You know what’s missing from cocktail menus across this vast land of ours? Aperitifs. These pre-meal concoctions are meant to open your palate and prepare you for the food you are about to enjoy--and, with their lower-alcohol content, not knock you out of commission before you’ve even started. If you take the taste of your food seriously, drinking a booze-bursting cocktail prior to eating dulls the palate and could render your meal utterly boring. Who wants that? Enter the aperitif, the bridge between wine and liquor-laden cocktails.
We asked One Midtown Kitchen’s beverage director and aperitif fan-girl, Melissa Davis, to explain these palate-pleasers and why you should be drinking them.
“In countries like France, Italy and Spain, people drink aperitifs like wine. They’re wine- or liqueur-based and sometimes contain less bitter amari. They’re light, refreshing and have about as much alcohol content as a glass of wine or beer,” Davis said.
Look for cocktails or spritzes with Pineau des Chantres and fino sherry (fortified wines,) limoncello (lemon liqueur,) Lillet and Cocchi rosa (aromatized wines,) vermouth or amaro topped with soda or sparkling wine . Davis suggested trying her go-to aperitif, the Americano . No, not coffee. This three-ingredient cocktail is comprised of soda water, Campari and sweet vermouth with an orange twist. It’s slightly bittersweet, incredibly refreshing and won’t fill you up before a meal.
Davis always has at least one aperitif cocktail on the menu at One Midtown Kitchen and carries most of the above liqueurs, wines and vermouths on the back bar.
“We don’t have the cafe culture in America which make these particular cocktails so popular in Europe, but that doesn't mean you can’t order them at lunch or in place of a glass of wine before dinner,” Davis said of why aperitifs haven’t taken hold in the United States. “Don’t be afraid of the word 'cocktail' beside a vermouth-based drink, for instance. Aperitifs are low-alcohol and have an almost waking quality to them, making them perfect for sipping before a meal or day-drinking.”
Our go-to aperitif? Switching out gin for dry sherry to riff on the G&T. Add a little simple syrup, ice, tonic water and a couple of dashes of orange bitters, and we’re good to go.
Next time you’re out and aren’t feeling like a boozy cocktail or a glass of wine, try one of these aperitif cocktails instead.
Based on Davis’ favorite street in Birmingham, Alabama, the Cahaba Cooler at One Midtown Kitchen contains all the traditional properties of an aperitif cocktail. She takes the slightly bittersweet, aromatized wine Cocchi rosa and pairs it with a pop of lemon juice and muddled mint, finally lining a Collins glass with a thin slice of cucumber. The fizz is provided by soda water or sparkling wine, depending on your mood. Cool, refreshing with a hint of sweetness, this is a perfectly pleasing palate cleanser.
One Midtown Kitchen, 559 Dutch Valley Road NE, Atlanta, 404-892-4111, onemidtownkitchen.com.
Sip on this off-menu, Italian beauty at the General Muir while eagerly awaiting chef Todd Ginsberg’s fried chicken on a Friday night or some matzoh ball soup and turkey sandwich at lunch. Served in a dainty coupe glass, the traditional spritz gets fancy here and contains limoncello mixed with lemon juice and mint and is topped with prosecco. A bright aperitif which carries a hint of bitter acid from the lemon is perked up at the finish with the bubbly mint combination, making it a fresh, waking cocktail for any time of day.
The General Muir, Emory Point, 1540 Ave., Pl B-230, Atlanta, 678-927-9131, thegeneralmuir.com.
A bit boozier than your typical aperitifs but still below the high-octane line, this cocktail contains not one, but two, Italian stallions: casoni aperitivo (slightly floral Aperol-like liqueur) and the bold berry notes of Cocchi di Torino vermouth. We suggest whiskey and rye lovers begin their night with the Raging Bull for the punch of flavor they crave without all the booze. Even with its lighter cocktails, Marcel takes its reputation as an old-school steakhouse seriously and creates a Manhattan-esque aperitif topped with lemon soda and a twist of orange.
Marcel, 1170 Howell Mill Road, Atlanta, 404-665-4555, marcelatl.com.
Channel Italy’s cafe culture at Bellina Alimentari and sip on the Rocky Marciano. This bitter lover’s aperitif combines the lovely orange and floral notes of Amaro Montenegro with the Madeira-like character of carpano antica vermouth to provide a flavor-packed, balanced and surprisingly bright base. Add a little lime and sugar and top with fresh sage to tie this herbaceous drink together. We feel transported to the Italian riviera.
Bellina Alimentari, Ponce City Market, 675 Ponce De Leon Ave. NE, Atlanta, 404-330-9933, bellina-alimentari.com.