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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

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Lillet has present-day adherents as well. Jean-Jacques "JJ" Vigoureux, the owner of JJ's Cuisine and Wine, a French bistro and gourmet take-out operation in Ponte Vedra Beach, near Jacksonville, Florida, grew up in Podensac and knew the Lillet family. A die-hard Lillet fan, Vigoureux has decorated his restaurant with Lillet umbrellas, an original 1930s advertising poster by Robie and a huge hand-painted mural showing a still life of a bottle of Lillet and two glasses. "People just fall in love with it," he declares. "We don't serve it on the rocks or with tonic; we serve it chilled, straight up. We also mix the white and red together, which is absolutely sublime."

One of the oldest names in aperitifs is St. Raphaël, which dates from 1830. It was invented by a French physician named Jupet, who, legend has it, was concocting a quinine-flavored aperitif wine when he suddenly lost his sight. He prayed to the patron saint of the blind, Archangel Raphaël, and his sight was restored. Grateful for the miracle, Jupet named the potion St. Raphaël Quinquina, and it became immensely successful. St. Raphaël is based on mistelle, a mixture of grape brandy and grape juice, which is flavored with quinine, bitter orange peel, vanilla and cocoa. It is sweet in style and is made in gold and red versions.

Visitors to France's Cognac region sip a regional aperitif, Pineau des Charentes, that has gained some popularity abroad; the brand most frequently seen in the United States is Reynac. Pineau des Charentes is a mistelle, a mixture of Cognac brandy and fresh juice from the local wine grapes. It is aged in Limousin oak casks for a minimum of 18 months, after which it is filtered and bottled at an alcohol level of 16 to 20 percent, depending upon the producer. Pineau des Charentes is served chilled or on the rocks; it is also delicious spooned over fresh melon slices.

Although vermouth is most familiar to American drinkers as an ingredient in such popular cocktails as the Martini and the Manhattan, this aromatized, or flavored, fortified wine is widely consumed as an aperitif in Europe. The word vermouth comes from the German wermut, or wormwood, an herb whose flowers have been used as a medicine and in tonic drinks since the time of the ancient Greeks. The volatile oil of wormwood, which comes from the plant's leaves, contains a natural narcotic that was responsible for the devastating effects of absinthe in the nineteenth century (abusers of the drink often suffered brain damage) and led to its being outlawed in France in 1915. The harmless wormwood flower, as well as such flavorings as coriander, quinine, hyssop, bitter orange peel and other herbs and spices, are all used to flavor today's vermouths.

Vermouths are made in dry and sweet styles. The popular misconception is that the Italian vermouth is sweet and its French counterpart is dry. Actually, most vermouth producers, whether they are based in France, Italy or the United States, make sweet (which is generally red) and dry (generally white) versions. Many expert bartenders advise stocking a bar with an Italian sweet (such as Cinzano or Martini & Rossi) and a French dry (such as Noilly Prat or Boissiere) vermouth.

Punt e Mes is a darkly colored, distinctively flavored vermouth made with white wine, fortified with alcohol, sweetened with sugar and flavored with a proprietary blend of herbs. The vermouth's unusual name, which means "point and a half," stems from the custom in nineteenth-century Italy of adding bitters to vermouth. Drinkers would ask for one, two or several "points" of bitters according to their taste. One evening in 1870, a stockbroker was in the popular Carpano bar in Turin after a long day at the Borsa (stock exchange) and distractedly raised his hand to order vermouth with bitters in a gesture that he had been repeating for hours on the trading floor. "Punt e mes!" he blurted out automatically. Everyone laughed at his confusing a stock bid with a drink order, but the name stuck and Punt e Mes was born.

Dale DeGroff is among the many fans of Punt e Mes. "It's really a marvelous drink," he enthuses. "Making a Manhattan or a Negroni using Punt e Mes instead of the normal vermouth is really a nice touch."

Not all aperitifs have a wine base. Some of the most popular brands are spirit-based, including Campari, Amer Picon and Cynar. In the United States, Campari is gaining wider appeal, thanks in part to its role in many popular drinks, such as flavored Martinis. This assertively bitter Italian drink was invented in the 1860s by Gaspare Campari, an entrepreneurial fellow who owned a popular café in Milan's famous Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele. Campari initially named his scarlet-tinged concoction Bitter all'uso d'Hollandia, to capitalize on the reputation of Dutch cordials, although, in fact, the novel brew had no connection with Holland. The unique drink caught on.

Then, as now, the precise formula for Campari is a secret reputedly known only to the factory director at the main production facility in Sesto San Giovanni, north of Milan. The exact recipe is so guarded that the factory director mixes the ingredients in a special blending room and the premixed ingredients are then shipped to other Campari production facilities in Brazil, France and Switzerland. What is known is that the recipe includes quinine, rhubarb, ginseng, the peel of bitter oranges and aromatic herbs, which are combined and macerated in a blend of distilled water and alcohol for a couple of weeks. The resulting acrid mixture is sweetened with sugar and tinted red with cochineal dye, a common food colorant, and the alcohol level is adjusted to 48 proof for the U.S. market.

One of the earliest line extensions in the spirits industry was Campari Soda, which was created by Gaspare Campari's son Davide in 1932. This premixed cocktail of Campari and soda water is packaged in a distinctive cone-shaped bottle designed by the famed Italian futurist designer Fortunato Depero. While Campari Soda is spectacularly popular in Italy, it has never taken off in the United States. The innovative Davide Campari was also responsible for commissioning major artists to design posters for Campari. Today these posters are not only collectible, they are icons in the history of advertising design.

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