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aperitif LEITMOTIF

Despite an interest 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 aperitivo come 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, or 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.


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 and aromatized and sparkling wines is vital to making them a successful category. Here are some tips for promoting these appetite enhancers:

• Pair a specific aperitif to an amuse bouche to help break down guests’ reluctance to trying something unfamiliar. (E.g., Pineau des Charentes is served chilled and is delicious spooned over fresh melon slices.)
• Show off your bottles. Move them out from behind the tip jar and backbar clutter.
• Offer free tastes. Guests are hesitant to buy what they have never tried.
• Showcase these products using special glassware and garnishes that are visually stimulating. (E.g., serve pastis, which turns cloudy with the addition of ice or water, absinthe-style with a side pitcher of water.)
• Have your staff taste every aperitif you offer. Aperitifs won’t move if you don’t let your staff taste them. Servers need to feel confident in their knowledge before they are likely to practice suggestive selling.
• Insist that your staff knows how to pronounce your aperitifs, what each is made from, and how each is served and can suggest appropriate food pairings.
• Develop aperitif cocktails using premium products. (E.g., offer your own version of a Kir Royale or a variation on a Negroni.)

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.

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