Aperitifs in The Spotlight

Aperitifs, which are relatively low in alcohol and semidry, with herbal notes, make ideal appetite stimulants.

Photo courtesy of Campari

In Italy, if you haven’t started your evening with an aperitif, you haven’t started your evening. Aperitifs, which are relatively low in alcohol and semidry, with herbal notes, make ideal appetite stimulants.

Orange-flavored Aperol is Italy’s most popular aperitif. In France as well as Italy, many meals begin with it or other aperitifs such as Lillet, Campari or vermouth. In South America, pisco, a brandy-related aperitif, is a venerable starter.

We Americans are more likely to encounter aperitifs indirectly as ingredients in classic cocktails such as the martini, negroni, pisco sour or even the Aperol spritz, which lightens the aperitif with prosecco and a splash of soda.

But aperitifs needn’t be just singers in the band. They can step forward and take a solo. “That little bit of bitter flavor chemically opens up your palate so your senses are more keen to the flavors you’re about to enjoy,” says Mario Firmani, beverage manager of the Altamarea Group, whose restaurants include Due Mari in New Brunswick and Osteria Morini in Bernardsville. (Due Mari mixologist Ian Alexander won this year’s Iron Shaker competition.)

Firmani doesn’t force the issue. If a patron acquires a taste for a cocktail containing an aperitif, like a No Way Rosé (white vermouth) or an Apollonia (pisco), he’ll suggest they try the aperitif neat, served in a cordial or wine glass.

“An aperitif,” he says, “usually has a lighter flavor, sometimes floral or fruit forward.”

Zach Bresson, beverage manager of the Ryland Inn in Whitehouse Station, cites the relatively low alcohol content of aperitifs (much closer to wine than to liquor) as an attraction.

“You’re enjoying a drink as a byproduct of hanging out with your friends and family,” he says, “instead of the other way around.” That’s an approach Europeans have taken for centuries. Maybe we’re finally ready to follow suit.

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