5 Things I’ve Learned About…Aperitif Spirits

The February 2011 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine is out, and it includes (among other things) my review column on Aperitif Spirits.  You can pick up a copy at the newsstand, or view it in digital format on Zinio.  Here’s what I learned:

1.  For me, the single biggest takeaway was a schooling on what constitutes “aperitif.” When I first proposed this category, I hadn’t figured on including vermouths, which are fortified wines, rather than spirits. At one end of the spectrum, you have the strong and often bitter distilled spirits, which include amaros and all those monk-made herbal liqueurs; on the other, the gentle and sweet/dry aperitif wines. The latter category also spans vermouths, as well as French aperitif wines known as quinquinas and their Italian counterparts, chinati. Luckily, booze expert Paul Clarke has broken some ground writing about the latter category, so I can just direct you here for a primer.

2.  When it comes to vermouth, it’s either transcendently good, or woefully disappointing, reminiscent of wine gone bad. Not much middle ground. Carpano Antica and Punt e Mes are going to find permanent places in my personal bar.

3.  Bitter aperitifs – it’s all a matter of taste. Fernet is perhaps the most polarizing spirit of them all. Some people find it refreshing. I hate the murky brown stuff – for me, it inspires a visceral” ick!” reaction, like a little kid to mushy lima beans. I had to recognize that I could not objectively review it nor assign a rating. I will never acquire a taste for Fernet. I am okay with this.

4.  Herbal is big in the aperitif spirits category. Good luck actually picking out the specific herbs, though; most combine a mix of dozens of mysterious herbs and spices, and the recipe is deliberately vague.

5.  For whatever reason, Italy and France seem to have walloped the rest of the world in creating aperitif spirits. Where are the contributions from the rest of the world?

If you have a favorite aperitif spirit or wine, or aperitif cocktail, I’d love to hear more about it, please leave a comment! You can also use that space to bad-mouth (or defend) Fernet, if you so desire.