By Brad Japhe
Chefs’ Picks tracks down what the pros are eating and cooking from coast to coast.
Though the ritual of the pre-dinner drink is quite common in France, Italy and other parts of Europe, aperitifs have largely been underappreciated in America. However, these oft-overlooked beverages are growing in popularity here. A classic pre-dinner drink should be light (meaning slightly lower in alcohol content) with a flavor profile designed to stimulate appetite. Often an aperitif involves effervescence; sometimes bittering agents. The term can refer to an aromatized wine on its own, or a cocktail including it as an ingredient. Read on to find out which picks the pros recommend for sipping before supper (or brunch).
With its foundation of amaro, gin and vermouth, the Negroni is a staple for many an aperitif aficionado. For those who prefer to scale back the booziness of the gin, barman Ross Simon of Bitter & Twisted in Phoenix turns to the Sbagliato. “It’s the anytime Negroni,” Simon says. “I’m a bit of a lightweight these days, and can only have one or two of its bigger brother.” This variation on the Italian classic substitutes in Prosecco for gin, delivering bubbles along with increased drinkability. “It’s bright, light and effervescent… perfect for brunch while the sun is still up.”
“When I think of aperitif drinks, I think of gathering with friends and relaxing,” says Gates Otsuji, of The Standard Grill in New York City. He designed the Pama Presse to lull the crowds with a laidback combination of subtly sweet flavors, which are built around the drink’s namesake pomegranate liqueur. “[It] delivers all the flavor elements I’m looking for in a refreshing aperitif cocktail — tart pomegranate, sweet and sour citrus fruits, crisp ginger,” says Otsuji, who serves his creation over crushed ice.
A Savory Sip
Gregory Westcott, bar manager of Hinoki & The Bird in Los Angeles, proclaims that aperitifs needn’t skew light, just so long as they properly prepare the palate. “My favorite is Cocchi Americano. It adds structure to any cocktail that it’s in.” During the winter season, Westcott likes to combine the Italian aromatic wine with bourbon and dry Curaçao. Another cocktail he’s often compelled to make is the Century, which brings together the bitter subtleties of Lillet Rouge (a French fortified wine) with the savory notes of a duck fat-washed rye. Its tease of umami positions it as the perfect precursor to Hinoki & The Bird’s Okonomiyaki Burger.
A Bite of Ginger
When bartender Jane Elkins of Dream Baby in New York turns her attention to aperitifs, she focuses on the appetite-inducing angle. Before a meal, she’s particularly fond of the Argentinian Buck. This riff on the Moscow Mule supplants vodka with Fernet Branca — an intensely herbaceous, slightly minty amaro. It’s combined with lime juice and a spiced ginger beer to invigorate the palate. “A bright splash of ginger does wonders to spark the appetite,” Elkins explains. That’s why she also loves working ginger liqueur into her aperitifs, including the Waltz #2 cocktail, which also features lemon juice, honey syrup and club soda.
In Chicago, bartender Shaunna McCarthy of Drumbar has found a novel way to elicit hunger with her pre-dinner cocktails; she infuses them with flavors typically associated with food. For her Cold Pizza cocktail, McCarthy combines amaro with bitters, bourbon and a customized vermouth that’s stepped up with a swirl of seasonings. “This twist on a classic Boulevardier gets amped up with the introduction of Italian seasoning infused in the vermouth,” McCarthy says. McCarthy suggests making your own home infusion by pouring 1.5 ounces of your favorite seasoning into a bottle of sweet Italian vermouth. Let them steep for one hour, then strain out the spices. The resulting elixir will keep well in the refrigerator for weeks. Mix it with a splash of soda or gently bitter tonic water for an easily assembled homemade hit.
“Americans have no idea what an aperitif is, or why it exists,” laments Greg Bryson. As Director of Beverages at The Wallace in Culver City, California, he finds ample opportunity to educate drinkers about the benefits of a bitter tipple. “Bitter sounds off-putting to many, but it serves a pretty amazing function with food,” Bryson says. “Bitterness gets you salivating; it starts the digestive process and makes food taste better.” Bryson prefers the classics, confessing a penchant for Suze (a French amer made with the bitter gentian root) and Cocchi Americano with its soothing, slightly-medicinal aromatics. One of his favorite ways to enjoy them is combined with a high-proofed Jamaican Rum to create a Kingston Negroni.
Sbagliato photo courtesy of Ross Simon, Pama Presse photo courtesy of Zandy Mangold, Century photo courtesy of Gregory Westcott, Waltz #2 photo courtesy of Zandy Mangold, Cold Pizza photo courtesy of Richard Shilkus and The Wallace photo courtesy of Brad Japhe