Aperitifs and digestifs—what are they, and how best should they be listed, explained, presented and served? Ben Canaider explains.
Apéritif. To open. Aperitivo, as the Italians have it. Digestif. Degistivo. A digestive to bring the meal to an end. How natural and yet, at the same time, how wonderfully cultured.
These two styles of drinks bookend a dinner or luncheon and suggest to your customers a sense of ease. As if within your establishment they’ve found the Land That Time Forgot. An apéritif immediately relaxes and puts your customer in the right frame of mind—to read a menu, to study a wine list. A digestif, after the plates have been cleared, hints that there’s nothing to rush back to. The mere presence of a dedicated aperitif list and a digestif list—the former perhaps already set on the table and the latter offered with the dessert menu—can be enough to alter the tone of your customer’s entire dining experience, suggesting to them that they’re in a place that’s serious, organised, and knowledgeable.
There are some good standard practices when it comes to these drinks, and some useful tips and tricks, too. The best thing about them is the way they help to broaden the beverage landscape of your business. They help with flow, and avoid a certain wine list stagnancy.
To open: arpéritfs. Apéritifs are best when they contain high acidity, volatility, or lots of bitterness. This helps prime the taste buds of the customer. Alcohol does this to a certain degree, but the acid or the volatility or the bitterness really drives the message home. An apéritif in this sense couldn’t be further removed from a Bloody Mary, which acts like a defibrillator. An apéritif is more akin to a friendly “hello” from across a crowded room.
The two classic apéritifs are and will always be champagne or dry sherry. Champagne has acidity, and its best expression of this is often found in blanc de blancs styles, which is a 100% chardonnay wine. Low or zero dosage champagnes or sparklers are another good apéritif bet. The deal here is to serve a sparkling wine that’s perky and sharp. The acidity wakes up minds and mouths and makes both want food. There’s still good LUC value on high quality champagne thanks to recent importing mania [when the Australian dollar was a little lower], and Jacquart Blanc de Blancs 2006 is a bargain [singlevineyards.com, $60 LUC].
Dry sherry has enjoyed a wonderful renaissance over the last decade, thanks in great part to the rise of Spanish cuisine and tapas. Pale fino sherries [now called “apera” in Australia] are the ones to seek out. From Spain, the classic style is from Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and more of these fortified wines —as sherry is —come under screw-cap, thus guaranteeing a greater freshness and lack of any post-bottling oxidation or cork taint, which can be tricky to pick in sherry—because of the wine’s innate volatility. (Think nail polish remover and that’s volatility for you). Yet it is this very same volatility that makes sherry prime taste buds like no other apéritif. From Sanlúcar, try La Goya, which comes in handy stubby size 375ml bottles, complete with screwcap and a fresh bottling date [thespanishacquisition.com, $12 LUC].
In a similar vein, but with the advantages of extra bitterness, comes vermouth. Another fortified wine, vermouth is a slowly oxidised wine, not too dissimilar to dry sherry, that’s been flavoured with botanicals and herbs. In other words, bits of leaves, roots and flowers. Hence the astringency and the bitterness. Just like a good, bitter, dry beer can do, vermouths at first satisfy a parched mouth, but then make it seem all the more thirsty again. A second sip is needed and a bite to eat demanded. Like dry sherry, vermouth is a wonderful way to get platters of antipasto or tapas on the go; shortly thereafter, white wine is invariably ordered, and your business is starting to put real money in the till.
A tres posh variant on vermouth currently delighting all is Lillet, from Bordeaux. It’s a white wine that’s aged in barrel and slightly oxidised, and has additions of liqueur, bitter oranges, and quinine. It’s good for a martini base, but at about 17% ABV, is pretty handy either chilled in a port glass, or served over ice with a wedge of orange [cerbaco.com.au $23 LUC].
Scan forward now about two hours and it is digestif time. And if acidity, bitterness, and volatility are the keys to apéritifs, the opposite is true to digestifs. These end-of-meal drinks can still be a little bitter, but a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down. Sweetness backed up by a punch of alcohol-by-volume is the thing that presses the buttons at this time.
Digestifs can be arranged along culinary lines—if you run an Italian restaurant or bar, then grappa is a walk-up start and should be marketed alongside your after-dinner coffee. Armagnac and cognac are the other classic digestifs; and calvados from Normandy could play well to any customer swept up in the cider revolution, as it is an apple brandy. Of course, marketing a digestif as a dessert replacement isn’t a bad idea either. The darker and sweeter sherries and ports fill this niche. Pedro Ximénez, originally from Spain’s Córdoba region, is perhaps one of the most striking and customer-loved digestifs to be found. Made from sun-dried white grapes and put into a long solera system, it comes out the other end like molasses, or cold molten bitumen. It smells of rum ‘n’ raisin ice cream, and at about 300 grams per litre of residual sugar, is probably illegal in some countries.
There are Australian versions of PX, as this stuff is so often acronymised, and that’s fair enough too, given it came here with some of Australia’s original grape vine importations in 1832. Try Dandelion Vineyards Legacy 30-year-old Pedro Ximénez [also from singlevineyards.com, $16LUC per 375ml] or the real deal from Valdespino in Spain [negociantsaustralia.com, $17LUC per 750ml].