In the United States, “happy hour” is a loaded phrase. On its face, it’s a positive proposition—the tie-loosening, heels-ditching reprieve from a day at the office, aided by deep-discount drinks. But there’s a negative connotation there, too. Mixing cheap booze and pent-up stress often translates to people getting way too sloppy way too early, turning a casual gathering into an embarrassing morning-after story.
So how should we go about splitting the difference, capturing all the best aspects of this post-work practice without any of the pitfalls? Do as the Europeans do, of course.
Derived from the Latin aperire, meaning “to open,” the aperitif is a centuries-old tradition steeped in simple elegance. Commonly consumed in France, Italy and throughout the Mediterranean by early-evening congregants, aperitifs—from Italy’s spritz to Spain’s penchant for vermouth and soda—are thirst-quenching, low-alcohol beverages sipped socially to stimulate, or “open,” one’s appetite ahead of eating. But their appeal is much broader than that. Many American bartenders, enamored with the versatility of the category, are doing their part to evangelize, tamping down the high-octane proclivities of U.S. drinkers by introducing aperitifs—and their accompanying culture—to a new audience.
Often accompanied by a light snack spread, aperitifs are consumed in an informal setting—a bar or restaurant, a public gathering space or someone’s home—in the late afternoon to early evening, around the same time a conventional happy hour would kick off. The practice’s importance extends far beyond digestion. “L’apertif is more than a drink before a meal,” writes Georgeanne Brennan in her book, Aperitif: Recipes for Simple Pleasures in the French Style. “It is a national custom that, by deliberately setting apart time to share a drink and to socialize, engenders civility and conviviality.”
In other words, the aperitif has long been ritualized, woven into the European routine in such a way that it’s become a vital facet of everyday life. “An aperitif in France is not just a drink—it’s part of our culture,” says St-Germain global ambassador Camille Vidal, who grew up in Nîmes, in the south of France. “If the happy hour celebrates the end of the day, the aperitif celebrates the beginning of the night.”
Though the interpersonal value of the aperitif is an easy concept to grasp, defining what drinks actually fit the mold is a trickier task. “Aperitif can mean a lot of different things, which is what’s cool about it,” says bartender Alex Day, who is behind a number of the country’s best cocktail bars. “It doesn’t lock you into any frame or structure.”
Aside from being low-ABV, there aren’t too many hard-and-fast rules in place, but there are a few common characteristics. “They’re supposed to be dry, to get your palate salivating,” says bartender and drinks journalist Naren Young. “Nothing too sweet, alcoholic or heavy. It should be invigorating.”
Fortified wines and various floral and herbal liqueurs, poured on the rocks or made into a simple cocktail, like a spritz, are common aperitifs, but the category is in no way limited to such options. “Champagne, a glass of white wine or a crisp beer can be an aperitif,” adds Young, who’s built an extensive list at his New York City bar, Dante. “All these serve the same purpose.”
Not only is the aperitif an important cultural ritual—a sliver of space that asks nothing except that you let your hair down—it’s also a perspective on drinking that places “sessionability” above all else. The easy-drinking nature of a properly made aperitif leads to a natural propensity for multiple rounds, extending the socializing and preserving the remainder of your night. But that doesn’t mean sacrificing intrigue.
“More than anything else, it just needs to have a good amount of complexity,” says Atlanta bartender Greg Best, of a successful aperitif. “To achieve such results, Best and his contemporaries have developed a series of “pacecar cocktails” they call suppressors. The low-alcohol yin to the Corpse Reviver family’s revved-up yang, suppressors appear, in 30 to 40 different forms, at cocktail bars around the country, from Best’s Ticonderoga Club in Atlanta to California and back.
“Imbibing in this way gives you more staying power and a chance to keep a clear head for the rest of your evening,” says Franky Marshall of Brooklyn’s Marie Antoinette-inspired Le Boudoir, a Francophile who enjoys turning the uninitiated on to her many aperitif options.
Marshall’s not alone in her mission to spread the aperitif gospel to guests accustomed to drinking in one lane. At Manhattan’s Nitecap, co-owned by Day and Natasha David, the typical happy hour is swapped out for “aperitif hour,” featuring discounted prices on that entire section of the extensive menu. (See the Speed Dial, which combines St-Germain with St. George Green Chili vodka, Salers gentian liqueur, lime juice and seltzer.)
“When people think of that time of day, it’s cheap beer, two-for-ones and getting really drunk before they have to go home,” says David, who says texture, achieved through additions like sherries and housemade syrups, is vital to a good aperitif. “I very much appreciate the European sense of drinking.”
While these bartenders put much effort into promoting the concept of the aperitif to their customers, many also emphasize that it’s not a topic that needs to be overanalyzed to be sincerely appreciated. “It’s not something that’s really fussed over that much,” says Day. “It’s meant to be thrown together, hanging out outdoors on a deck finishing up a long day.”
The more people familiarize themselves with the ease and appeal of the aperitif, the more this diverse category will sneak into the collective American drinking consciousness—and stay there. “I don’t really see it as a trend,” says Young. “It’s something that’s going to keep going forever.”