Apertifis—drinks you have before dinner to stimulate your appetite—are showing up on more and more cocktail menus.
"The bar industry been going through a lot of education on spirits and cocktail culture history, and more recently that has included vermouths, fortified wines, sherry, amari, and other common ingredients of aperitif drinks," says Charlotte Voisey, director of brand advocacy for WilliamGrant & Sons. "As bartenders get a handle on what these spirits are and how to use them, they're ready to show them off on cocktail menus all over the country," Voisey explains.
"And with the second coming of the great American restaurant bar—ones with a tradition of guests sitting at the bar to dine, which allows bartenders to influence their experience and suggest aperitifs rather than the traditional martini given at a bar before sitting down to dinner—there's a greater understanding of how to eat and drink together: drier drinks before and during a meal, and sweeter drinks with dessert," Voisey says.
Having an aperitif before you sit down to dinner can even enhance the flavors of the meal, so you enjoy your food more. "The word aperitif comes from the Latin 'aperire,' which means to open. Aperitifs literally open the stomach ready for eating, and the lower alcohol is better suited to keep the sensitivity of your tongue in good condition to enjoy the meal that follows," Voisey says.
So rather having a cosmopolitan or daiquiri at the bar, try a dry, aromatic aperitif, which also tends to be lower in calories since it's lower in alcohol and typically doesn't have sugary ingredients added to it. In fact, the classic aperitif is something like a vermouth on the rocks, served with a slice of orange or a green olive, Voisey says. Or try chilled, dry sherry such as Fino or Amontillado styles poured neat.
If you're in the mood for more of cocktail, a negroni is a classic. Voisey's go-to aperitif is the "unusual cocktail," which is equal parts Hendrick's gin, Aperol, and Lillet stirred on the rocks and garnished with a grapefruit twist. Other cocktail aperitifs include the sbagliato (a negroni made with sparkling wine rather than gin), Americano (negroni made with club soda rather than gin), sherry cobbler (sherry, simple syrup, and citrus), and champagne julep (champagne, cognac, and mint).
Whatever you choose, it's best to pick an aperitif that complements the food you plan to eat. "Generally speaking, the more delicate the meal, the gentler you should be on your tongue with levels of alcohol and volume of flavor, so as to retain the sensitivity to enjoy the food flavors," Voisey says. "A classic negroni could be more suitable before a steak than a more nuanced dish with many flavors, which may benefit from a dry sherry or chilled glass of champagne."