Despite a surge in interest and consumption of specialty cocktails in restaurants, there are probably a few lonely bottles of timeless aperitifs on your backbar that haven’t been touched in months. That’s a shame, because Lillet, Pernod, Punt e Mes, Cynar, and fino Sherry are perfect before-dinner drinks, filled with classic flavors that inspire the taste buds for the meal ahead.
In addition to being a terrific start to a meal, most aperitifs require minimal preparation and can be priced at the same percentage markup that you use for your cocktails. Since aperitifs are relatively inexpensive, they can be a profitable bar category. And because many are unfamiliar, they offer a perfect opportunity to engage guests and develop loyal customers through friendly education.
The French word apéritif and the Italian aperitivocome from the Latin aperio, which means “to open.” The name refers to an alcoholic drink that is served before a meal. In Europe, the traditional aperitif is a wine-based drink and is usually served at room temperature. In the United States, an aperitif can be just about anything served during the cocktail hour. “To open” perfectly describes the wine or spirit’s intended effect on the appetite. Aperitifs are meant to whet the appetite with pungent, slightly bitter flavors. Since many are low in alcohol, they promote conviviality without dulling the palate.
Traditional aperitifs fall into two very general categories. The first group consists primarily of crisp, dry, refreshing wines. Perhaps the most widely recognized aperitif of all is Champagne. Both the modestly fortified manzanilla and fino Sherries make stellar starters that perk up one’s appetite. Additional examples are Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling in the trocken(dry) style, Muscat, and Aligoté. All are wines with firm structure that emphasize the wines’ acidity. A mixed drink, such as a Kir (traditionally a blend of Aligoté with a dash of crème de cassis), can also be an aperitif.
The second broad category is “aromatized” wine. Aromatized wines are fortified wines that have been steeped in herbs, roots, flowers, and barks in order to impart complementary appetite-stimulating flavors. Examples include vermouth, Lillet, St. Raphaël, Dubonnet, and Byrrh. Other aromatized wines are akin to bitters and would include spirits such as Campari, Punt e Mes, and Amer Picon. Still another excellent aperitif is Pineau des Charentes, a mixture of Cognac and fresh juice from local wine grapes. Finally, there are herb-flavored drinks such as pastis and ouzo. Pernod and Ricard are aniseed-flavored spirits that have long been popular in France and are descendants of the notorious absinthe.
Making the Sale
Many of the aperitifs mentioned above are familiar to experienced wine drinkers. But the sophisticated bittersweet flavors and elevated acidity found in many of these aperitifs can be an acquired taste for novices. Capitalizing on the natural inclination to appear urbane or sophisticated can be an effective tool in marketing the more obscure aperitifs and flavors. But increasing the visibility of your selection of Sherries, aromatized, and sparkling wines is vital to making them a successful category.
Many of today’s customers are seeking new beverage experiences. But unless you are proactive, guests will continue to order old favorites. Turn your patrons on to classic and new aperitifs to stimulate your clientele’s juices and curiosity---and fatten the check.
Here are some tips for promoting these appetite enhancers: