Across the pond, you’ll find aperitif cocktails enjoyed everywhere - from trendy Milan happy hours (“aperitivo hours”), to the common, nightly ceremony in any French maisons. The hallmark of aperitif cocktails, and the reason for their prevalence, is their light and refreshing character.
We think aperitif cocktails are too few and far between here in the U.S., so what follows will get you caught up on what Europeans so often enjoy.
Served tall with sparkling water or wine, aperitif cocktails balance subtle sweetness with their bitter edge in order to stimulate the appetite before meals. They are typically low in alcoholic content, and go down easily.
Far from a rigid recipe of specific ingredients, the aperitif cocktail is very much a free-form canvas. Let’s start with the most basic creation. Grab a bottle of any of these classic aperitifs:
Aperol, Campari, Cocchi Americano, Cynar, Dubonnet, Lillet, Punt e Mes, Sherry, Vermouth
You should be able to find any of these for between $18-28 at a well-stocked liquor store.
Try it neat. How sweet is it? Are there any dominate flavors or aromas? Do you get orange or lemon? Note the level of bitterness.
Grab a highball or Collins glass filled with ice, and add 1-2 oz. of your chosen aperitif. Simply top the glass with club soda and stir. Grab the citrus you think will pair well (when in doubt, default to an orange) and take a nice swath of its peel with a vegetable/citrus peeler. Twist it to express the peel’s oil onto the surface of the drink. The effervescence from the carbonated soda will lift the citrus oils to create a beautiful aroma before tasting.
Next, try mixing different aperitifs. If you have Campari, add an equal measure of sweet vermouth, and top with soda. Use a twist of orange. This is the classic Americano cocktail – made iconic as James Bond’s very first drink in Ian Fleming’s 1st Bond novel, Casino Royale.
With a drier aperitif like dry vermouth or a fino sherry, a bit of sugar can be a great flavor enhancer. Try adding a ¼ to ½ oz. of gum syrup, and topping with soda. Or, swap in bubbles with sugar already added, like cava, Prosecco or champagne. A dash of bitters never hurts either!
Enjoy your aperitif cocktail slowly, with good company and small bites.