Get to know the pre-dinner drinks affair that will help you win friends and influence people.
Is there any drinking tradition as elegant as the aperitivo hour? Beloved in Spain, Italy, and France, the pre-dinner, typically low-ABV drink is both functional, helping to whet the appetite, and cultural, emphasizing the importance of slowing down and spending time with friends or family.
While many excellent American bars have showcased this style of drinking in their cocktail programs—think Dante in New York City or the bar at Ava Gene’s restaurant in Portland—aperitivo hour is refreshingly easy to replicate even if you’re not a professional bartender. After all, aperitivo hour might be an ongoing bar trend Stateside, but it’s a time-honored art in Europe, often taking place in homes with small bites.
So how can you bring some of this easygoing, easy-sipping ethos to your home bar? It’s important to note that the aperitivo is a culture more than a singular cocktail. Forget what you know about the American happy hour: this isn’t about slamming a couple of cheap beers to forget the terrible day you had in the office. It’s about easing out of the day and opening up the palate for a meal (aperitivo is derived from the Latin, aperire, meaning to open).
And there are so many styles to know and love: in southern Spain, vermouth or another fortified wine might be the pour of choice, while Madrileños obsess over the humble gin-and-tonic. A similar contrast exists in France, where pastis, an anise liqueur, is legendary in Marseilles, but shunned in wine-drinking Paris. And when in Italy, you’d be remiss not to try a sparkling, supremely crushable spritz—a category of cocktail spotlighting Italian amari topped off with sparkling wine and club soda.
Here in the US, the convergence of traditional aperitivos, or in French, aperitifs, with global cocktail culture has yielded numerous different styles of pre-dinner drinking. From tricked-out gin-and-tonics to Japanese highballs and new-school spritzes, here are some excellent ways to host a memorable apertivo hour right at home.
1. Rethink the spritz.
The highly photogenic Aperol Spritz may have been the unofficial cocktail of summer 2018, but spritzes are a diverse family of cocktails ripe for experimentation (grab a copy of Spritz: Italy’s Most Iconic Aperitivo Cocktail if you don’t have one already). All you need is your bitter liqueur base—yes, like Aperol and Campari, but also like Galliano, Cappelletti, and Amaro Montenegro—club soda and sparkling wine.
“You can do different kind of spritzes besides Aperol,” says Haley Forest, U.S. brand ambassador for Italicus Rosolio di Bergamotto. “Try looking at different vermouths, sherry, and amari. They come in pretty bottles that look great on a table spread. And bubbles go great with everything.”
Galliano, in particular, is an excellent substitute for Aperol as it lines up similarly in terms of sweetness, and can also be mixed with tonic. For a perfect transition to fall, try the refreshing Italicus Spritz, which spotlights the titular rose petal liqueur made with winter-friendly bergamot oranges. The recipe is simple: In a tall glass, combine 1 1/2 ounces of Italicus, 2 ounces of sparkling wine, and 1 ounce of club soda. Garnish with citrus wedges.
2. Jazz up the simple-serve cocktail.
Embrace the two-ingredient, simple-serve cocktail—those made with a simple 2-ounce pour of a spirit topped off with a carbonated element, from gin-and-tonic to rum-and-coke.
Bartenders have long scorned the tasteless vodka soda, but several new vodka products are using fresh-ingredient flavor infusions for more sophisticated sipping. For example, Ketel One Botanical, which comes in expressions like grapefruit-rose and cucumber-mint, is made like gin distilling the spirit with fruit and essential oils. Splash that with some soda for a light but herb-forward sparkler.
Then there’s the gin-and-tonic. For a fun, hands-on experience, let your guests mix and match with different gins and tonics. Fever Tree, a premium-mixer company, offers a wide range of tonics including a fancy “pink tonic” layered with Angostura bark and a new citrus tonic whose notes of key lime, tangerine, and bitter orange are actually designed for pairing with tequila. (Use their handy pairing wheel to find out which tonic goes with your favorite gin). Whatever your desired combination, you can amp it up with beautiful garnishes like mint springs, cucumber, black peppercorns, hibiscus salt, and of course citrus twists.
“Citrus zest is the difference between an average homemade drink and a professionally-made drink,” explains Forest. “You can prepare a bunch of citrus peels ahead of time—have them on a moist paper towel so they don’t dry out. When serving, teach your guests to express the oils over their drink. It’s something people making cocktails at home often forget about.”
Finally, for something heftier, consider the Japanese highball. Long a popular working-class cocktail served in Japan’s causal izakaya pubs, highballs have become a bona fide art form in their own right. To make one, store a bottle of Japanese whisky (like Suntory’s Toki) in the freezer, and when ready to serve, simply pour out 2 ounces, add fresh ice and soda water, and serve.
3. Go big with punch.
Pre-batching a punch is one way to take the stress out of what to serve. For aperitivos, make a punch that skews towards the lower-ABV side of things. Rather than load up on spirits, mix your punch with aperitif-style liqueurs or sherries. As an aside, remember to store fortified wines in the fridge.
“A lot of aperitif type drinks oxidize if left out, and that ruins the flavor,” says Forest. “Keep them in the fridge as soon as they’re opened.”
And don’t forget you can always top off a punch with something sparkling, be it champagne and prosecco or sparkling wine or even a sparkling hard cider. For the fall, adding freshly-brewed tea into the mix is another way to lower the ABV.
4. When in doubt, count on wine.
When in a pinch, you can’t go wrong with a good bottle of wine. We recommend having a red, white, and bubbly to cater to each guest’s preference. And remember: you don’t have to break the bank with a wine that’ll impress guests. Check out our guide to delicious, easy-to-find bottles for under $12.
And on the sparkling side of things, champagne is always great, but don’t forget about Italian prosecco or Spanish cava. Overall more affordable than their French counterparts, these sparkling wines will still provide the festive sipping you seek. Set up your wine in your favorite ice bucket with some flutes and you’re in business. If you’re feeling ambitious, take on some easy sparkling wine cocktails.
5. Pay attention to presentation.
There is no shortage of great recipes to try online, but ultimately it’s the presentation that will fully complete your aperitivo hour experience. Find a nice serving table or platter and lay out your ingredients—whether it’s a different collection of amari or a few bottles of gin or wine. If you are having your guests customize or finish off their own coctkails, prepare some colorful garnishes that can be added in with each new drink. And of course, don’t skimp on glassware.
“Put your glasses in the freezer beforehand so they come out nice and chilled when you’re ready to serve your drinks,” says Forest, who typically opts for tumblers when entertaining at home. “I serve almost everything in tumblers. They’re more practical because they can stack on top of each other, they’re harder to spill and break, and are the right size for most drinks.”
On the food front, take liberties with pairing. Some fresh bread with pâté can offer some heft to soak up stronger drinks, while fruits and vegetable crudité are great for lighter fare. Don’t go overboard though—you don’t want your guests too full for dinner. “Cheese and olives are always great,” says Forest. “You don’t want anything too heavy. Olives add a little bit of saltiness to offset the sweet and citrus taste of aperitifs. It really makes everything come together.”
Lastly, take care to consider simple touches like flowers, candles, and plating and silverware. These go a long way, especially when ensuring your aperitivo hour doubles as a photograph-ready moment.
Now, try your hand at this Riff Raff Spritz
by Pamela Wiznitzer (Henry at The Life Hotel)
1 oz bourbon, preferably New Riff
3/4 oz Italicus Rosolio di Bergamotto
3/4 oz fresh lemon juice
1/2 oz Earl Grey syrup*
Tiny pinch of salt
Combine all ingredients besides soda water in a shaker with ice and shake lightly for five to ten seconds. Strain into a wine glass filled with fresh ice and top with soda water. Garnish with a lemon wheel.
*For the Earl Grey syrup:
Make simple syrup by bringing one part water to a boil, then adding one part sugar. Once the sugar has dissolved, remove the syrup from heat and set aside. Steep the warm syrup with your desired number of Earl Grey tea bags for thirty minutes. Remove the tea bags, and refrigerate the mix in an airtight container.