Mixed into cocktails, served on the rocks with a twist, or simply sipped from a fancy glass, aperitifs make the perfect ingredient for summer porch drinking. Aperitif (the French term) or aperitivo (Italian) technically refers to the art of an appetite-whetting pre-meal tipple, ranging from a small glass of wine to a large snifter of brandy, but the word has come to refer to a category of drinks best fit for the task.
Designed for drinking on the early side of a day and on an empty stomach, aperitifs are often light in color and alcohol, ranging from “barely stronger than a big wine” to spirituous levels. Many in the loose category tend toward the bitter and herbal side, providing (supposedly) stimulation to the appetite, and separating the aperitifs (“openers,” literally) from the sweeter, heavier after-dinner digestifs.
As summer approaches—and the long hours of sun settle in—it’s time to keep the bottles of citrus-yLillet Blanc in the fridge. The French fortified wine is more syrupy than most aperitifs, but the sweet orange infused within retains enough acid and brightness to keep it easy to drink on its own—preferably well-chilled. There are few ways to improve it, though serving on the rocks with a citrus twist will keep it cool and bright longer.
Once the Lillet Blanc has been mastered, the advanced drinker may move onto Cocchi Americano. The Italian aperitivo is thought to be the closest thing available to what the original Lillet tasted like—when it still had cinchona bark in it. The complex bitterness makes it a thoughtful drink, which, while good on its own, is a valuable addition to many cocktails in need of extra depth.
A third entry in the fortified wine category, Dolin Blanc Vermouth is more like a liqueur than anything you might want to make a martini with. The infusion of herbs and spices offer mere whispers of flavor, matched by equally subtle sweetness. It’s fine on its own, but is definitely improved with soda water to bring up the botanicals and a squeeze of lime to cut the sweetness.
Moving into the spirit-based versions, one of the best-known and most emblematic aperitivos is Campari. The intensity of the liquor base and the bitter herbs make it expert-level if sipped straight, though it’s most popular in a negroni, where it’s joined by gin and vermouth. If the seductively-bold red of the drink is enticing, but the taste for the bittersweet beverage not yet acquired, Aperol is a sort of Campari-light, with less alcohol, less bitterness, and just a touch less color.
Lest one be mired down in the French and Italian aperitifs, the Brits have an entry as well: the Pimm’s No. 1. The gin-based infused liqueur is a Wimbledon tradition and a garden-party essential. It is quite drinkable alone, but is at its best in its namesake cocktail, the Pimm’s Cup. The versions of it are legion, but it can be as simple as Pimm’s and ginger ale, plus the quintessential cucumber garnish. More advanced versions add lemonade (Sprite or 7-Up), lemon juice, various fruits, and/or mint.