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Not Just For Openers Classic Aperitifs Find a Role in the Rebirth of the Cocktail
Jean T. Barrett
Posted: August 1, 1997

Dale DeGroff's friend John was in a quandary. "He called me up in desperation!" DeGroff exclaims. "He needed a new drink. He wanted to lay off the Scotch and drink something lighter. But it had to go with his cigar." DeGroff, the beverage director of New York City's Rainbow Room, promised that he would give the dilemma his immediate attention. "I called him back and here's what I told him," DeGroff says briskly. "Take one part Punt e Mes and one part sweet vermouth. Stir it with ice and strain into a chilled Martini glass. Flame an orange peel over it, and serve. It's like a Negroni, but without the oomph. And it's cigar friendly."

Did the prescription work? "The next day he called me back, in heaven," DeGroff says with a chuckle.

Punt e Mes, a venerable vermouth made by G.B. Carpano of Turin, Italy, is one of several classic aperitifs that are gaining wider recognition as cocktail drinkers seek new taste experiences. Better bars and restaurants that cater to the current interest in retro and classic drinks now feature such aperitifs as Campari, Lillet, Dubonnet and a range of Italian and French vermouths. The plus for cigar aficionados? These drinks work extremely well with a fine smoke. "Gin or vodka Martinis really don't stand up to a cigar; they're cigarette drinks," says DeGroff, a longtime cigar smoker. "With Punt e Mes, it's the spiciness that works with a cigar, and it's also the sweetness, because good maduro tobacco has a sweetness."

The popularity of French bistros and brasseries, which serve authentic French drinks, is also broadening awareness of aperitifs. At Brasserie Jo in Chicago, the dinner menu is headlined by "Apéritifs Français," a list that includes Ricard, Pernod, Lillet, Dubonnet, Pineau des Charentes and a cocktail called L'Americaine, made with Dubonnet, sweet vermouth and soda. Brasserie Jo's bartenders serve these drinks in the logo-emblazoned glass barware familiar to anyone who has traveled in France. "Aperitifs are part of the experience of brasserie dining," says Beth Hetherington, the manager of Brasserie Jo. "Traditionally, a French meal is meant to begin with one of these drinks. So we educate our customers about them and how they set the stage for your palate to enjoy the meal. Now that we have been open a year, we have built a following for those items and we sell a lot more of them than when we first started."

The French word apéritif and the Italian aperitivo originated with the Latin aperire, "to open." Aperitifs are meal openers, whetting the appetite with piquant, bittersweet flavors. They range from wine-based products such as Lillet to the traditional French pastis, an aniseed-flavored spirit. With the exception of pastis, the alcohol content of most aperitifs, which is in the range of 32 to 48 proof, or 16 to 24 percent, is lower than that of distilled spirits and doesn't dull the palate when consumed in moderation.

Wine-based aperitifs, such as Dubonnet, Lillet and St. Raphaël, share a bittersweet flavor that stems from a common flavoring element, quinine, an extract of the cinchona tree bark that has been used as a medicine for centuries. During the late eighteenth and throughout the nineteenth centuries, the addition of this tonic to wine was thought to be highly salubrious. In her definitive The Penguin Book of Spirits and Liqueurs, Pamela Vandyke Price relates that during Napoleon's Egyptian campaign in 1798, he "decreed that his troops should have their daily wine ration mixed with quinine, as a health measure." Dubonnet and St. Raphaël were formerly labeled quinquina, meaning quinine tonic, and these names can still be seen in vintage advertising posters. Lillet used to be known as Kina Lillet, derived from the Peruvian Indian name for the cinchona tree, kin-kina.

Dubonnet was created by a Paris wine merchant, Joseph Dubonnet, in the mid-1800s. Despite its French heritage, American supplies of this aperitif have been produced in the United States since international production facilities were moved here during the Second World War. American-produced Dubonnet is made from California wine that has been fortified with grape brandy to 19 percent alcohol, and is flavored with several dozen natural ingredients, including herbs, plants, roots, spices, peels, seeds and flowers. It is available in red and white.

Lillet is a Bordeaux wine-based aperitif that was invented in 1887 and has always been made in the town of Podensac in the Graves region. Lillet Blanc, by far the better-known bottling, is a blend of 85 percent Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc wine, with 15 percent fruit liqueurs, which are made by macerating oranges and other fruits in brandy for several months. Lillet Rouge is produced similarly, but with a base of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot wines. Both the rouge and the blanc are aged in oak casks for a year before they are bottled.

Lillet Blanc used to be more bitter than it is now. After Bruno Borie of the famed Borie family (the owners of several Bordeaux châteaux) purchased Lillet Frères in 1985, he reformulated the product, reduced the quinine content slightly and altered the aging process, which resulted in a lighter and fruitier drink. Between 1990 and 1993, Lillet Rouge was also reformulated with higher-quality base wines to produce a more complex flavor. Lillet is 18 percent alcohol, and both the white and the red are often served with an orange slice or a curl of orange peel.

James Bond was partial to Lillet. In Ian Fleming's Casino Royale, the legendary spy ordered a custom-blended Martini that contained Lillet Blanc in addition to prodigious quantities of gin and vodka, an elixir Bond later dubbed the "Vesper" after his inamorata. The resulting publicity did much to augment sales of the aperitif in the 1950s and '60s.

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