The apéritif may seem a mystery. Can you sip it alone? Can you mix apéritifs into a cocktail? Are they bitter? Are they sweet? Luckily, the answer to all of these questions is: yes.
The purpose of an apéritif is to encourage or spark the appetite. Think AP-eritif and AP-petite, same for digestif and digest. However, these are guidelines rather than hard and fast rules. You can enjoy an Aperol spritz just as well after dinner.
An apéritif generally has a low ABV, and is often dry with a gently bitter taste due to herbs used to make the liqueur. However, some liquors are considered aperitifs, including gin. For the most part, however, common aperitifs include vermouth, amontillado, dry sherry, Champagne, Aperol, and Campari. However, take care not to explore any cask rooms filled with amontillado.
Why So Bitter?
The reasoning for the bitter, herbaceous taste is to cleanse the palate and prepare for a meal. If you were to drink a thick mudslide or sweet cocktail prior to a meal, you may not want to enjoy a full meal. This is why dry sherry is considered an apéritif rather than a cream sherry. Enjoying a Negroni or martini prior to a meal does the opposite- its clean, crisp taste doesn't linger or fill you up.
But How Do I Drink It?
You wouldn't drink vermouth straight, but you can add this to a cocktail. Think martinis, Negronis, fabiolias, or Campari cocktail. Even a gin and tonic is considered an apéritif, as tonic has such a dry profile. Gin is also an apéritif due to its herbaceous, juniper, flavors.
Campari and Aperol are typically served with at least one other ingredient, but if you're partial to that bitter, orange flavor, you can enjoy it neat or on the rocks. Express an orange peel the way you would with an old fashioned for an added kick of flavor.
Apéritifs are periodically paired with snacks such as mixed nuts or cheese and crackers. While these aren't considered a garnish or anything of the like, consider the salt and crunch of the snacks compared with the crisp flavor of the apéritif or cocktail.
Is ___ an Apéritif?
There's not quite a hard and fast rule of an apéritif. But remember, most are dry, low in sugar and alcohol content, as well as light and herbaceous. You'll likely have several of the ingredients on hand, including Sauvignon Blanc, Champagne, prosecco, or cava, dry sherry, and Lillet. More standard apéritifs commonly found or easily kept on hand consist of vermouth, Campari, Aperol, and Pimm's. Since so many of these apéritifs are used in other drinks, you don't need to stress about never using it.
Putting It All Together
For those who don't want to sip an apéritif straight, or you want one that's not so bitter, consider ouzo on the rocks, an anise-flavored liquor, or pouring a chilled glass of dry wine. A few cocktails that are standard aperitifs include Negronis, Aperol Spritz, Pimm's Cup, vesper or a standard martini, and a gin or vodka tonic.
Getting Out There
The next time you're keen and ready to order an apéritif cocktail, consider your surroundings. Not all places will have Aperol or Campari ready to go. Smartly read the room. If you're at a craft cocktail bar rather than a dive bar or beer-forward establishment, you're more likely to find a bartender eager to whip up a tasty apéritif for you.