Fancy and cool

Introducing a world of aperitif/aperitivo

What is an aperitif (ah-pear-eeh-teef)? It sounds fancy and cool because it’s a French word. It’s also known as an aperitivo in Italian, and it means “opener,” a beverage taken before a meal. It is a lower-proof spirit (like Campari) or aromatized wine (think vermouth) that is meant to stimulate your palate and your appetite. A true aperitif will have a bitter taste component, which is important because it is used, in small amounts, to sharpen flavors of a drink by contrasting with other tastes. This bitter element stimulates saliva, which causes an increase in appetite and releases the the first enzymes of the digestive process. Servers and bartenders already know this: “Campari and soda to start, anyone?”

There are many brands used for aperitif and aperitif cocktails, some of which you may be familiar with: Aperol, Campari, Lillet, Chartreuse, Cinzano. And some you may not know: Carpano or Fernet-Branca. An Aperol spritz is an Italian aperitif that’s commonly served. It’s a very simple recipe: three parts Prosecco sparkling wine, two parts Aperol and one part soda, served on the rocks.

Aromatized wines are wine-based beverages that are flavored with aromatic botanicals. They can also be fortified with spirit alcohol to stabilize them, so they can also be technically categorized as fortified wines. Vermouth falls into this category and is the most popular aromatized wine. Almost all vermouth is made with a white wine base. Even sweet vermouth, which is red, is started with a white wine base; it gets its color from the botanicals used. (There is an exception: P. Quiles Spanish vermouth.) There are several vermouth producers: Cinzano (you’ve seen the brand on Italian cyclists’ caps and vividly painted on outdoor café umbrellas). Dolin, Martini & Rossi, Lillet, Cocchi, Noilly Prat are some others. While there are slight differences among Italian, French and other vermouth styles, the formula is essentially the same, save their trade secrets. They are started with a base wine and brandy, then steeped or infused with herbs, roots, bark and flowers. After steeping, the wine, brandy and sweetened grape juice are blended together in large vats. It’s then pasteurized and refrigerated for two weeks, filtered, then bottled. Once opened, vermouth should be chilled because its wine base will oxidize. If left in a bar rail for too long, it will go flat and stale and become dull.

Campari is an amaro (meaning bittered spirit) with an intense bitter orange flavor, invented in 1860. It was one of the first Italian amari (plural of amaro) to become en vogue outside of Europe. The popularity can be attributed to well-known classic cocktails such as the Negroni (equal parts Campari, sweet vermouth and gin served over ice), and the Americano (Campari, sweet vermouth and soda).

Fernet Branca is another Italian amaro. It has become very trendy in the U.S., popular with the craft-cocktail crowd and especially bartenders. It’s not new, though – it was invented before Campari, by Niccolò Branca in 1845. It’s the perfect aperitif, digestif (after-dinner drink) and the cure for a hangover, according to some. It’s strong, bitter and dry, and it kind of tastes like licorice hopped up on aromatic botanicals. It is delicious. Industry pros call a shot of Fernet the “bartender’s handshake.” Like vermouth, it is made by several companies, Cinzano, Luxardo, Vallet, 1882; and you can even make your own.

We’ve only begun our discussion on the aperitifs vermouth, amari and bitters; there are hundreds! I encourage you to get to a reputable cocktail bar and start exploring.

First appeared in the July 2016 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

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