Cocchi Americano, Campari, Cardamaro ... The list of Italian and Spanish aperitifs is long and foreign to many American palates, but with a taste for adventure, it's a delicious world to dive into.
If you're not familiar with aperitifs, you're not alone. In fact, at the recent Feast festival in Portland, a dedicated workshop called Aperitifs Ascendant focused on educating consumers about these up-and-coming drinks. Mixologist Kate Bolton has been all about aperitifs for years and spoke with Allrecipes about why they're making a run into the hearts of consumers at bars and restaurants these days.
What is an Aperitif?
Aperitifs are wine spirits that have been sweetened, fortified by adding alcohol (usually brandy), and infused with herbs and spices. they're often served before a meal to stimulate the appetite. If you've had a Manhattan or a true Martini, you've had an aperitif: sweet vermouth in a Manhattan, dry in the Martini. "Aperitifs have been used in cocktail recipes for forever as a secondary spirit, or 'modifying agent,'" Bolton explains. But while in the past they may have only snuck into your glass, Bolton says there's always been a culture around enjoying them on their own, especially in vermouth bars in Spain and Italy.
Recently, producers in the United States have started making aperitifs. "More and more bars in the U.S. are focusing on menus that feature these products instead of using them in a supporting role as a secondary spirit," says Bolton. She recommends chilling them and drinking on their own, serving them on the rocks, or adding seltzer and a slice of orange. "They're always what I want when I don't know what I want."
Why Aperitifs Are Cool Now
Two reasons, according to Bolton: First, they're easy. Aperitifs are essentially pre-balanced cocktails straight out of the bottle; no need to add anything else to make a great drink. "As a person who has been creating cocktails for a long time, I can't tell you how much I think about balance, ingredients, and formulas," Bolton says. "I think about a base spirit, how to modify it, whether to add a sweetener, and then how to balance that sweetener." With aperitifs, she says, that work is already done.
Second, Bolton says that the public is getting into lower-proof cocktails -- especially for day drinking -- and the addition of quality aperitifs (such as vermouths, americanos, and quinquinas) make these types of drinks more fun to drink.
Drinking Aperitifs at Home
It's easy to add aperitifs to your home bar, as quality vermouth is available at many grocery stores. But don't go for the cheapest bottle, Bolton advises: Inexpensively made aperitifs can be lower in quality, and miss out on the complex flavors of a better bottle. Instead, Bolton advises that you pick up a bottle of Dolin Blanc or Dolin Rouge vermouth, drinking them on the rocks with a little seltzer or a wedge of citrus fruit.
If you want a more advanced flavor, look for something from the house of Contratto, Cocchi, or Carpano in Italy. American-made aperitifs from Imbue, Vya, and Ransom also top Bolton's list.
To serve the aperitif, think of flavors the way you would any other progression with a dinner party: A lighter beginning, sweeter finish. Bolton recommends Lillet Blanc, Cocchi Americano, or Carpano Bianco to start. Campari and soda or an Aperol Spritz help get the digestive juices going.
To serve your aperitif, Bolton recommends a standard short rocks glass, though a highly aromatic aperitif might be most at home in a port glass of some sort. Make sure you refrigerate your aperitifs to help them keep their zingy, fresh flavor. "They don't belong in the back of the liquor cabinet, all dusty and forgotten." That's so yesterday.