Thursday, June 2, 2011

Take Two Before Dinner and Thank Me in the Morning

Every article about a broad category of liquor requires some, well, research. Meaning, a lot of sipping and sampling. In some cases (Canadian whisky, liqueurs) this can be a bit trying. In others (white whiskey, Cognac), it can be hit-or-miss interesting. And, when you're lucky (barrel-aged cocktails, eye-opener A.M. cocktails), it can be slice a heaven. File aperitifs under the latter category. The last month, in preparation for the following article on before-dinner drinks for the New York Times, I've sipped at an aperitif or two before every dinner. How Americans do without these appetite-stirring bitter drinks, I don't know. And yet they do. Aside from Campari, few aperitivi are actively exploited in the Land of the Free. Instead, we hit back brain-muddling and tongue-numbing cocktails before dinner. Even in hot weather. Hopefully, with the new influx of European americanos and vermouths and amari and quinquina, that will change. If Cocchi Americano doesn't become a national craze, there is no justice. 

Here's the article:
Aperitifs, a Sip of Europe Before Dinner
By Robert Simonson
NORTHERN SPY FOOD CO. had a drinking problem. The farm-to-table restaurant in the East Village had a beer and wine license but wanted to serve cocktails. An additional license for spirits was needed, but Community Board 3 refused the request.
Then a friend, the mixologist Erick Castro, spied a creative opening, right between wine and spirits: aperitifs. Because many of these classic, bitter before-dinner drinks are wine-based, they could be poured legally. Mr. Castro stocked the drink menu with a selection of Italian and French aperitifs, as well as a few sherry-, vermouth- and apertif-based cocktails, including the Spy Cup, a bracing blend of Dubonnet, ginger wine and two kinds of vermouth.
Mr. Castro had plenty of material to work with. Not in years has such a rich selection of classic aperitifs been available in the United States.
Thanks to the work of a few adventurous importers, a slew of little-known European aperitifs has recently reached these shores. Among them are Rabarbaro Zucca, a rhubarb-flavored amaro — the Italian word for “bitter” — from Milan that sells for about $30; Maurin Quina, a cherry-infused concoction from France ($34); Becherovka, a cinnamon-spiked herbal liqueur beloved in the Czech Republic, and available only spottily in the United States until Pernod Ricard recently brought it back ($25); Cardamaro, a wine-based amaro infused with cardoon and blessed thistle from Piedmont ($23); and Bonal Gentiane Quina, a French quinquina (an aperitif flavored with cinchona bark, the source of quinine), which has a base of Mistelle, grape juice whose fermentation has been stopped by the addition of spirit ($19). Aperol, a sort of sweeter but equally red cousin of Campari, arguably started the trend when it was brought to the United States in 2006.
Northern Spy carries Cardamaro and Bonal Gentiane Quina, and plans to add Cocchi Americano ($19), a sweet yet biting mix of Moscato, herbs, fruit and spices that has been pleasing the citizens of Asti for 120 years, and has recently found its way into countless cocktails. (“Americano” is another way to say bitter, not a gesture in Italian-American relations.)
You can find an even wider selection at Amor y Amargo, 443 East Sixth Street, a dark, pint-size East Village bar dedicated to bitters, amari, liqueurs and the like, which has house-made vermouth and Americano cocktails (Campari, sweet vermouth and soda water) on tap.
“It’s been really exciting the last year or two,” said Joe Campanale, who champions aperitifs at his West Village restaurants, L’Artusi and dell’anima. “We’ve gotten access to products we haven’t before.”
The last two decades have seen Americans educating themselves on the multitudinous expressions of wine, beer, whiskey and cocktails. But aperitifs — perceived as immovably European — remain a confidence-shaking conundrum to many consumers.
“Americans have been scared of aperitifs, especially vermouths, since Prohibition,” said Anistatia Miller, a liquor historian whose “Mixellany Guide to Vermouths and Other Aperitifs” will be published in July. “When the league of experienced bartenders who were immigrants or first-generation children of immigrants went to war and died or left the U.S. to work in Europe and South America, it left the work pool with people who knew nothing of traditions such as aperitivo.”
Cultural assimilation did its own damage. “Germans, Italians, French and Spanish émigrés learned to become Americans, rather than embracing their own cultures,” Ms. Miller said. “They adapted traditions that worked and discarded traditions that made them different.”
As a result, today, the terms themselves — aperitif, aperitivo — affect some Americans like headlights do a deer. “They seem like foreign concepts because we’re not accustomed to using the word,” said Eric Seed, owner of Haus Alpenz, the Minnesota-based company responsible for importing Cocchi, Bonal, Zucca and other aperitifs.
But aperitifs are simplicity itself. Pour over ice, add soda water and an orange or lemon twist, and that’s that. The recipes haven’t changed much since the mid-1800s, when aperitifs took root as a popular tradition. Campari, Lillet and Dubonnet are a few of the benchmark creations of that era.
“They stimulate the appetite,” Ms. Miller said. “They do what the term ‘apertivo’ means: a before-dinner stimulant, that allows you to enjoy the aromas and flavors of the food that follows.”
Mr. Castro tried to make patrons less insecure by providing quick instructions for each aperitif on the Northern Spy menu. For instance, under Cardamaro, it suggests “on the rocks or neat.”
“A lot of people know the aperitifs but don’t know how to order them,” he said. “If they see it on the list already, that takes a lot of the fear of ordering out of it.”
The wish of Americans to “supersize” everything may also hinder the aperitif’s popularity, he said. “America being the country of more bang for your buck, people think ‘If I spend $10 on a drink, I want it to be really strong.’ ”
Yet to fans of these drinks, their light touch is the essence of their appeal.
“There is nothing more relaxing and enhancing than finding yourself in a cafe in the afternoon,” Ms. Miller said, “sipping a drink that is lightly alcoholic but not so spirituous that you cannot function on a social level.”
Roberto Bava, a member of the family that founded and owns Cocchi, pointed out another bonus: “When you drink an aperitif Italian-style and have sparkling water in it, you start at 16 percent alcohol, but you reach 8 percent. So you can have two.” Thus, less alcohol not only helps you pace yourself, but leaves move for another round. “In a way, it can be healthy,” Mr. Bava said.
More drinks and health to boot? What more do you want? Tchin-tchin!

1 comment:

Derek said...

Hey Robert,
Let me first say that we agree whole heartedly with your opinion that American's should be drinking vermouth. My friend forwarded me the New York Times article and I had to find a way to respond.

A year and a half ago, 2 friends and I started the Northwest's first vermouth company. We are in love with it and want to keep broadcasting the vermouth seed. We are not out in NYC yet, but would love to send you a bottle of our own imbue bittersweet vermouth to see what you think. If you are interested shoot me an email back at And check out the young website.