By Devin D. O'Leary
AUGUST 30, 1999: Once in a great while, the French actually produce something worthwhile (Notre Dame, the Croissanwich, Julie Delpy). Witness, for example, the apéritif. An apéritif is a fragrant blend of wine, spirits and a tantalizing array of exotic spices, roots, barks, herbs, buds and flowers intended to function as a pre-dinner drink. The French word apéritif is derived from the Latin verb aperire, meaning "to open." The object of this preprandial swizzle is to "open up" the taste buds and to stimulate the appetite.
The apéritif is a long-standing tradition in both France and Italy where wine is normally served with dinner, and that potent American invention known as "the cocktail" is shunned in favor of lighter before-dinner fare. Esquire magazine's Handbook for Hosts, first published in 1949, sums up the apéritif as such: "A companionable beverage, getting along harmoniously with the various viands to follow, the apéritif rarely exceeds an alcoholic tally of 18-20% by volume, compared to the cocktail's 20-90%. The wise host always has one such 'continental cocktail' to offer, along with his more potent potables."
The blending of wine and liquor (as opposed to liquor and liquor in a traditional cocktail), allows diners to drink without getting drunk (a sensation that could dampen one's eating experience). The use of wines distilled, infused or otherwise mixed with herbs, spices, roots and the other unusual ingredients (vermouth being the most common of these once-medicinal quaffs) assures a complex taste experience, setting nerves a-firing in all of one's taste buds (from sweet to sour to bitter to spicy). Rather than deadening the tongue, the point of an apéritif is to awaken the mouth and get it primed for the dining experience to come (kinda like MSG).
Esquire -- being the premier men's magazine on topics of wine, women and song, and a reliable source for all things cocktail -- once categorized its "Big Four" apéritifs as sherry, vermouth, Byrrh and Dubonnet. Although there are others that can be included on this list (Amer Picon, Campari, Lillet, Ouzo, Pernod, port, sherry), all have a single trait in common: They began life as simple red or white wines. Each was then flavored additionally with a secret and complex blend of ingredients. Each can be quaffed by itself as an apéritif, but each takes on a unique palatable power when mixed with other liquors. Byrrh, for example, is a French proprietary wine with a tangy aftertaste. Campari is an Italian apertivo with an unabashed bittersweet bite. Pernod is a high-proof French anise-flavored liqueur, often used as a substitute for absinthe, which is now illegal. Dubonnet was invented by Frenchman Paul Dubonnet more than 150 years ago for medicinal purposes. It contains, among other herbs, cinchona bark, the basis of quinine, and is compounded of several sweet wines, the basic one being red.
So, the next time you're out to sup, order up one of the following apéritifs -- it'll make Le Big Mac taste all that much better.
3 ounces dry sherry
Stir well over ice. Strain into a cocktail glass.
1 1/2 ounces Campari
Stir Campari and sweet vermouth well with ice. Strain into an old-fashioned glass. Twist lemon peel above drink and drop into glass. Top with soda.
1 1/2 ounces Byrrh
Shake Byrrh, creme de cassis and lemon juice well with ice. Strain into old-fashioned glass filled with ice cubes. Add lemon slice -- and a splash of soda if desired.
3 ounces dry white vermouth
Swirl Pernod around inside of six-ounce cocktail glass and discard excess. Stir vermouth and Benedictine with ice and strain into glass. Garnish with orange twist.
1 1/2 ounces Red Dubonnet
Stir Dubonnet and gin well with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass. Twist lemon peel above drink and drop into glass.
3/4 ounce Campari
Stir well with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass. May be served on the rocks with a twist of lemon or splash of soda or both.
1 ounce Dubonnet
Shake ingredients well over ice. Strain into an old-fashioned glass. Garnish with lemon slice.
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