Embrace the Aperitif
Drink as the Europeans do.
August 4, 2017 ● 5 min read
The aperitif may be a year-round ritual 'round these parts, but there's something especially good about them in the summer. They have a unique ability to slow your world down, just like the swimmy heat of an early summer evening, and they let you unwind in a civilized way—one where you don't have to worry about overdoing it and realizing you just had margaritas for dinner. (Funny how that happens. No offense, margaritas.)
Bottom line, we love most things with a splash of good tonic and a dry European liquor, which is why Drew Lazor and Camille Ralph Vidal's latest, How to Drink French Fluently, caught our eye. A love letter to all things St.-Germain, it's full of recipes and odes to things like aperitifs, excerpted below. Get inspired, then go treat yourself. It's been a long day of sweating on the subway, and it's the weekend. Double-whammy.
IN THE UNITED STATES, HAPPY HOUR IS A LOADED PHRASE.
On its face, it’s a positive proposition—the tie-loosening, heels-ditching reprieve from a day at the office, aided by deep-discount drinks. But there’s a negative connotation there, too. Mixing cheap booze and pent-up stress often translates to a night that ends way too early, or a casual gathering that morphs into an embarrassing morning-after story.
So how should we go about splitting the difference, capturing all the best aspects of this post-work practice without any of the pitfalls? Do as the Europeans do, of course.
Derived from the Latin aperire, meaning “to open,” the aperitif is a centuries-old tradition steeped in simple elegance. Commonly consumed in France, Italy, and throughout the Mediterranean, aperitifs—from Italy’s spritz to Spain’s vermouth and soda—are thirst-quenching, low-alcohol beverages sipped socially to stimulate, or “open,” one’s appetite ahead of eating. But the aperitif’s appeal is much broader than that. Many American bartenders, enamored with the versatility of the category, are doing their part to evangelize, tamping down the high-octane proclivities of US drinkers by introducing aperitifs—and their accompanying culture—to a new audience.
Often served with a light spread of snacks, aperitifs are consumed in an informal setting—a bar or restaurant, a public gathering space, or someone’s home—around the same time a conventional happy hour would kick off. But the practice’s importance extends far beyond readying one’s stomach for a meal. “L’apéritif is more than a drink before a meal,” writes Georgeanne Brennan in her book Aperitif: Recipes for Simple Pleasures in the French Style. “It is a national custom that, by deliberately setting apart time to share a drink and to socialize, engenders civility and conviviality.”
In other words, the aperitif has long been ritualized, woven into the routine in such a way that it’s become a vital facet of everyday life. And while many European countries embrace the tradition of a light, late-afternoon or early-evening cocktail gathering, the French have a particular affinity for the practice. Take it from Parisian essayist Paul Morand: “L’apéritif, c’est la prière du soir des Français”—for the French, the aperitif is the evening prayer.
“An aperitif in France is not just a drink—it’s part of our culture,” says St-Germain global ambassador Camille Ralph Vidal, who grew up in the South of France. She embraced the custom early on, enjoying grenadine in her family’s garden as her father drank pastis and her mother sipped wine. “There was no TV in the background, no video games, mobiles, or anything—just us sharing a moment together,” she says. The term aperitif, in Vidal’s eyes, refers to both a style of beverage and an overarching approach to life. “It’s about making time to relax, unwind, enjoy, and appreciate things,” she says.
Though the interpersonal value of the aperitif is an easy concept to grasp, defining what drinks actually fit the mold is a trickier task. “Aperitif can mean a lot of different things, which is what’s cool about it,” says bartender Alex Day, who is behind a number of the country’s best cocktail bars. “It doesn’t lock you into any frame or structure.”
An aperitif should be low alcohol by volume, but besides that, there aren’t too many hard-and-fast rules in place. There are, however, a few common characteristics. “They’re supposed to be dry, to get your palate salivating,” says bartender and drinks writer Naren Young. “Nothing too sweet, alcoholic, or heavy. It should be invigorating.”
Fortified wines and various floral and herbal liqueurs, poured on the rocks or made into a simple cocktail, like a spritz, are common aperitifs, but the category is in no way limited to such options. “Champagne, a glass of white wine, or a crisp beer can be an aperitif,” adds Young, who’s built an extensive list at New York’s Dante. “All these serve the same purpose.”
Not only is the aperitif an important cultural ritual—a moment in the day that asks nothing except that you let your hair down—it’s also a perspective on drinking that places “sessionability” above all else. The easy-drinking nature of a properly made aperitif naturally leads to multiple rounds, extending the precious time you spend with family and friends. To achieve such results, Atlanta bartender Greg Best and his compatriots have developed a series of cocktails they call “suppressors.” The low-alcohol yin to the Corpse Reviver family’s revved-up yang, suppressors appear, in thirty to forty different forms, at cocktail bars around the country, from Best’s Ticonderoga Club in Atlanta to California and back.
“Imbibing in this way gives you more staying power and a chance to keep a clear head,” says Franky Marshall of Brooklyn’s Le Boudoir, a Francophile who enjoys turning the uninitiated on to her many aperitif options.
Marshall’s not alone in her mission to spread the aperitif gospel to guests accustomed to drinking in one lane. At New York’s Nitecap, co-owned by Alex Day and Natasha David, the typical happy hour is swapped out for “aperitif hour,” featuring discounted prices on that entire section of the extensive menu.
“When people think of that time of day, it’s cheap beer, two-for-ones,” says David, who says texture, achieved through additions like sherries and housemade syrups, is vital to a good aperitif. “I very much appreciate the European sense of drinking.” While these bartenders put much effort into promoting the concept of the aperitif to their customers, many also emphasize that it’s not a topic that needs to be overanalyzed to be sincerely appreciated. “It’s not something that’s really fussed over that much,” says Day. “It’s meant to be thrown together, hanging out outdoors on a deck, finishing up a long day.”
The more people familiarize themselves with the ease and appeal of the aperitif and its power to transport, the more this ritual will sneak into the collective American drinking consciousness—and stay there. “I don’t really see it as a trend,” says Young. “It’s something that’s going to keep going forever.”
Reprinted with permission from How to Drink French Fluently, by Drew Lazor with Camille Ralph Vidal. | Copyright © 2016 by PUNCH Creative, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.Photography copyright © 2016 by PUNCH Creative