Photo by Judith Hausman
I emphatically am not a cocktail person. There are about two hot nights a summer when a vodka tonic makes sense to me and I have enjoyed a rum punch or two paired with a Caribbean vacation, but the teetering martini, the girly Cosmo, even the straightforward bourbon and soda are just too strong for me. I truly love good wine, but I’d be shnockered before the party started if I began with one of those boozy beauties.
For me, a relaxing and civilized alternative to the cocktail is the European tradition of aperitifs. The word comes from the Latin aperire, meaning to open, and a light aperitif opens both the appetite and the evening’s conversation.
Cognacs or eau de vies are meant to help you digest by sort of drilling through your dinner but aperitifs are roughly as alcholic as wine and stimulate the appetite instead. They simply are served cold, without ice, so forget the mixers, blenders, maraschino cherries and long-legged glasses.
I’ve never gotten the hang of the bitter, secret recipe aperitifs, such as Cynar, Campari or the licoricey pastis, but I love the sweet but not syrupy, wine-based exilirs. Honey-scented and golden, Pineau de Charentes is a wine fortified with cognac that comes from the region of the same name. Beaume de Venises, from a village in the South of France, is another fruity sweet wine, made from very ripe grapes and perfect to sip slowly. White Lillet is aromatic, orangey and floral. Spanish sherries are deeper and duskier. They make an elegant and low-key beginning, whether the quite dry and pungent fino or the soft and nutty oloroso.
Some years I concoct my own aperitif, known in French as vin cuit, from red wine, cognac, sugar, cinnamon and other spices and citrus peels. You put it up in the winter when citrus is best, and enjoy it cold in the summer. You can also steep herbs in alcohol (white rum, gin or vodka) and sugar. Or you can omit the alcohol and add it later or not. Adding only seltzer to the herb syrup makes a very grownup and refreshing soda.
Boil 1½ cups sugar with 1/4 cup water, taking care to dissolve the sugar but not turn it to caramel. Then pack two cups of a combination of lemon balm or verbena, mint, lavender flowers and scented geranium leaves into a clean glass jar. Pour the lukewarm sugar syrup over top and add a liter of vodka. Cap and store in all a dark place for at least a month. Then strain the herbs out and name it something sexy. That way it can compete with cocktails like the Singapore Sling or the Mango Mohito.
When you sip your aperitifs, you’ll want nibbles. Keep those simple too: a mix of marinated olives or sliced fennel; salted almonds; thin slices of good ham; shards of hard, salty cheese, such as Parmigiano-Reggiano or Manchego. Like an aperitif, they fan the appetite flame, rather than dousing it.