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Cocktails Anyone?
by Sheila Swerling-Puritt

The aperitif is a wonderful and eminently civilized convention for those who like food and people. It's both a beverage and a social activity rolled into one, a before-dinner drink calculated to pique your taste buds before a meal while the conviviality and conversation around it stimulate your mind and spirit.

Commercially produced wine-based aperitifs fall into two main categories: straight wines and spirits and those that include additional flavouring such as bitter orange, quinine, herbs or spices. The former group includes sparkling wines, fortified wines like Sherry and Port and wine-based mixtures like Pineau des Charentes, which is grape juice with cognac added. The latter category embraces sweet and dry vermouths, whose origins can be traced to ancient Rome. Such brands as Lillet and Dubonnet as well as a Pastis or Campari are customarily diluted with still or sparkling water or served up with ice and a slice of fresh citrus.

  Because the aperitif by definition is a prelude to a meal, the accompaniments, like the drinks, should tantalize the taste buds. Generally, the accompaniments are bite-sized finger foods that can be eaten out of hand.

Vermouths are not just a blending partner for vodka or gin. The word vermouth, incidentally, comes from the German Wermut, or wormwood, whose flowers are used in producing the end product. Essentially, vermouth is a fortified wine infused with herbs, spices and other plant extracts. There are more than 200 herbal or other botanical ingredients believed to be used in various vermouth recipes. The average vermouth recipe contains 30 or more. The best known are Noilly Prat, Cinzano and Martini & Rossi. In Europe, vermouth by itself is a widely used aperitif. (There was a time when North American tourists would be surprised to receive a glass of vermouth when they ordered a Martini!)

More hip and eye-catching is the brilliant pomegranate red Italian Campari, which I adore, whether served with soda, orange juice or vermouth.

Liquorice liquor, synonymous with Pastis in the south of France, is a love-it-or-hate-it taste anise-based aperitif. Pernod and Ricard are two of the better known brands (both are safer versions of absinthe, the notoriously illegal, supposedly hallucinogenic granddaddy of anise drinks). It's best served over ice, with a splash of still or sparkling water and nothing else. Many clear liquorice aperitifs turn an opaque yellow or milky white when water is added, making them visually appealing as well. Ouzo from Greece and Raki from Turkey also belong in this category.

If liquorice and bitter don't excite you, there is the much more approachable Sherry. Served chilled it's close to the platonic ideal of the aperitif. The fresh dry Fino and Manzanilla styles are perfect when served very cold. Amontillado Sherry should be served slightly chilled.

Of course there are always the eye-appealing well-chilled Rosé wines or a crisp Burgundian white Aligoté with a drop or two of blackcurrant juice. Perhaps you might prefer Champagne, the classic sparkler, which is delicious on its own, or maybe a tall drink made with white Port, tonic and lemons.

If it's a sweet tooth you have, Sauterne, Barsac and Ausleses, the great stickies, also make for a wonderful chilled aperitif.

Storage and Serving Suggestions

Remember, recap or recork the bottle tightly after using a portion of the contents.

  Storage Serve with
Dry Vermouth refrigerate up to 6 months small chunks of pecorino or parmesan cheese
Sweet Vermouth will keep up to one year stored in a cool dark place or refrigerated broiled bacon wrapped figs or dates, toasted almonds or orange glazed pecans
Dubonnet refrigerate up to 3 months anchovies puffs, tapanade, olives
Lillet Blanc/Rouge refrigerate up to 1 week melted cheese dishes, pistachios, smoked whitefish
Campari store in dark place at room temperature for up to 1 year orange-flavoured olives, brandade of salt cod, onion tart
Fino and Manzanilla sherry refrigerate 1–2 weeks salty flavours, oily fish, nuts, (warm almonds), stuffed olives
Amontillado sherry refrigerate 2–3 weeks grilled figs and bacon
Pineau des Charentes store in a cool, dark place for up to 2 months pistachios, foie gras
Beaumes-de-Venise refrigerate up to 2 months toasted almonds, slices of toast with truffles, foie gras


For more information, you can contact Sheila at




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