Opening Act

Discover the appeal—slightly bitter, slightly sweet, fully invigorating—of the aperitif.

Just as taste buds grow to love the bitter and bracing later in life, our cocktail culture is coming of age—and seeking something a bit more bittersweet. The signposts are appearing on menus and behind bars across the region under a categorical heading the French tell us we’ve been ignoring for far too long: Aperitifs.

Derived from the Latin word aperire, which means “to open,” aperitifs do just that for palates dulled by the drudgeries of the day, waking them up for an evening (or afternoon) meal. Brightly flavored, mildly alcoholic and typically infused with herbs or roots, aperitifs live at the interplay of bitter and sweet.

They point toward the meal ahead and toward a culture that, increasingly, considers drinking an indispensible part of the experience.

“We’ve had a decade of good cocktail culture in Virginia, at least in my restaurants,” says Todd Thrasher, partner in an Alexandria-based restaurant group whose flagship, Restaurant Eve, had a hand in starting Virginia’s craft spirit movement.

It’s that culture, driven by a renaissance in the craft of bartending, that’s led to greater familiarity with what goes into a cocktail. But aperitifs like Lillet and Cocchi Americano are more than ingredients that play second fiddle in a drink or display on a well-appointed bar shelf. These workhorse aperitifs, set apart by their lower alcohol levels and invigorating effect on the tongue, deserve their own glass, a little ice and center stage at the start of a meal, Northern Virginia bartenders say.

“Aperitifs are an interesting subject in American dining,” says Michael Williams, beverage director at Bastille, a French eatery in Alexandria. “You have a whole crew of people that don’t even know what they are, you have people who include them in their meal as a matter of course, and everything in between.”

In European dining traditions, aperitifs open the meal and digestifs close it out, with wine flowing aplenty in between. The dividing line between aperitifs and digestifs, apart from when they are consumed, is alcohol. Digestifs, as the name implies, aid digestion at the end of a meal by deploying higher levels of alcohol, which act as a solvent for a stomach laden with food.

If digestifs signal the end of an evening, aperitifs are their crisp, party-starting counterpart. They may replace cocktails at happy hour, but their true focus is on the meal to come.  

Aperitifs “can be the social lubricant still, with that little bit of alcohol, but they don’t overcome your palate,” says Williams.

Unlike other French beverages, what constitutes an aperitif is subject to some interpretation, depending on the meal and a person’s palate.

It can depend on the country of origin. There are traditional bottles that have played a meal-opening role for more than a century, like the French Lillets or Dubonnets. Italians, credited with the first vermouths, have their own fleet of modern aperitivos, and the Spanish often pour sherry at that afternoon hour before a meal.

At Bastille, Williams grins at Francophiles who arrive and instantly order aperitifs by name, but he is also eager to woo new converts to the art of the aperitif.

“When people say, ‘Oh, we’re going to have a drink before we sit down,’ that’s technically an aperitif,” Williams says. “If you can trick people into having a proper aperitif, it can change the way they perceive a meal.”

Aperitifs 101

For novices, Society Fair in Alexandria is a good place for an aperitif primer. The market and eatery also sells about a dozen bottles of traditional aperitifs and offers tastings at a sprawling marble bar.

I recently pulled up a barstool to learn more from Thrasher, whose restaurant group opened this “boutique emporium” of food and drink three years ago.

It was Thrasher’s restaurant partner and chef Cathal Armstrong who first introduced him to aperitif culture. Armstrong, who is from Ireland, would often start his evenings with a glass of Lillet Blanc on ice and a twist of orange peel.

“He was the only person I knew that was really drinking that kind of stuff,” Thrasher says, as he pours me a glass of the same.

The taste is bright, slightly sweet with hints of vanilla and orange teased out by a sliver of peel. A combination of herbs and roots lends balance to the wine-based aperitif, which is made from white (Lillet Blanc) or red (Lillet Rouge) grapes. The brand also launched Lillet Rosé in 2011.

“How could you not like that?” Thrasher asks of the drink he calls “a gateway drug” to appreciating the broader category of aperitifs.

Lillet first romanced American drinkers in the 1930s and became “the star of every New York bar” by midcentury, according to a history of the brand on its website.

When Thrasher opened his speakeasy PX above Eamonn’s A Dublin Chipper in Alexandria almost 10 years ago, no one was ordering aperitifs.

One of the first cocktails on his menu, called Sweet Basil and inspired by an abundance of the herb that grows in Restaurant Eve’s kitchen garden, has remained ever since, thanks to the complex sweetness three ounces of Lillet imbues. It’s still one of his most popular drinks and one of 17 bottled cocktail mixes he sells at Society Fair.

While Lillet makes for a refreshing entry point to the family of aperitifs, some might prefer its stronger Italian cousin. Cocchi Aperitivo Americano captivated many craft cocktail bars when it first splashed onto the American scene about five years ago, lending a bitter edge to mixed drinks.

The wine-based drink is flavored with botanicals and, most importantly, cinchona bark, the original source of the bitter element called quinine that defines this genre of aperitifs (chinatis in Italian; quinquinas in French).

Three years ago, Thrasher says, he couldn’t imagine patrons walking into his speakeasy and ordering “a Cocchi on the rocks.”

“Now, you start to see it,” he says.

The French Way

While cocktails have led new audiences to aperitifs, others discover them through food (especially if the French are leading the way).

When dining at traditional French restaurants like L’Auberge Chez François in Great Falls, aperitifs are par for the (first) course. The restaurant, at its current location since 1976, starts its cocktail menu with “L’Aperitif du Patron,” or house aperitif, made with sparkling wine, raspberry-flavored alcohol and Chambord liqueur, as it has for years. Other palate openers include Amer Picon, an orange-flavored French aperitif, paired with Stella Artois and lemon.

Williams says aperitifs don’t have to be relegated to the beginning of a meal but could reappear between courses as part of an intermezzo. He’s been mulling a multi-course meal at Bastille that would feature aperitifs and their ability to set the pace amid a parade of delicate dishes. (If his unexpected suggestion of serving Bugey Cerdon, a tart wine that “dances around on your palate,” as an aperitif is any indication of how such a meal would transpire, I’m game.)

“It’s just a matter of people discovering how much an aperitif can effect the way they enjoy their meal,” says Williams, who, in true French style, likes to craft the drinks to the food they’re accompanying.

“The aperitif is really the first place that the food and beverage collide with each other. If it’s a good collision—if they end up going faster in the same direction afterward—then that’s a good thing.”

Getting A Taste For It

For those who may have a bad taste in their mouths about aperitifs, it’s probably because they’ve been served past-its-prime vermouth by a bartender who relegated it to a back shelf.

Thrasher’s bars keep opened bottles of aperitifs in the refrigerator, and he suggests drinkers do the same at home. Wine-based vermouths can go sour and should be consumed within a week, 10 days tops, once opened. For that reason Thrasher suggests starting with smaller bottles of aperitifs that can double for sipping and mixing, like Cocchi Americano.

And don’t go looking for a world-class selection in this category at ABC liquor stores; they’ll offer little more than a couple of vermouths, and not the best ones for sipping, says Williams, whose aperitif of choice these days is a glass of Dolin Blanc vermouth with lemon.

Because aperitifs are lower in alcohol than most other liquors, they don’t have to be sold through state liquor stores and are often available where large selections of wines are sold (you can buy a starter bottle of Lillet at Total Wine & More, actually).

If you’re not sure how you feel about the bitter side of aperitifs, on the rocks or otherwise, ask your neighborhood bartender to convince you of its merits. If you don’t have a neighborhood bartender, give it some time.

Aperitifs are on such a rise that, Thrasher predicts, “In two years, they’ll be at chain restaurants in Reston.”,,,,

This article originally appeared in our Oct. 2015 issue.

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