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.