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Spirits: The Art of the Aperitif

A nip of Dubonnet, a sip of Campari, a little Lillet--to understand the importance of the aperitif, an American writer looks to Europe.

Dinner in a Frenchman's house can be an unnerving experience for an American. For one thing, no one ever seems to be in a hurry to eat. Although you may be greeted with fabulous kisses and a warm double welcome--Bienvenue! Bienvenue!--you're likely to be seated in the parlor, without any food in sight. Your host will kindly ask after your health, nodding Bien! Bien! to whatever you answer. (A true Frenchman repeats everything.) Then you will be poured an aperitif. Your first thought--and perhaps your second and your third--will be: When are we sitting down to eat? Shouldn't this dinner get going?

But then you take a sip of your aperitif. It is light and refraissant, as the French would say, distinct from anything you have been served back home. And you'll wonder, Why don't they pour drinks like this in America? (The answer is that they do, but not often enough.) Suddenly, you will be in the very palm of the Frenchman's hand. You will happily eat when he tells you to, drink what he tells you to, and it will all take place at exactly the right time.

I am a recent convert to aperitifs and what I call the aperitif way of life--which is another way of saying I am no longer in any hurry to eat. In fact, if there were one habit I could import from Europe to America, it would be the custom of the aperitif.

For those who have never indulged in this sort of drink, here are a few basics: An aperitif (the word comes from the Latin aperire, "to open") is a light, most often dry, most often modestly alcoholic beverage meant to spark the appetite without overwhelming the senses. And while an aperitif may be as simple as a glass of dry white wine or Champagne, a true aperitif, the kind that I love, has a little more flair, more flavor, more color and--yes--a bit more sophistication. These are the aperitifs like Campari and Lillet, drinks that go (mostly) by one name and almost always are concocted from secret herbal recipes.

CAMPARI Perhaps the most famous one-name aperitif of them all is Campari, the ruby red Italian drink whose recipe is guarded more carefully than the Vatican transcripts. In fact, its recipe has been a secret since 1860, when its creator, Gaspare Campari, first began bottling his product. But Campari didn't really take off until Gaspare's son Davide hired famous artists of the 1920s and '30s to make the now-legendary Campari ad posters.

As for Campari itself, the drink is believed to contain rhubarb and ginseng, but I don't know for sure. What I do know is that Campari is very bitter, so bitter it's truly an acquired taste. But adding soda helps a great deal in the acquiring; in fact, a fair amount of chilled soda can open up Campari nicely, turning it into a more nuanced drink. (Ice is not necessary.)

DUBONNET Although Dubonnet originated almost 150 years ago as a French aperitif, for the last half century, both the red and white versions we get in this country have been American-made--from California wine fortified with a touch of brandy. White Dubonnet is a dry white wine infused with herbs, while the red is sweet, flavored with spices and quinine. Although I'm generally a big fan of wine-based aperitifs, I have a little trouble with Dubonnet--it's a bit too syrupy to fit my ideal.

LILLET And then there's Lillet. Another wine-based aperitif that also comes in red and white, Lillet is probably my favorite aperitif of all. (It was also a favorite of James Bond, who used to mix Lillet in his martini.) Made in a small town south of Bordeaux, Lillet tastes as swanky as it sounds. Perhaps it's the delicate combination of herbs, roots and fruits...but since the recipe is a secret, I'm not really sure. I prefer the rich, full-bodied white version, with its notes of candied orange and mint. (Classically, it is served with a twist of orange.)

VERMOUTH Vermouth comes in both white (dry) and red (sweet) versions, and the best-known vermouth producers are Italian (Martini & Rossi, Cinzano) and French (Noilly Prat). Both dry and sweet are wine-based, herb-infused drinks. Of the two, sweet vermouth is the more novel aperitif, at least in the States, where we tend to think of it strictly as a component in a Manhattan. But Europeans drink it before a meal, chilled or on the rocks. Perhaps one of the most unusual vermouths is the Punt e Mes, an Italian delicacy, whose name means "point and a half," in reference to the old Italian custom of adding bitters, measured in "points" to vermouth.

AND THE REST There are many other aperitifs, of course. There is, for example, a whole world of anise-based drinks like Pernod and Ricard. But while I know plenty of people who swear by them, I find these aperitifs a little too potent and forward for a predinner refreshment. I tend to like more delicate drinks like sherry (particularly the lighter finos) and Pineau des Charentes (a fortified wine from the Cognac region of France).

All I know for certain is that the moment I taste the perfect aperitif--something light and refreshing--I just want to sit down for dinner with a Frenchman and follow his lead. I know we'll get to the meal eventually. But first, we'll work on our appetites.

Jim Nelson is the assistant managing editor of GQ. 
Published May 2002
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