What you need to know about French aperitifs — the low-alcohol, intensely flavored sip before dinner
In Italy, before dinner there are spritzes, and international cocktail drinkers can’t resist their colorful, fizzy flirtations. In Spain, oversized gin tonics rule the cocktail hour. I prefer the French way to spend those precious minutes — l’heure d’apero, the elegant hour of the aperitif.
Low in alcohol, intense in flavor, often with a streak of bitterness to stimulate the appetite, French aperitifs provide a thoughtful moment before diving into the efforts of choosing your meal and pairing wine. Most of these spirits have been in production for over a century (their antique labels are a delight), and all of them work well as cocktail ingredients if you tire of sipping them straight. Here’s a collection of favorites — scour your local French bistro or wine bar’s list, or pick up and chill a couple of bottles to have them handy for whenever you want to toast the French way. Sante.
WINE-BASED APERITIFS, QUINQUINAS AND BITTERS
Perhaps the queen of all aperitifs, wine-based Lillet comes in three charming colors — blanc, rosé and rouge. All are elegant and approachable served on ice with a strip of citrus zest. Made in Bordeaux with the wine of the region, plus oranges, sugar and lots of secret ingredients.
Also blanc or rouge, Cap Corse Quinquina, an infusion of citrus (the thick skinned citron) and quinine (the anti-malarial bittering agent from cinchona bark also found in tonic water), makes a dry, bracing opening drink for the evening. Made in Corsica since the late 1800s, Cap Corse has close flavor cousins in earthy Bonal (from the French Alps) and richer, more portlike Byrrh (from the southwest of France near Spain).
The bitter sisters, Suze and Salers, get their lovely light herbal bitterness from wild Alpine gentian root, and Suze’s pretty yellow color will turn heads, especially when accented with a lemon slice and a single ice cube. Salers is wine-based, and the more earthy and bitter of the two, where Suze shows off the pure flavor of gentian.
An anise-flavored liqueur that becomes cloudy when water is added, traditionally done to lower the proof to aperitif level. Not to be confused with absinthe, its storied green ancestor, the more herbal pastis still appeals to licorice lovers — look for the Ricard brand for best sipping.
Popular wherever romance languages are spoken, vermouth is a fortified wine, made dry or sweet, that is also aromatized by adding all sorts of botanicals. In the States, vermouth has been pigeonholed into martini and Manhattan mixology, but if you order a martini in a French cafe, you may find yourself with a lovely glass of Martini & Rossi vermouth, on ice. Seek out the Dolin brand for an authentic French experience, and refrigerate after opening.