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European roots

From the Latin aperire (to open), the term "aperitif" is used to encompass a wide variety of drinks, from straight Vermouth through to complex cocktails, that stimulate the palate and prepare the stomach for food. They rose to fame in France and Italy, where the aperitif or aperitivo moment is still an integral part of dining, before traveling across the water to the USA and beyond.

These days, the term can be used for any pre-meal drink, but they all commonly contain something bitter or sour to stimulate the senses. Aperitifs also play an important social role, marking that time between the end of work and the more formal occasion of dinner. They’re the perfect tipple to open an evening and, as such, they tend not to be too strong or too filling—they’re intended to set your guests up for the night ahead and build the anticipation of food, not replace it entirely.

Promoting your aperitifs

The bar owner in me treats the aperitif ritual with a great deal of respect. I have venues that sell food and those that don’t, but for both, the pre-dinner drink occasion is one of the foundations for our business. It is often the busiest time of day for many bars and having a good selection of aperitifs is a great way to draw in customers. If you’re in the restaurant trade, they offer a sale opportunity before a guest has even chosen their food; aperitifs not only welcome your guests, but they set the tone for their entire dining experience.

Here a few ways to make sure you promote your aperitifs effectively:

  1. Keep menus short and simple with a maximum of five or six carefully selected aperitifs to avoid "choice overload"
  2. Aperitifs should be presented before your wine list, clearly marked as pre-dinner drinks
  3. If included in your main cocktail menu, try arranging drinks in order from aperitif through to more stand-alone drinks and heavier digestifs
  4. Have one or two house specials or recommendations highlighted on your menu to offer every new guest
  5. Use beautiful images and evocative descriptions to create appeal
  6. Some venues offer a small, complimentary aperitif to bridge that gap between arrival and ordering (in which case, go for something easy to batch, pre-dilute and keep in the fridge)

Aperitifs around the world

Travelling and working around the world, it’s been fascinating to see how each culture has adopted its own take on the aperitif moment. Of course, as a Brit, I have a special affinity with the bittersweet G&T. In the Caribbean, it’s the tart, refreshing bite of the Daiquiri; in Brazil, the tang of the Caipirinha; while in Mexico, the Paloma offers both citrus and bitterness. In Asia, the refreshing Whisky Highball (or Mizuwari) is a subtle and elegant aperitif, and in Eastern Europe I’ve had plenty of infused vodkas served chilled with a side of pickles to really fire up the appetite. Of course, France and Italy have a huge selection, from the Kir to the Spritz, not to mention the Negroni and all its variations. As a bartender, I love to experiment, and these classics are the perfect starting point:

United Kingdom: G&T

The key to this quintessential British classic is getting everything cold and the ratio correct. I put the tonic and Gin in the fridge and have fresh ice from a freezer if possible. This keeps dilution to a minimum and holds the carbonation in the tonic. I also prefer the classic highball over the larger fish-bowl style serve—especially when served as an aperitif.

METHOD:

Add the Gin to a highball glass with cold ice

Pour half the tonic in slowly to keep carbonation

Stir briefly

Add more ice if needed and top with the remaining soda

Garnish with a lime wedge

16.99g of alcohol* (according to oz. of the serve)

Mexico: Paloma

Spanish for Dove, the Paloma is very popular in Mexico and its balance of freshness and bitterness makes for the perfect aperitif. Although it’s often made with grapefruit soda, I personally prefer freshly squeezed grapefruit juice—after all, Mexico is one of the world’s biggest producers of the fruit.

METHOD:

Add the Tequila to a highball glass with ice

Pour in grapefruit juice and half the soda slowly to keep carbonation

Stir briefly

Add more ice if needed and top with the remaining soda

Garnish with a lime wedge

Japan: Whisky Highball

The Whisky Highball (or Mizuwari—literally, “cut with water”) is simple but often complicated by ritual. It has a long history in Japan and can be sipped as an aperitif or with food. With so few ingredients, the choice of Whisky makes all the difference.

METHOD:

Fill a (thin) highball with very cold ice, ideally large cubes to reduce the surface area

Stir until the glass is very cold, then strain off the excess water

Add the Whisky and stir (some say 13½ times, clockwise)

Add more ice if needed, top with the water and stir (another 3½ times)

Caribbean: Daiquiri

While the other serves are all Highballs, the Daiquiri is short, sharp and to the point. It is a perfect combination of three Caribbean products—rum, lime and sugar. Ratios and styles vary according to local Rums, limes and sugar styles, but traditionally it’s a light, dry Rum style. For an aperitif, a natural Daiquiri is best – not something flavored or frozen. Too much ice in your stomach won’t do anything for the appetite.

METHOD:

Shake hard over ice

Fine strain into a chilled cocktail glass

Garnish with a small twist of lime zest

(*One standard drink contains 0.6 fluid ounces of alcohol)