Spirits Close-Up: White Aperitifs

When you’re making cocktails, there’s easy, and there’s interesting, and rarely the twain shall meet.

On the one hand, you can buy pre-bottled cocktails and take your rail booze with a side of preservatives and corn syrup. On the other, you can spend the better part of an afternoon infusing spirits, simmering gomme syrup, and finding the right Instagram filter to show off a glass rimmed with fennel pollen.

Or you could simplify everything and drink a white aperitif. Pour some in a glass with a big ice cube and maybe an orange twist. Or forget the orange twist. Or even the ice. Just sip.

The products I’m talking about don’t have a great catch-all name. You could call some of them “aromatized wines,” since they are flavored with various herbs and aromatics. They might be “aperitifs” if they’re French or “aperitivi” if they’re Italian. You’ll find them on the shelves next to the vermouth (another aromatized wine, but one defined by the flavor of wormwood.)

I think of them as cocktails-in-a-bottle because they contain all the required elements: spirits (they’re lightly fortified to around 20 percent ABV), sugar, and bittering agents. And it’s those bitter ingredients that often define them.

Lillet is classified as a “quinquina” because it’s flavored with cinchona bark, from which we get quinine and the unmistakable taste of tonic water. The “amer” in Cocchi Americano means “bitter,” which is thanks in part to cinchona and gentian. On the rocks, they’re both easy like Sunday morning.

But if your tastes run further to the bitter side of bittersweet, track down a gentian liqueur. Suze is one that mixes well with gin in a martini, but shows off a rustic citrus quality on its own. Salers is even more aggressive and astringent—I’ll squeeze over a big wedge of orange before taking it neat.

John Garland About John Garland

John Garland is the Deputy Editor at the Growler Magazine. Find him on twitter (@johnpgarland) or in every coffee shop on West 7th Street.