An Intro to Aperitifs

5 to Wet Your Whistle


Happy hour you say? Looking for a cocktail (or three) to get in the mood for dinner? There is a time for a cocktail, and then there is the time for an aperitif, and before dinner is definitely that time.

Aperitif -- from the Latin aperir, "to open" -- is the way to get the appetite, well, open. An aperitif is designed to move you gently to the dinner table and prepare your senses for the feast that is to come, so don't expect a high-alcohol sugar bomb. Instead, roll with the classic aperitif stimuli.
Most aperitifs tend to be on the bitter side, though many are wine-based, so there is a gentle fruitiness backing up the bitter notes. As with many infused beverages, plenty of still-popular aperitifs were originally formulated to be used as medicine. I'm not sure there is anything more effective than alcohol in any of these, but let us not look down at that as a cure for certain ills!

Campari -- Perhaps the most popular aperitif, or, more appropriately, aperitivo. This lurid red treat is made with a closely guarded recipe, but there is no denying that its signature combination of bitter, fruity, sour, and softly sweet is about as good an appetite-whetter as any available. Though many people will say that it's too bitter, even when cut with the obligatory splash of soda and garnished with a juicy slice of orange, those people are missing out. Ignore them.

Lillet -- Lillet is as French as Campari is Italian, and you can find the wonderful, antique advertising posters for both aperitifs hanging in lofts everywhere, each capturing the style of their respective country perfectly. Lillet is a wine-based aperitif produced just south of the Bordeaux wine region. It comes in both red and white, using either wine as the respective base. This is another secret-recipe aperitif, but one that is less intensely bitter and, in the case of the red version, far sweeter than Campari. Distinctly orange-flavored with hints of quinine and complex green herbs tying it all together, it is an alluringly sweet & savory segue to dinner.

Dubbonet -- Dubonnet is another French creation, though the aperitif sold in the U.S. is now made with base wines from California. Both of the Dubonnets, again made in red and white versions, are sweeter than their Lillet counterparts and, like Lillet, quinine plays a distinct role in the flavor profile of Dubonnet. Seems like many of these aperitifs were originally used not to stimulate the appetite, but rather to fight off malaria. Talk about repurposing!

Pineau des Charentes -- This is a simple drink -- three-quarters grape juice and one quarter eau-de-vie from Cognac -- but the combination is pure magic. There is a symmetry to the flavors in Pineau des Charentes: the sweet flavors of the juice highlight the honeyed and caramel tones of the eau-de-vie, while the alcohol draws out the fruit tones.

Vermouth -- The sad fact is that many modern drinkers have lost the taste for Vermouth, but before dinner is the perfect time to get it back! Vermouth is of course a wine-based drink infused with various and sundry fruits, herbs and spices. You can find sweet, dry and extra-dry versions of Vermouth, but for an aperitif, we suggest the plain, old dry versions. These Vermouths tend to be light and easy on the palate, with great subtle aromas and intriguing complexity. You can look out for some boutique brands such as Vya or Dolin Vermouth de Chambéry, but an inexpensive standby such as Boissiere Dry will also do the trick.

Mentioned in this article


  • I am a huge fan of sweet Vermouth over ice with bitters. It is perfect and as un-sweet as it is sweet. If you havn't tried In Malta I found a soda named Kinnie that is a "natural refreshment made from bitter oranges and aromatic herbs" that is sweet Vermouth without the alcohol. It was wonderful, wish I could get it in the US.

    Oct 08, 2010 at 8:45 PM

  • Snooth User: bertie7
    360236 4

    i also like Aperol but it is very sweet

    Oct 09, 2010 at 5:12 AM

  • Snooth User: Anand7
    578418 26

    Originally (and perhaps, still) the bitter in Campari and definitely in vermouth came from wormwood...vermouth was/is flavoured with artemisia flowers and means wormwood (verm=worm, houd=wood)

    Oct 09, 2010 at 7:27 AM

  • What about the Floc de Gascogne? It's a regional apéritif produced in the heart of Gascony, from the Côtes de Gascogne and Armagnac regions in South West France. Made of 2/3 fresh grape juice and 1/3 Armagnac, both of which must be produced in the same vineyard area. It earned AOC status in 1990.

    Floc de Gascogne can be produced in both white and rosé varieties (usually called red). Legally, it must be held for 10 months in the cellar of the producer prior to it's release.

    Both the traditional white grape varieties of Armagnac are used along with the black varieties of Bordeaux and the South West of France.

    Drink it cool and enjoy the floral, almond, honey and black berry notes that are typical to this apéritif.

    To learn more about Floc de Gascone visit:

    Oct 09, 2010 at 9:35 AM

  • Snooth User: Pfificus
    600233 32

    The vermouth version I prefer is the following:
    3 parts of red vermouth (Martini & Rossi)
    1 part of Gin (Tanqueray if available)
    2 ice cubes and stir
    squeezed oil from a stripe of thin lemon peel and the rub the inside of the peel around the glass rim.
    In italy and France they have a typical glass that I never found here.
    Just try and enjoy!

    Oct 09, 2010 at 9:57 AM

  • Snooth User: courgette
    124481 158

    One of my favorites is the Americano-- equal parts Campari and Italian/sweet/red vermouth, on the rocks with a splash of soda, garnished with an orange wheel, or wedge (squeezed), or a lemon twist. I like a nice dash of orange bitters, too.

    Oct 14, 2010 at 5:47 PM

  • Snooth User: courgette
    124481 158

    While I'm commenting, could I request that the author or editor remove the errant H in the subtitle of this article? You WHET (i.e. sharpen) your appetite, but WET (i.e. moisten) your whistle.

    In the case of aperitifs, we're wetting our whistles in order to whet our appetites!

    Oct 14, 2010 at 5:51 PM

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