Every culture around the world has some form of pre-dinner drinking. It’s a way to wind down after a long week—or day—of working. For example, you might be at a karaoke bar in Seoul sipping on some Korean Soju, or “going for a round” at a local pub in Ireland. Meanwhile, in the United States, you’re headed out to happy hour to wind down with friends or coworkers. But in France, your M.O. is enjoying an apéritif.
When you think of the word apéritif, you might picture snooty, high-end restaurants. Or even a bunch of dudes wearing monocles and top hats sitting in front of a fire talking politics. One says, “I do say, good sir, this is rather too sweet an apéritif in my opinion,” and he lets out a nasally disapproving laugh. The thought of it makes you want to cringe. Apéritifs sound like they’re reserved for a different socio-economic class of people. Or that they’re only for cultures that embrace life and enjoy, you know, relaxing. The apéritif doesn’t really have that great of a rep.
Over the past few years, there’s been a resurgence of the apéritif, but not necessarily among the elitist crowd. This resurgence has brought forth new interest in the ritual and health aspects of the pre-dinner drink. So, in defense of the apéritif, there’s much, much more to this social custom. Definitely more than just dudes in monocles.
First, an origin story
There’s no actual evidence that suggests the apéritif has one specific origin, though it’s postulated that apéritifs could go back to the time of the ancient Egyptians—which is totally believable. It’s “claimed” to have been born in Europe, and, in the early 1900s, made its way to the United States. The word itself stems from the Latin word aperire, which means “to open.” Basically, an apéritif is supposed to make you hungry. (Like those happy hour discounts don’t do the job already). These beverages are usually more dry and less sweet, and are served with hors d’oeuvres, crudités, and/or cheese and crackers.
Apéritifs were a big deal in 19th century Italy, and were shared with the French around the mid 1800s. The specific apéritif the Italians shared with the French was called Dubonnet, and it wasn’t actually for social partaking. Dubonnet was introduced as a medicinal tincture to deliver the malaria-fighting medicine called quinine (an antiparasitic). Quinine itself is incredibly bitter, and the Dubonnet (fortified wine with herbs and spices) masked the nasty flavor of the medicine. Basically, Dubonnet’s creator was basically the male version of Mary Poppins—just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, right?
If you’re interested in trying it, Dubonnet is still in production and is actually the preferred drink of Her Majesty the Queen, and was for the Queen Mother too.
What exactly is an apéritif?
An apéritif is meant to stimulate your appetite and basically prepares your tongue and tummy for the meal experience. But what specifically is it? Great news. There isn’t a specific beverage that’s served as an apéritif. The most common options are fortified wine (think of Madeira, Marsala, port, sherry, or vermouth), champagne or dry white wine, gin, or vermouth. Oh, and liquor.
That being said, the focus is really on the flavor of the apéritif, so the drier it is (and less sweet) the better. There’s also a pull away from drinks that have a higher alcohol by volume (ABV). The key is to make sure your pre-dinner drink is light, easy to drink (but not too easy) and most importantly, non-filling.
Apéritif empowerment—you have choices
As previously mentioned, there is no specific drink that is designated as the one and only option as an apéritif, and in the world of the pre-dinner drink, the options are pretty much limitless. To make things more interesting, over the past couple of years, there’s been a surge of interest in the world of nonalcoholic spirits (that’s drinks that don’t have alcohol in them, not ghosts that are abstaining).
It’s a fact that too much alcohol can have negative consequences on our beloved body temples, hence “too much of a good thing.” Having a beverage sans alcohol that’s made from herbs, spices, sometimes nootropics, is beneficial in replenishing things that your body might be lacking. Take, for example, kombucha. While it has a very miniscule amount of alcohol, it’s filled with polyphenols, amino acids, vitamins, enzymes, probiotics, essential elements, fiber, and antibiotic substances.
So…to booze or not to booze, that is the question
Actually, it’s not a question, because you can have it both ways. There’s more than just champagne, vermouth, and Aperol when it comes to your pre-meal cocktail. Below are some tasty options from both sides of the fence. So if you’re feeling in the mood for a little C2H5OH, you can enjoy that one day and then enjoy some clear-headed spirit the next. Isn’t it nice to have options?
Apéritifs with alcohol
Made with all natural ingredients, Haus has paved the way for good-for-you apéritifs that are lower in alcohol (no one likes to start off dinner drunk), and don’t skimp on flavor. This farm-to-table company is located in Sonoma, California, and sources their all-natural ingredients from farmers and vendors who supply Michelin-star restaurants.
Haus has created the perfect anytime apéritif that’s not only great as a mixer, but also can fly solo. With flavors like Strawberry Basil, Lemon Lavender, and Spiced Cherry, it’s a good thing that they also sell starter kits and sampler boxes because you’re going to want to experiment like there’s no tomorrow.
For a citrusy effervescent experience, why not try the Haus Lemon Sparkler.
Considered to be the bevvie of choice for the artists, writers, poets, and Bohemians of the late 19th century. It’s made from a plant called Grand Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), and other herbs like fennel, hyssop, and anise (though it’s different by country and manufacturer). In 1912, this electric green beverage was banned in the United States. However, in 2007, this ban was lifted and the sale of Absinthe resumed (with specific guidelines, of course).
If you’re not a fan of anise (black licorice) then you might have trouble with this one. And no, you won’t start hallucinating and talking with a green fairy.
To recapture a Viva La Vie Bohème moment, experiment with the traditional drip method for enjoying absinthe.
The apéritif endorsed by Her Majesty the Queen, Dubonnet was originally created to mask the taste of quinine—an antimalarial antiparasitic that tastes just as bad as it sounds.
This spirit contains only four ingredients: red wine made from three specific types of grapes (Ruby Red, Ruby Cabernet, and Muscat of Alexandria), herbs and spices (blackcurrant and a secret recipe of teas), cinchona bark, and 100 percent cane sugar.
If you want to (momentarily) feel like royalty, enjoy Dubonnet like Her Majesty the Queen: Two parts Dubonnet to one part gin, a slice of lemon and a lot of ice.
Calvados is a sweet apple brandy that begins its life as a cider, which is basically just apples with a few pears thrown in. To be considered a true Calvados brandy, the produce involved must, by law, be grown in Normandy. Producers of Calvados use four types of apples: sweet, bittersweet, bitter and bitter sharp. It can be consumed as an apéritif or as a digestif (after the meal).
Once the fruit is pressed and fermented, it’s distilled and aged in oak barrels for at least two years. The fruit is pressed, fermented, and distilled. The Eau de vie (French for “water of life”…so dramatic) is aged at least two years in oak.
Sometimes you just want a warm drink, and that’s where Calvados can shine. It makes a great mulled cider, because when you mix apple juice, holiday spices and apple brandy, it’s like Santa Claus is real again.
This wine-based apéritif is a blending of Bordeaux region wines and macerated liqueurs. Sémillon is used for the Rosé and Blanc, and Merlot is used for the Rouge. The Macerated liqueurs are mostly citrus (made from sweet orange peels and bitter green oranges from Haiti). They’re mixed and stirred in giant oak vats until fully blended, and then aged in a process like Bordeaux wine.
The name “Lillet” is given to apéritifs that are considered tonic wines because of the addition of the quinine liquor. Tonic wines are usually sweet, red wines that have added compounds (like quinine or iron) or herbs and are used to help disguise the flavor of medicines.
This Lillet Cocktail is super simple, with pronounced crispness and balanced floral and herbal notes. It also has only three ingredients: Lillet Blanc, gin, and tonic water. If you like a good gin and tonic, the Lillet G&T might be your new go-to.
Lyre’s Italian Orange Non-Alcoholic Spirit
Lyre’s alcohol-free spirits don’t pretend to be something they’re not—they stand alone, and they stand tall. Their Italian Orange Spirit (Campari style) is rich with blood orange and red citrus and is balanced out with the sweetness of maraschino cherry, and like any good apéritif, a fair amount of dryness.
Why not start off with a classic? This nonalcoholic spirit makes a refreshingly satisfying Blood Orange Spritz. Like many apéritifs, it only needs a few ingredients—tonic or soda water, and a squeeze of citrus. Once you’re done, just sit back and forget about life for a while.
Monday Zero Alcohol Gin
Made in small batches at their Southern California craft distillery, Monday’s Zero Alcohol Gin is the company’s flagship spirit. It’s made with only natural ingredients and is vegan, gluten-free, and safe for you keto folks.
It has a heavy juniper presence with notes of lemon, grapefruit, and coriander. They also make Zero Alcohol Whiskey, for those of you who travel that road.
Pretend like you’re in a watered down version of “Mad Men” by recreating the classic Gimlet. All you need is a lime and some simple syrup. Don’t forget to add some of that punchy 1960s swagger.
If you’re taking a break from the booze or simply don’t touch the stuff, then Seedlip has yer back. The goal of this start-up is to give you options for what to drink when you’re not drinking. Seedlip’s goal is to create a new category of nonalcoholic spirits that can heal you from the inside out. Their distillation methods are based on remedies found in the 1651 written work, The Art of Distillation.
It does have trace amounts of alcohol (less than 0.5 percent ABV), which is comparable to kombucha.
If you want something a little sweet and a tad bit spicy, try their Spice Hibiscus Margarita. It calls for Seedlip Spice 94, agave syrup, fresh lime juice, and hibiscus tea. If you really want to experiment, try it with coffee cherry tea.