Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke: Paying More Attention to Aperitifs

Glass of Aperol on ice next to a martini.

"Not only are they interesting in a drink-geek kind of way, but they're incredibly useful in a cocktail context."

At meals, as in life, it's sometimes best to start slow.

Consider the preprandial tipple. In Italy, France, and other parts of Europe, it was once commonplace (though less so nowadays) to ease one's way into the dinner hour with a lightly alcoholic aperitif. In some places this means a glass of sweet or dry vermouth, in others a crisply bitter quinquina, and in others the awakening spark of a bitter liqueur such as Amer Picon, Campari or Aperol.

And in the U.S.? Somehow, we got off track. Start your evening with a half-hour at the bar, and it's likely to involve a martini, a whiskey or other high-octane drink with a palate-whomping alcoholic payload (or worse yet, a dose of sweeteners or liqueurs that push the drink in the direction of the dessert category). Or a beer or glass of wine of the type that would typically be served with one of the courses of the meal. Not out of place, certainly, but perhaps lacking in imagination.

Americans have never fully embraced the beauty and function of the aperitif. As Jason Wilson writes in the Washington Post, today's craft bartenders, drink aficionados and spirits importers are doing their best to turn this situation around.

I've previously written (in Imbibe) about the class of quinquinas —wines such as Dubonnet or Kina Lillet, which were flavored with quinine and other herbs. I've been eager to see the class of aperitifs expand in the U.S., both for their usefulness as aperitifs but also as ingredients in the cocktail shaker.

As Wilson writes, we won't have to wait much longer. Minnesota-based importer Eric Seed, who has previously brought acclaimed libations such as Batavia arrack, crème de violette and Dolin vermouth to American bars, is launching his first wave of aperitif wines over the next few weeks.

First out of the gate are Bonal, a brisk and lightly bitter wine from France that's flavored with quinine and gentian; and Cocchi Aperitivo Americano, a white-wine based quinquina that fills a gap left by Lillet, which dropped the "Kina" from its name in the 1980s when it reformulated, lowering its quinine content and in the process losing its bitter edge.

I've long been a fan of vermouths, quinquinas and other aperitif drinks. Not only are they interesting in a drink-geek kind of way, but they're incredibly useful in a cocktail context, and they have a tremendous cultural and culinary background that we're only beginning to explore in the U.S.

Exciting things are underway in the aperitif field nowadays—let's hear your perspective. Do you have a favorite pre-dinner drink that contributes to your overall dining experience? And are there aperitif wines, spirits or cocktails that you've found particularly engaging, whether while traveling or here at home?