As many know, an aperitif is a drink taken before dinner. It may have been invented by the Frenchman Joseph Dubonnet in 1846, as one story goes, or, if you travel farther south through Europe, by Antonio Benedetto Carpano in 1786 when he invented sweet vermouth. I believe, though, that the practice of having a slight sip to start those gastronomic juices flowing goes back even farther.
To quote myself quoting Shakespeare (from an article in the forthcoming April issue of Seattle magazine), “For example, in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part II, enthusiastic imbiber Fallstaff says, ‘Come, I will go drink with you, but I cannot tarry dinner.’”
That quote points to a defining feature of the aperitif, or aperitivo if in Italy. It shouldn’t replace dinner or put it off in any way. Instead, like the putting on of an Al Green CD at the beginning of a romantic evening, a good aperitif should heighten the experience, rather than divert us from what’s to come.
So what makes a good aperitif?
I believe it should be light on its feet without sacrificing flavor; it should know its place in the grand scheme of things but still take pride in its overall design and personality, and it should never overwhelm. To be more specific, I think a good aperitif can consist of a single ingredient, lovely French vermouth Dolin Blanc with a twist of lemon for example, or a single glass of sparkling wine. But they can also be mixed drinks, if done right.
The ultimate aperitivo to enjoy in Italy (where they take their appertivo-ing very seriously) is the basic and beautiful Italian Spritz. Madly popular in the aperitif hour between work and before dinner, the Spritz in its most usual form socializes slightly citrus liqueur Aperol with Italian sparkling wine Prosecco into a dream of springtime on the Arno that’s hard to beat.
The Spritz isn’t the only mixed number to have before a meal, however. Other cocktails and bubblers stand in nicely as the starter, not only to a meal, but to a memorable night at home or out and about. A few aperitivos that I am especially fond of, which you can order at local bars or make at home:
Another Italian classic and one that’s ideal for consuming as an aperitif when the sun finally hits those warmer summer days, the Americano combines equals parts of slightly bitter Italian favorito Campari with sweet vermouth, ice, and club soda. It’s east to make at your home bar, but why not have one made by the swell bartenders at one of Seattle’s Italian hotspots, Artusi.
Another classic pre-dinner combo, tracing back to Dijon France and one Felix Kir (the mayor of Dijon way back when), this was originally just a Kir and made with white wine and crème de cassis, a French black-current liqueur. But I think it’s at its best with an ounce of Framboise, (made from French black raspberries) instead of the cassis, in a flute topped with chilled brut sparkling wine and garnished with a lemon twist. A perfect aperitif to have before a dinner at Rover’s or at Luc, both of which make dandy versions.
A special from the newish happy hour menu at Matt’s in the Market, this cross-European mingling brings together from across borders the Spanish sparkling wine Cava and Italian imbibables Campari and sweet vermouth along with orange bitters. It’s the mix to have after a little post-work Pike Place marketing or before having a snazzy meal at one of the many downtown restaurants.
The Violet Fizz
Half of the inspiration for the title of my book Ginger Bliss and the Violet Fizz takes, this light, florally, effervescence is sure to start a first (or second, or third) date in the right way. If at home, shake Ice cubes, 2 ounces gin, 1/2 ounce crème de violette, 1/4-ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice, and 1/4-ounce Simple Syrup together in a cocktail shaker. Then fill a highball glass three-quarters full with ice cubes and strain the mixture into the glass. Top it off with chilled club soda, stir well, and drink quickly. If you have a soda siphon, use it instead of club soda. And if you want to have this out go straight to Bryn Lumnsden at the Rob Roy. He may slip an egg into the Fizz, which you’ll enjoy, and will for sure make it Fizz-tastic.
If you already have a favorite pre-dinner cocktail, highball, or other drink of your own, let me know--I’m always looking for new suggestions.
Photo of Violet Fizz by Jerry Erric, originally published in Ginger Bliss and the Violet Fizz.