Bitter harvest

bitter-aperitifs

When it comes to aperitifs, the bitterer the betterer, writes Ben Canaider

Warmer weather, longer days, and late-night dining turn Australians positively madrileño—and make the summertime an outstanding aperitif opportunity.

Running a marketed aperitif program also helps set your business apart. You’re not just sauvignon blanc or vermentino; you’re not banging out the standard cocktails or the seasonal beers. By promoting aperitifs, you create a new tier of enjoyment and expectation in your customers; and you help them embrace another aspect of their hitherto undiscovered fabulousness. It’s win-win-win. And profitable. Yes, yes, I know most hospitality professionals run bars and cafés and restaurants as philanthropic exercises, but aperitifs can actually turn over some dough. And that’s okay. We are in the new Trumpean reality, so making money is not a phrase of shame.

There’s one basic rule to the aperitif, and it is a rule you cannot flout: bitterness. An aperitif that is not bitter is a mixed drink, or a cocktail, or a short drink, or a long drink. But it ain’t an aperitif. Make an aperitif without the requisite bitterness and the magic is broken. You don’t take off. The aperitifs listed below all adhere to the fundamental principle of bitterness. There are two very important reasons for this: first, bitterness makes customers thirsty; and second, bitterness makes customers hungry. In other words, aperitifs stimulate customers to drink wine with food.

Vermouth

A handful of years ago, the Spaniards started opening vermouth bars and now it’s one of the world’s hippest drinks. A bitter, highly aromatic fortified wine, vermouth’s key ingredient is wormwood (wermut in German, whence the name). Noilly Prat, from the south of France, is the connoisseur’s choice, but if you’re adventurous, try an Australian version called Maidenii. In addition to the usual botanicals, it contains 12 Australian native ingredients, such as wattle seed, river mint, and sea parsley. My fave vermouth aperitif is my own invention—yes, how Bond of me—the vertini. The vertini is a reverse martini. Swap the ratio of gin to vermouth and you end up with this refreshing and adaptable pre-prandial. Before you drink it, you must toast it with the Latin phrase “veni, vidi, vertini”.

Lillet

A relative of vermouth, some might say. This is not fortified, however. It’s an aromatic wine from just south of Bordeaux and Lillet Blanc is made from semillon and sauvignon blanc grapes, plus—and this is the important bit—macerated fruit liqueurs containing bitter peel from oranges and green apples. Bond’s recipe from Casino Royale (three parts gin, one vodka, half a measure Lillet) is the goods.

Campari

Everyone knows and loves Campari. It is a byword for European sophistimication. I mean sophistication. Indeed, it’s truly international. I think you can even get it in bars in Bali nowadays. There are two inalienable truths when it comes to Campari: first, when it is ordered with soda, it must not have an “and” in it. It is Campari Soda—never Campari and soda. The other inalienable truth is the measure. A standard Campari Soda is always—always—60ml of Campari. A 30ml measure is not an aperitivo but an insult. The Americano—or Milano Turino, as the Italians call it (Campari is from Milan, Punt e Mes red vermouth from Turin)—is 30ml of each, a wedge of orange, and soda to top it up, in a highball.

Cynar

Another Italian herbal liqueur made from about a dozen herbs and other plants, principal among which is artichoke. It is a bittersweet drink with a kind of alkaline dryness at the back of your throat. It doesn’t taste like artichokes. Use this with soda and orange juice, (as the very northern Italians do), or replace the Campari in a Negroni with it.

My fave vermouth aperitif is my own invention … the vertini. The vertini is a reverse martini … Before you drink it, you must toast it with the Latin phrase “veni, vidi, vertini.”

Aperol

This aperitivo (it is labelled as such) is another bitter infusion made with oranges, rhubarb, and gentian, among other ‘secret’ things. At 11 per cent ABV, it is about the lowest alcohol rating in all aperitifs (Campari is 22 per cent, for instance). It is probably the least bitter of all the bitters, too, which suits its current realm of fashionableness, as manifest in the Aperol Spritz. Use prosecco as the base and fill it out with a splash of soda. Aperol also serves as a very clever replacement for Pimm’s.

Dubonnet

A wine-based aperitif from France, the rouge version is the one we all know. It is porty, spiced, and gets its bitterness from quinine. The best—the best—thing about Dubonnet is its use by Her Majesty Elizabeth II. She drinks a Dubonnet and gin as an aperitif whenever entertaining at home. It is 70 per cent Dubonnet (at about 15 per cent ABV) and 30 per cent gin. It was the favourite drink of her mother, the late Queen Mother, too.

Chinotto

This is an Italian soft drink no-one likes. People drink it to be more Italian, however, thus proving once more that we all must suffer for fashion. But where aperitifs—or aperitivi—are concerned, Chinotto is extremely useful. Made from the fruit of the myrtle-leaf citrus tree (or chinotto tree), this is a bitter carbonated concoction that might look like cola but is anything but. There’s little sweetness. Use it as a mixer with gin, rum, or brandy. Lots of ice and always a wedge of citrus—orange is a natural fit. Adding a few drops Campari or even fewer of Angostura Bitters can dial the bitterness speed up to warp factor 9.95.

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