When it comes to drinks before dinner, bigger isn't always better.

I threw a dinner party a few years ago that started with round after round of giant, industrial-strength martinis. The first course was gazpacho. There was no second course; I never made it back to the kitchen. My friends didn't complain that night, but I did notice that the next time they came over for dinner, they went out to eat first.

Early in my drinking career, I believed that a cocktail could never be too big or too strong. When martinis came back in vogue a decade ago, huge glasses were the norm, glasses in which a small school of sharks could cruise without ever brushing against each other. Out on the town, I annoyed bartenders by directing them merely to whisper "vermouth" over the surface of the gin. At home, I kept bottles in the freezer so the ice in the shaker wouldn't melt and dilute the drink. My martinis were as volatile and lethal as nitroglycerin.

So why is it that I now annoy bartenders by asking for "reverse martinis," made up of one part gin and three parts vermouth? And why do I prowl flea markets and antique stores for glasses that hold an olive snugly?

Two things changed. First, my metabolism, which once dispatched oceans of liquor with the speed and efficiency of Federal Express, now works more like the Chicago post office. This doesn't upset me as much as you'd think, because of the second change: I discovered food. These days when dinner rolls around I'd rather be at the table than under it. Hence my newfound love for smaller, weaker preprandial cocktails.

If the world hadn't forgotten the art of the cocktail, I would never have flirted with those great sloshing martinis in the first place. Harry Craddock, the legendary barman at the Savoy in London, famously said that the best way to drink a cocktail was "quickly, while it's laughing at you." He was right. A three- or four-ounce cocktail can be downed while the frost still clings to the outside of the shaker. A supersize 10-ouncer will creep up to room temperature before the olives break the surface.

Cocktails, when drunk before a meal, should be aperitifs: small libations that wake up the appetite rather than put it to sleep. The recipes here were designed for that purpose. They call for sake or fortified wine—port, vermouth, Lillet or sherry—which are lower in alcohol than gin or vodka. Each recipe yields a nice, manageable four- or five-ounce drink. Because they are far gentler than an extra-dry martini, you can drink two or three or even four and still have your wits about you when dinner begins. You'll also have an excellent chance of making it past the soup course.