All About Aperitifs Straight Up Cocktails and Spirits

updated May 3, 2019
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(Image credit: Nora Maynard)

It’s finally Friday. Spring is coming into full, glorious bloom, and Tax Day is – for better or for worse – behind us. Why not start off the weekend with a bright, refreshing aperitif?

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.

Some Classic Aperitifs

American drinkers are perhaps more likely to have sampled these popular European aperitifs in a typically North American way: mixed in cocktails. Classic recipes such as the Martini, Manhattan, Negroni, Americano, Bronx, and Vesper Martini, call for a measure of one these French and Italian imports, mixed together with stronger spirits such as gin, whiskey, or vodka.

But back in their countries of origin, these light, aromatic, spirit or wine-based beverages are most often enjoyed on their own – or further diluted with soda, juice, and ice.

A traditional type of fortified wine flavored with botanicals, made by a variety of companies, among whom Martini & Rossi and Noilly Prat are some of the best known. Available in red (aka sweet or Italian) and white (aka dry or French) varieties. (Read more about vermouth here.)

A quintessential Italian aperitif with distinctively bitter, herbal, slightly spicy, grapefruity taste. (View last year’s Kitchn survey on this zesty favorite here.)

A wine-based aperitif from France, comes in the popular Rouge and the less common Blanc varieties. Dubonnet Rouge has a rich, spicy port wine flavor, accented by the distinctive bitterness of quinine (the stuff that gives tonic water its zip).

Pronounced “lee-LAY,” this classic French wine-based aperitif is available in Blanc and Rouge varieties. Citrusy and spicy, with a delicious honeyed texture, Blanc is the more popular of the two. (Read more about Lillet here.)

Made by the same company as Campari, Aperol is a bright orange-hued, spirit-based drink flavored with the distinctive zing of rhubarb. It has recently found a welcome place as an ingredient in the American cocktail repertoire.

Cynar (pronounced “CHEE-nar”) is an Italian concoction made with artichokes, which is usually served with club soda and/or orange juice and ice. (Have any readers tried this one? I have yet to, but curiosity and a fierce love of artichokes puts Cynar at the top of my to-drink list this spring.)

Also Plays Well as an Aperitif: Sherry; Prosecco, Champagne, Cava, and other

sparkling wines

Pimm’s; Pernod, and other types of

Do you have any favorite aperitifs?