A Kinder, Gentler Apéritif

Paul Blow

What the French know as the apéritif and the Italians as the aperitivo is such a good way to approach the evening meal. You sit, you drink something light and refreshing, you talk, relax, get hungry, and then it is time to eat.

Aperol, an apéritif that started being imported to the United States last year, is an Italian favorite; it was invented in 1919 in Padua. Still made with the exact recipe of the original spirit, Aperol is a burnished orange color and is flavored with a subtle blend of bitter orange, gentian root, rhubarb, and other roots and herbs. Only 11 percent alcohol, it’s less potent than most wines (though, because it’s a spirit, a restaurant needs a liquor license to sell it) and is often served over ice with soda and a slice of orange. Like any good apéritif, it neither fills you up nor gets you drunk.

Though it’s been around for almost a century, Aperol has experienced explosive growth in Italy over the last five years and is currently consumed by 3.4 million Italians every day, according to Lynn Lackey, a brand manager for Skyy Spirits, which distributes both Aperol and another famous apéritif, Campari.

“Because of that remarkable growth in Italy,” Lackey says, “we thought the time was right to bring it into the States.” She also points out the growth in the category of flavored spirits—vodkas, rums, and tequilas—that suggests a place for the orange-flavored Aperol. “Orange,” she says, “is especially popular.” The rollout started in select American cities last summer. “The bartenders we’ve introduced it to have really responded,” Lackey says. “They enjoy its mixability and its complex flavors.” Mauro Cirilli, wine director for Perbacco in San Francisco, likes the Aperol Spritz, a combination of Aperol and Prosecco that is the apéritif of choice in his native region, the Veneto in Italy.

Typically low in alcohol and sharp in flavor, apéritifs are fortified wines or diluted spirits that have been infused with proprietary combinations of medicinal herbs. Apéritif refers both to the predinner drink, sometimes a cocktail, and to the category, which includes spirits like vermouth, pastis, and bitters.

Aperol is comparable to Campari, the medicinal apéritif that people either love or hate, but it is much less bitter and is slightly more floral—a gateway apéritif. At Perbacco, owner Umberto Gibin uses Aperol instead of Campari with vermouth in a variation on the Americano that he calls the Torino. Bartenders are also using it in cocktails like the Intro to Aperol at the Pegu Club in New York, which blends Aperol with gin and lemon juice, and the Pearl from San Francisco’s Bourbon & Branch, which pairs the orange-flavored spirit with gin, Lillet Blanc (a vermouth), Prosecco, and lemon oil.

“Every day I see people drinking martinis and cocktails at the bar while they are waiting for their tables,” says Cirilli. There are few worse ways to prepare for dinner than to knock back a couple of martinis or beers. Martinis often have as much as four ounces of gin or vodka in them (that’s more than two shots). A pint of beer can have 200 calories. These types of drinks fill you up and get you drunk before you even sit down for dinner. In some ways it makes more sense to enjoy serious cocktails on a full stomach, after dinner, as opposed to before.

In fact, the moderate alcohol level, the alimentary herbs, everything that makes any apéritif a great lead-in to dinner, makes it the perfect way to settle the stomach after a meal. That is, the apéritif is also a great digestif.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.