A cork pops and ice clip-clops. Alcohol hisses and fizzes and a jazz record crackles. Workers welcome the end of the day and each other. “Sante!”
This is the sound of early evening France, sweeping the cafes of Paris to the cedar trees of the Loire Valley. It’s the sound of aperitif o’clock.
An aperitif (or aperitivo in Italy) is booze consumed before a meal to get you in the mood for eating. Usually nothing too sweet and nothing too high in alcohol. Champagne, sherry, liqueurs, vermouth and herby aromatised wines are the traditional suspects, the latter enjoying a recent revival in bars and restaurants.
While Italian aperitivi like Campari and Aperol are familiar names to many Australians (particularly negroni and spritz fans), French aromatised wines and liqueurs have flown a little lower under the radar. However, with the rising popularity of local vermouth and new venues such as Restaurant Hubert, French Saloon and Oter showcasing everything wonderful about French boozing culture, more aperitifs are receiving the spotlight they deserve.
Seymour’s Cocktails and Oysters brought the aperitif good times to Brisbane when it opened in late 2016. Its bar manager, Dan Gregory, is mad about the genre.
“The array of different styles is what I enjoy most about French aperitifs,” he says. “You can sip on something different for every occasion. For example, my two favourite aperitifs are pastis and [fortified wine] Pineau des Charentes and they’re as far apart in flavour as you can imagine. It’s the time and place that make them shine. The soft anise aroma and buttery texture of pastis explodes in your mouth, getting your palate tingling and wanting more. I love it before a big French meal. Then you have Pineau des Charentes, which is perfect for a picnic in the sun or lazy lunch with cured meat and cheese. Floral honey aromas with a little bit of acid, honey and pear on the palate. It’s a bloody ripper for summer.”
There are hundreds of ways to serve aperitifs. However, Gregory recommends keeping it simple.
“I love my pastis with water or soda,” he says. “Vermouths and fortified wines are beaut in a tasting glass or over a large chunk of ice with a spray of citrus peel oil. Bitters can be served the same way.”
From vermouth and pastis to quinine-heavy thirst quenchers, the world of aperitifs is a deep and delicious one to explore. Here are three to get you started.
This delicate golden elixir has its origins in 19th-century Switzerland. However, it’s the French who go properly mad for the stuff. Made with the gentian root found in Alps’ pastures, Suze is a bitter-sweet song of citrus, depth and refreshment. “A cracking way to start the night,” Gregory says. Try it over ice with soda water and an orange slice.
Supposedly the favourite drink of Queen Elizabeth AND her mother. If there’s a heaven, you can bet the Queen Mum is up there smokin’ Indo, sippin’ on gin and Dubonnet, a quinine-starring drink invented in 1846 to protect the French Foreign Legion from malaria in North Africa (malaria parasites really hate quinine). Dubonnet has a bitter, port-y edge and notes of lemon, walnut and cinnamon, among many other delicious herbs and spices. It lends itself to many cocktails – the Queen Mother’s preferred recipe was reportedly 30 per cent gin and 70 per cent Dubonnet with an ice cube and lemon slice, laid back.
Perhaps the most famous of the Lillet range out of Bordeaux (there’s also a Rouge and Rose), this dry, straw-coloured blend of aromatised wines is made from sauvignon blanc, semillon and muscatel grapes. Orange-heavy fruit liqueurs also join the party, leading to floral aromas and a light acidity. It makes a damn fine vermouth replacement and James Bond uses the similar (and sadly discontinued) Kina Lillet to make a Vesper martini in Casino Royale. You could do that with the Blanc or just serve it super chilled sans ice.
The classic aperitif cocktails
Negroni: Don’t mess with the godfather. This classic calls for equal parts Campari, gin and vermouth, served in a short glass over fat ice cubes with a garnish of orange.
Americano: A precursor to the negroni, the Americano is a solid option if you want to lighten the booze load, swapping out gin for soda, served short or tall with plenty of ice.
Sbagliato: Somewhere in between the previous two cocktails, this is almost like a negroni spritz, with equal parts Campari and sweet vermouth topped up with prosecco.
Elderflower spritz: The aperitif world is heavy-handed with the orange, we know. If you’re not enamoured with citrus, opt for an elderflower spritz. There are several ways to make this one, but start with 30ml each of elderflower liqueur and gin over ice, topped with soda and sparkling wine and a garnish of cucumber, then adjust to taste.
Aperol spritz: As above, but swapping the elderflower for Aperol orange liqueur, and the cucumber for skewered green olives and a big wedge of orange. Lots of ice is essential, and pre-chill your glasses if serving during summer.
Martini: If you’ve made it this far through an aperitif story, we’re going to assume you know your preference for vodka or gin martinis, and that there are endless variations on them. For a classic wet, stir 60ml gin with 15ml vermouth over ice, strain and garnish with green olives. Add a dash of olive brine to make it dirty. Swap the olives for a pickled onion to make a Gibson, or if vodka is your poison, make it a Vesper (Bond’s favourite; a dry martini, shaken over ice, garnished with lemon peel).
Bellini: Does a cocktail designed to take with brunch count as an aperitif? Probably not, but people still go nuts for the peach nectar topped with prosecco, and sparkling. Mimosas (orange juice and champagne) fit the same bill. Sweet, bubbly, and impossible to mess up.