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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Campari's distinctively bitter flavor isn't for everyone. Many drinkers can appreciate it only with a generous splash of soda or seltzer, or mixed with grapefruit or orange juice. Don't smother it with ice, urges Pietro Logaldo, the regional director for the Western Hemisphere for Campari International, which is based in Monaco. "In America we have a big problem with the quantity of ice that they put in the glass, which completely dilutes the taste," he says. "In Italy, they serve Campari in a frozen glass, using very cold Campari, without ice and with a splash of soda from the siphon. When you add the soda, you release the flavors. This is the classic and best way to serve Campari."
A few aperitifs are difficult to find in the United States but definitely have their partisans. One is Cynar, a brown, bittersweet drink made in Italy using fresh artichokes and a base of distilled spirits. Another is the spirit-based Amer Picon (amer means bitter in French). It was first produced in the 1830s by Gaetan Picon, a French sergeant serving in Algeria. The formula includes flavoring from oranges, gentian root and quinine. Finally, Pimm's Original No. 1 Cup, colloquially known as Pimm's Cup, is usually grouped with the aperitifs, but is actually a commercial bottling of the gin sling cocktail.
In another taste category entirely is pastis, the aniseed-flavored spirit that has long been popular in France. Unlike most aperitifs, pastis has the same alcohol content as spirits--80 to 90 proof. Formerly obscure in the United States, pastis now benefits from the French bistro trend as well as the popularity of Peter Mayle's books A Year in Provence and Hotel Pastis, which have revived a cult of interest in this traditional French tipple. Pastis is the tamed descendant of the legendary absinthe, a greenish distillate that was so pervasive in 1890s France that the pre-dinner hour was known as l'heure verte. Absinthe contained oil of wormwood and a blistering alcohol level of 70 to 80 percent. After it was banned in France during the First World War, less lethal pastis drinks, including Pernod, Henri Bardouin and Ricard, were introduced. Ricard is now the largest-selling spirit in France.
Whatever your favorite, there is an art to drinking aperitifs. At French bistros, pastis is often served absinthe style, with a side pitcher of water that permits drinkers to adjust the flavor as desired. Clear in the bottle, pastis clouds with the addition of water or ice. Americans customarily serve wine- and vermouth-based aperitifs on the rocks, an unfortunate practice. Ice dilutes the flavor of a good aperitif in the same way that it affects a glass of wine. Europeans, who regard the American penchant for ice with some bemusement, serve aperitifs chilled, straight up. Once opened, a bottle of aperitif wine or vermouth should be refrigerated, where it will keep for about a month.
Of course, if you succumb to the considerable charms of aperitifs, a bottle will never last that long.
Jean T. Barrett is a Los Angeles-based writer on wine, spirits, food and travel and a contributor to Cigar Aficionado, Market Watch, Wine Spectator and Westways.
Making the Cocktail
Here are a few of the classic aperitif-based cocktails that are enjoying a renaissance at top bars around the country:
(created by Dale DeGroff of the Rainbow Room)
1 part Punt e Mes
1 part sweet vermouth (for a drier cocktail, use dry vermouth)
orange peel (use a rough-skinned navel orange and cut the peel into a 1 1/2 inch by 3/4 inch slice)
Briefly stir the Punt e Mes and vermouth with ice and strain into a chilled Martini glass. Flame the orange peel by holding it skin side down about two inches over the drink and passing it sharply through the flame of a lit match so that the oils flare up and land on the surface of the drink.
1 ounce Campari
1 ounce sweet vermouth
1 ounce gin
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