Drinking cocktails, or alcoholic beverages for that matter, before a meal may seem all too fancy for some people, but it does serve a deeper, culinary purpose.
Cocktails and other alcoholic beverages are categorized into aperitifs and digestifs. Aperitifs are alcoholic beverages that are served before the meal. Derived after Latin word aperire meaning “to open”, aperitifs stir one’s appetite. (You can learn more about aperitifs and cocktails by enrolling in a TABC Certification or Alcohol Training class.)
Aperitifs often taste dry and full-bodied rather than sweet. In the US, gin, champagne and vermouth are the most popular aperitifs. Europe, on the other hand, is more inclined to the flavored (wine and herb-based), and syrupy varieties.
Digestifs, as the name suggest, aids digestion. Unlike aperitifs, which are usually dry and bitter, digestifs are sweet and are intended to cap off a meal. Think of it as dessert in a glass.
So much has changed through the years that cocktails, or aperitifs per se, are now paired with gourmet stand-outs. Gone were the days when anything goes or the only options you have to go along with your Manhattan or Screwdriver are shrimp, fresh oysters and exotic nuts. As a New York Times article points out, as cocktail flavors become more sophisticated, so were the appetizers served with them.
These cocktail and food pairings are in no way meant to outshine your nip of that precious Campari. But that was beside the point—here are some top aperitifs that you should try to bring out the best of both worlds from your dining experience:
Food and Wine writer and GQ Assistant Managing Editor Jim Nelson recommends Campari, which he describes as “a ruby red Italian drink whose recipe is guarded more carefully than the Vatican transcripts.” The recipe of Campari has been a secret since 1860, when the drink’s creator, Gaspare Campari, first selling this product. Campari has a very bitter taste and is believed to contain rhubard and ginseng.
Enjoy your Martini a little more like James Bond by adding Lillet to your cocktail. A Bordeux-made, wine-based aperitif, the aperitif comes in red and white varieties. Nelson said he prefers the full-bodied white version of Lillet (Lillet Blanc), which boasts of subtle hints of candied orange and mint. Lillet also features herbs, roots and fruit flavors. Wall Street Journal writer Sarah Karnasiewicz also recommends Lillet Blanc as an appropriate aperitif.
Vermouth comes in sweet and herb-infused varieties and is most commonly known as an ingredient of Manhattan. However, Europeans drink Vermouth as is, chilled or on the rocks. Cocktails such as the Martini, Americano (which also contains Campari), Rob Roy and the Bloodhound, also contain Vermouth.
Last but certainly not the least: Champagne. Food Republic hails champagne as the perfect aperitif for its dry and crisp quality. Mix with a few parts campari, gin or vermouth and transform champagne into a divine cocktail like the French 75 and Milano-Torino. Check out Food Republic’s champagne cocktail recipes here.
Thanks to aperitifs, you now have more reason to be at your local hotel bar or pub’s for happy hour. Try one of these aperitifs and let us know how you find it.