're priced like a bottle of good wine but drunk in smaller quantities.

In the century or so that apèritifs have been popular, they have also inspired an entire genre of poster art, many of which would hang on the walls of Parisian cafes, not completely unlike today's neon Bud Light sign in a bar except that these posters were striking and beautiful. Today labels on apèritif bottles remain colorful, sophisticated, and iconic, making us long for a time when women wore long gloves and men knew how to tip their hats, connecting us with the ritual pause that apèritifs demand: to stop, sip, talk with friends, laugh, and look forward to dinner.

Here are the most classic and popular apèritifs.

Lillet

This is my favorite apèritif. I was introduced to it by my best friend's mother-in-law, Lynette Nielsen, who was a refined but practical woman who appreciated the best of sophistication along with the best of things quotidian. Many years ago my friend and I visited Lynette at her elegant home on the eastern shore of Maryland and before dinner she offered us glasses of chilled Lillet. She served it in what's called a short rocks glass, or alternately, a low ball glass, that usually holds about 7 ounces. The golden yellow liquid was poured over ice and served with a slice of orange. We sat on the back terrace to watch dusk arrive and Lynette placed our drinks on the cocktail table, along with a beautiful little dish of Pringles.  (I loved the high/low of that.)

My first sip of Lillet gave me pause. Its flavor was light, refreshing, with a tinge of citrus, and ever so faintly like root beer. It was satisfying enough to sip slowly, which was a good thing because I never wanted to get to the bottom of that glass. The slice of orange added to its allure, sending a perfume of bitter orange peel in advance of its light, slightly tongue-coating flavor. That first taste launched a lifelong pleasure and I've never since been without a bottle of Lillet in my refrigerator.

Lillet is a blend of 85% Bordeaux wines -- white wines for white, or blanc, Lillet and red wines for the red, or rouge version (invented for the American market, which typically likes sweeter drinks than Europeans) -- plus 15% citrus liqueurs, made mostly from sweet oranges from Spain and Morocco and bitter green oranges from Haiti. Added to this is liqueur made from Peruvian bark that contains quinine. The whole mix is then aged in oak casks.

Invented in 1872 by brothers Paul and Raymond Lillet who lived in southern Bordeaux, the drink has some cinematic and literary fame. In Ian Fleming's Casino Royale and the film by the same name, Bond orders a martini made with gin, vodka and "a half measure of Kina Lillet." Then there's Hannibal Lecter; Lillet was his beverage of choice. I don't think about what that suggests.

Campari

This is an Italian aperitivo with a deep red color and very bitter taste that on its own is not for everyone's palate. Created by Gaspare Campari in 1860, the ingredients remain a secret but are thought to include ginseng and rhubarb but that's only a guess. It's usually served with cold club soda (no ice), which opens and dilutes the bitterness. In the summer it's wonderful when mixed with orange juice and lots of ice; the bitter Campari with the sweet citrus juice make a perfect flavor match, as does the aperitivo's ruby red color which when combined with the orange juice creates an exquisite glass of magenta that rivals any late summer sunset.

In an early example of branding genius, Campari's son, Davide, catapulted the drink's popularity by hiring famous artists of the 1920's and 30's to create a series of Campari posters that are now legendary and widely imitated.

Dubonnet

This wine-based apèritif was invented in France about 150 years ago but is now made from California wines combined with brandy, itself a distilled wine. It comes in three versions: white, which is dry and flavored with herbs; red, which is sweet and flavored with spices; and gold with its sweet vanilla and orange flavor combination. The flavors are intense and concentrated, almost syrupy, and is usually served on the rocks. For you Barbra Streisand fans, Dubonnet was the favorite drink of her character in the film, The Way We Were.

Besides being served on the rocks, Dubonnet is used in a long list of cocktails, the Manhattan and the Negroni being the best known. It was invented around 1846 by Joseph Dubonnet as a way to get soldiers in the French Foreign Legion to drink quinine, a defense against malaria, and is said to be the apèritif of choice of Queen Elizabeth when mixed with gin. Just as the Queen Mum had liked it.

Pineau des Charentes

This is a lesser-known French apèritif that merits more popularity. It is a splendid fortified wine made from a blend of wine must (a freshly pressed juice made from grape skins and stems) and Cognac eau de vie. It is aged in oak barrels -- fine versions for as long as five years -- but once bottled, it does not benefit from continued aging and can be drunk immediately. Pineau has a taste that to my palate is very similar to Sauterne or to Italian moscato dessert wines, and can have an alcohol content as high as 22%. Pineau is served chilled, usually in a small sherry glass, but can also be used in cocktails, served with a sprig of fresh mint, or mixed with fruit juice. I've also had it poured over slices of sweet melon as a summer dessert.

Pineau des Charentes is not available everywhere but a good wine store will either carry it or be able to easily get a bottle for you. For a memorable cocktail course, serve glasses of Pineau with a cheese board because its nutty-yet-sweet flavor matches brilliantly with cheeses that have big personalities, such as blue and goat cheeses.

Pastis

These are anise, or licorice-flavored liqueurs and apèritifs. One of the best known pastis is Pernod, marketed by Ricart. Pastis can be very high in alcohol (45 - 50%) and was invented as a replacement for absinthe after it was banned. Pastis is in the tradition of other anise-flavored liqueurs, such as the Italian sambuca and Greek ouzo. It is usually mixed with water, with one part pastis to 4 parts water, the combination becoming milky and cloudy, drunk either with cool water or with ice. Since anise/licorice is the only flavor I cannot abide, I have never tasted Pastis/Pernod and so can't attest to its pleasure as an apèritif. But you licorice eaters out there would probably love it.

Vermouth

Made in both white (dry) and red (sweet) versions, vermouth is often best known for its role in cocktails, with white vermouth added to martinis and red vermouth used in Manhattans. But in fact, vermouth is a popular European apèritif, enjoyed simply over ice or chilled. Vermouth is best purchased in smaller bottles and stored at room temperature (except when it's chilled just before serving). That's because it is a delicate beverage, made from wine and herbs, and long-term chilling can cause its flavors to deteriorate. The best known brands are either French -- Noilly Prat and Boissiere, or Italian -- Cinzano, Punt e Mes, and Martini & Rossi.

Champagne and Sparkling Wines

It is impossible to find a more satisfying and appetite-taunting beverage than Champagne. Always served very cold, Champagne can be slightly sweet (brut) or dry (extra brut), vintage or non-vintage, and at a huge range of prices. There are excellent bubbly alternatives to Champagne (the name can only be given to that grown and produced according to strict rules about location and methods) including blanc de noirs and blanc de blancs. Alternatives that are less expensive but delicious are also Italian proseccos and Spanish cavas. These are priced inexpensively enough (often under $10) so that you can try several to see which you prefer.

Sherry

This fortified wine is made by fermenting grapes grown and produced near Jerez, Spain, to which brandy (also made from Jerez grapes) is added. If you associate sherry with England it makes sense because it caught on there after Sir Alfred Drake brought barrels of it back to the U.K. after sacking Cadiz and the Spanish fleet intended for a British invasion in 1587.

Sherry ranges from very dry to very sweet, its sweetness coming from the addition of dried grapes or must. As an apèritif, your best choices will be Manzanilla, a light fino Sherry; Manzanilla Pasada, which is aged and has a richer, nutty flavor; or Amontillado (my favorite), a medium aged sherry that has a darker color, nutty flavor, and some complexity. I recommend avoiding cream sherries as they can be extremely sweet, certainly too sweet to drink before dinner; if you love it, save it for dessert. As for how to serve, sherry becomes particularly interesting as an apèritif if it's served lightly chilled but not iced.

So as we anticipate so much during this time of year, splurge on some immediate gratification with an apèritif, raise a glass, and sit back and enjoy. We can be sure that the holidays will get here eventually.

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