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Bar Blips: Spirits with a Purpose

Posted on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2015


Whenever I am dining somewhere for the first time, I love to dissect the way the menu is designed, especially the drink menu. I love reading the ingredients for different cocktails and their clever names. I’m a sucker for puns. I am also especially intrigued by what restaurants choose to include in their menus. For instance, do they list all their bourbons and obscure liqueurs? There is such a limited amount of real estate on menus and most establishments dare not list every bottle that they carry behind the bar. One trend that has me absolutely delighted is the inclusion of apéritifs and digestifs on menus.  Including these categories of spirits proves to me that the bond between food and beverage programs is not only strengthening, it’s flourishing.  In many other parts of the world, they embrace an apéritifs/digestif way of imbibing that I am envious of. Cocktails are centered on food and the progression of a meal. 

An apéritif is an alcoholic beverage usually served before a meal to stimulate the appetite, and is therefore usually dry or bitter rather than sweet.  Liqueurs such as Campari, Aperol, Pernod are some examples.  A digestif is an alcoholic beverage served after a meal, in theory to aid digestion. Some examples would be limoncello, cognacs, fernet and chartreuse.  In France, they have sunset apéro, which I imagine is the dressed up, low-octane version of American Happy Hour, with glamorous French people sipping on apértifs in some small seaside lounge. They also partake in cocktail dinatoire, which is sort of like a casual dinner party with light bites paired with apértifs, digestifs and wine.  I for one would like to be French for the month of November, who is with me?  Sunset apéro does have such a glamorous edge over happy hour, no?  Aside from the connection of food and cocktails, the reason that apéritifs and digestifs are essential in the drink culture is that they are usually low in alcohol. Low octane cocktails are important in the context of not sacrificing quality for quantity. Through my romantic rose-colored glasses, I imagine long luxurious meals on some beautiful terrace on the coast of France or Italy, beginning with apéritifs and then progressing to multiple courses with multiple bottles of wine and ending with a beautiful brandy. Sigh.

I remember just four years ago, I had a guest order a vermouth on the rocks and I wondered why, and I now see that I was just behind on the times.  It’s wonderful to be able to grow and learn and in the process drink and eat in a way I never imagined.  Cocktail and food culture is flourishing because relishing our experiences has become more of a priority.  I remember not too long ago having a drink was more about the buzz then the actual experience of what was in the glass, and my have the times changed.  Perhaps this change has come from our access to information and our ability to share information and experiences through social media. From a bartenders perspective, my bar guests in the last 5 years are not only more knowledgeable, but more importantly they’re curious. They ask more questions about what liquors I’m pouring, about why I’m stirring a cocktail instead of shaking it, etc. This is an amazing progression to witness and this blog, our Sunday School series, would not exist without this evolution. Hooray for progress!

At the end of the day, it is still about having fun and being able to share a glass of whatever you like with the people you hold dear. I am thrilled to see the progression of spirits and food as one harmonious experience, because I love nothing more then breaking bread and sharing a great cocktail with friends. 

For those who want to recreate cocktail dinatoire at home, here are a couple of easy recipes to serve to your guests.

1.5 oz Cocchi Americano
1.5 oz sweet vermouth
Soda water to top

Fill a highball glass with ice. Add Cocchi Americano and vermouth, and top generously with soda. Garnish with an orange slice. This cocktail is typically made with Campari, but I like replacing it with a more approachable amaro like Cocchi. You can also use Aperol or Cappeletti.

1 sugar cube
3 dashes Angostura bitters
Champagne or sparkling wine

Soak the sugar cube in Angostura bitters and drop into a champagne flute. Top with champagne, or a sparkling wine. Garnish with a lemon or orange twist.

We will delve into the wonderful world of apéritif and digestifs for this month’s Sunday School class on November 22nd! We’re aiming to create some unique cocktails that will mimic and pay homage to the classic flavor profiles of these categories of spirits. I may even speak in a French accent for the entire class! Don’t forget to reserve your seat today.


Your neighborhood bartender,
Catherine Manabat