Having people over for dinner entails more than just providing a meal and somewhere to eat it. It's a whole experience, from the invite to the last goodbye at the door. A subtle but important consideration is setting the overall tone for the evening and nothing does that like the pre-dinner beverage. These days I'm a fan of offering a simple aperitif before dinner which strikes a nice balance between simplicity and elegance.
So, what is an aperitif and how does it differ from a cocktail?
Basically, an aperitif is a simpler, less alcoholic cocktail. It can even be a glass of wine or champagne. Our Straight Up Columnist Nora Maynard wrote about the aperitif here a few years ago:
Apéritif is a French word, which, like its Italian counterpart, aperitivo, comes from the Latin aperire, meaning "to open." An important part of France's, Italy's, and other European countries' dining traditions, aperitifs are alcoholic beverages sipped as appetite-stimulating lead-ins to a meal. (Think of them as the appetizers in the alcohol menu.)
Usually weighing in somewhere between 16 and 25 percent alcohol (compared to the 40-50+ percent found in spirits such as whiskey, gin, and vodka), aperitifs are meant to open up the palate, not sedate or overwhelm it. (For this reason, overly sweet drinks are also avoided for this beverage course, but are saved for after the meal, as "digestifs"). An aperitif should be crisp, clean, and light.
For me the aperitif's main advantage is in keeping it simple. I often host dinner parties solo, so I'm not always available to pour complicated cocktails while simultaneously attending to the meal in the kitchen. It also keeps the evening more affordable as I don't have to stock a bar. And as Nora mentions, the lower alcohol content opens, rather than dulls, the palate, making it a perfect pre-dinner beverage.
But my favorite reason for serving an aperitif goes back to my original statement about tone. A simple but well thought out aperitif such as a glass of good dry sherry served with some toasted almonds hints at the paella dinner to come. In the summer, a Lillet over ice or a slightly chilled rose cools and refreshes before a casual meal. Champagne served with gougeres speaks of an elegant evening ahead.
I usually also have some beer and a nonalcoholic beverage to round out my pre-dinner offerings as it's possible that not everyone will appreciate my choice of aperitif. But mostly I've found that people are quick to jump on board with this singular offering and enjoy it as a light, crisp, refreshing prelude to a wonderful evening ahead.
(Image: Nora Maynard)