There is an implicit freedom in the word “aperitif.” Sunshine leaking onto avenues and boulevards, lazy twilight cocktails along the Seine, an intimate gathering of friends before parting for a dinner date with a lover. Aperitif holds, in one shining golden hour, all the possibility and promise of the evening to come. It means shrugging off the responsibility of the day and slipping into something more comfortable.
Though deeply ingrained in the French way of drinking, the aperitif and all its variations—including our favorite, the spritz—has taken on a new significance. With the revival of global cocktail culture, a whole spectrum of drinks has been explored and interpreted through a kaleidoscope of cultures and perspectives. Along the way, the world encountered the core of French drinking culture—l’aperitif—and embraced it.
More ink has been spilled over the French way of cooking and eating than perhaps any other in Western culture. A superb method for searing foie gras. How to whip a wondrously fluffy meringue. The secret to savoring a perfect Provençal peach. We have dozens of teachers to thank for ingraining the particularities of French technique and sensibility deep within culinary tradition, New York to Tokyo. A hefty dose of oenological know-how—extending also to its brandy-fied brethren—has always accompanied this spillage. Yet, for such a tipple-oriented territory, comparatively little has been written on the actual ritual of French drinking—the physical pleasure of it, its rites and ceremonies—especially when it comes to the most important part: the beginning.
The term “aperitif” is a descendent of the Latin aperire meaning “to open.” It’s a literal and semantic invitation to start drinking. An aperitif is a conduit from day to night. It’s a channel through which to transition from business to pleasure. It’s an opportunity to begin again. And to those ends, there are three indisputable truths about the aperitif: First, it is a time of day; second, a category of drink and food; and third, it is always wholly enjoyable. These three elements braid together to create an entirely French ceremony, a moment upon which to reflect, relax, and forget your cares. To gather in good company and toast to life.
So what counts as an aperitif drink? Une question formidable. An aperitif, in our book, is any drink that inaugurates your evening. Perhaps it’s a glass of champagne or, even better, a St-Germain Spritz. Because an aperitif is meant to commence the evening, it should be on the lighter side, both in ingredients, texture, and alcohol content. The first cocktail of the evening should provide oomph and levity, a kind of on-ramp to dinner.
What Is a French Spritz?
The French spritz, though open-ended and flexible, exemplifies composure and harmony. As with all things French, it is a balancing act of flavor and seasonality, restraint and flair. It welcomes and weaves in all means of ingredients from French liqueurs like St-Germain and eau de vies to Armagnac and tonic. Never overwrought, the French spritz—dare we say, the Royale—is curated in an effortless way, self-possessed and yet insouciant. As in French cooking, French drinks require technique, une formule if you will, through which to channel creativity and ingenuity. Here are the characteristics that form its essential tenets.
Effervescent: A spritz, by definition, must be sparkling. This fizz can come from soda, tonic, ginger beer, and/or, most importantly, wine. In the latter case, the wine should be French, bien sûr, and it should absolument be effervescent. Champagne, Crémant, or mousseaux are all good options, but any good sparkling wine you happen upon will work. The world of French wine is deep and wide, but don’t fret; simply ask your local caviste what will work best in a cocktail. The wine should be dry and pleasant enough to drink without additional ingredients.
Easygoing: Spritzes, like many other French aperitifs, are often low-alcohol. By nature they’re meant to open the palate rather than overwhelm it. Aside from sparkling wine, consider ingredients like vermouth, quinquinas, sherry, and bitters as a base. Higher-alcohol spirits can certainly be integrated, but are best used as a highlight or a flavor booster in smaller quantities.
Evocative: The defining characteristic of an Italian spritz is its ritual sameness—its well-worn formulaic comfort—no shade to the appeal of routine. The French spritz, however, exhibits an element of the unexpected—the elusive je ne sais quoi. Whether using vermouth subtly infused with chamomile or a spray of fragrant elderflower blossoms, the French spritz is innovative as well as evocative of time and place.
For more on the pleasures of the French spritz, see our recently released book “How to Spritz French,” a complete guide to spritzing with St-Germain cocktails.