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Acquired Tastes: Aperitifs

Classic Aperitifs Find a Role in the Rebirth of the Cocktail
By Jean T. Barrett | From Claudia Schiffer, Jul/Aug 97

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.

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.

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:

Maduro Cocktail
(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
orange slice

Shake with ice and strain into a chilled Martini glass. Garnish with orange slice.

The Americano Highball
1 ounce Campari
2 ounces sweet vermouth
club soda
lemon peel

Pour the Campari and vermouth over ice cubes in a highball glass. Add soda to fill glass; stir and garnish with lemon peel.

(James Bond's Lillet Martini)
3 ounces gin
1 ounce vodka
1/2 ounce Lillet Blanc
lemon peel

Shake with ice and strain into a Martini glass. Garnish with lemon peel.

Martini Jo
(from Brasserie Jo, Chicago)
3 1/2 ounces Skyy vodka
1/2 ounce Lillet Rouge
long, thin orange peel

Shake with ice and strain into a Martini glass. Garnish with orange peel.