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Aperitifs just right to wet your early-evening whistle

Katherine Cole Newhouse News Service

It’s 6 p.m., dinner is simmering on the stove, and you’re salivating. You’re looking for something to wet your whistle while you munch on hors d’oeuvres (which, most nights, might just be a fancy name for cheese and crackers or a handful of nuts).

It may be called “cocktail hour,” but how many of us can down a martini or a mojito on an empty stomach? And after a long day of work, the prospect of muddling mint, crushing ice and shaking cocktails can be daunting.

Instead, most of us gravitate toward libations – such as wine and beer – that need only be opened and consumed. Maybe if we’re dining out or entertaining, we’ll go for something a little more festive, like bubbly.

But there’s a whole category of preprandial beverages out there that are made for the early-evening hours: aperitifs.

Most of the best-known aperitifs started out as curatives; their recipes tend to be boringly long lists of botanicals. Most are bitter, serving to stimulate the appetite. Some contain quinine, which cools the body on a hot summer evening (and cures malaria, to boot). Others are infused with herbs and spices that tickle the taste buds and get the digestive juices flowing. If alcohol in its various drinkable forms is aroma therapy, the aperitif is the full Aveda spa experience.

Although they can be mixed into cocktails, aperitifs are nearly as simple to serve as wine or beer. Chill them and serve them straight. Or pour them over ice and garnish the glass with a wedge of citrus fruit. Either way, you’re out of your wine-beer rut.

Here’s a primer on the most popular ones:

Vermouths

Every bistro in the U.S. may be outfitted with Cinzano umbrellas and Noilly Prat posters, but Americans rarely drink the stuff straight, as vermouth is typically relegated here to ingredient status in martinis and Manhattans. Yet this fortified wine flavored with botanicals can be quite tasty on the rocks. I’d skip the better-known European brands, which seem to have had the scent sucked out of them. Instead, seek out the sweet and extra-dry vermouths of boutique label Vya from California’s Quady Winery (approximately $19), which are like liquid sachets of herbs and spices.

Aromatized wines

What could be a better warm-up to a bottle of wine than … wine? Aromatized wines are lightly fortified and infused with fruits, herbs and spices. They’re perfect for the appetizer hour because, unlike traditional wines, they have a bit of a shelf life, so you can screw the cap back on and put the bottle in the fridge for another night. Serve in a wineglass with a couple of ice cubes and a slice of lemon or orange. Skip the Dubonnet (approximately $9) and invest in Lillet (approximately $15). The rouge is a young, bracing red wine, minus the mind-numbing tannins, with an added kick of fruit and spices. The blanc is bottled bliss on a summer evening. On the nose and palate, it’s all fresh flowers, plus peach, apple and citrus, with a warming finish.

Bitter botanicals

You’ll have to go to a liquor store to pick up these because they aren’t grape-based. They’re also an acquired taste, but once that taste is acquired, it becomes a hunger. An easy entry-level botanical is a Pimm’s No. 1 ($19) served over ice with ginger ale and a wedge of lemon (if you want to be British about it, mix it with lemonade and garnish with slices of cucumber, apple, orange, lemon and a mint sprig). Its exotic ginger-and-allspice zing makes for a quick pick-me-up.

If you think bitter is better, fire-engine-red Campari ($24) is your beverage. There’s an initial flirtation with sweetness when it first hits your tongue, but it’s all bitter orange peel thereafter. Drink it over ice, mixed with soda, and garnish the glass with a slice of blood orange.

Amber-hued Cynar (approximately $17) has a muted aroma of hay and artichokes; the palate is vegetal and bitter. All the same, there’s something undeniably likable about this unlikely liqueur.

Sherries

This Spanish fortified wine isn’t made from an herbal infusion, like the aperitifs discussed above, so it doesn’t beg for ice cubes or lemon wedges. Just sip it from a small glass (chilled, if you like) to wake up the taste buds. For cocktail hour, serve the dry styles – manzanilla and fino and their lusher siblings, amontillado and palo cortado – which are all slightly bitter.

Note: Aperitifs have longer shelf lives than wine or beer because they’re fortified with spirits. Refrigerated manzanilla or fino sherry can be enjoyed for a week or two. I’d recommend refrigerating wine products (aromatized wines and vermouths) and consuming them as soon as possible, although vermouth can survive for a year without refrigeration. Bitter botanicals need not be refrigerated, but I’d still recommend consuming them when their flavors and aromas are fresh.

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