I had recently been on the phone with my mom and we were discussing her upcoming trip from Indianapolis to Paris. We were planning our days and the friends we would visit while she was here.
“And then, before dinner, we can grab an apéro at my place before popping over to Kate’s for dinner…” I said. “What is an apéro?” Asked my mom, a bit perplexed. It hadn’t occurred to me that she wouldn’t know what this was. So there I sat, stumped at how exactly to explain this tradition that had become so normal to me while living in Paris. “Well, it’s sort of like happy hour….” I began, realizing that the two weren’t entirely the same. And thus began my mini quest to understand the origins and implications of this French staple.
An apéritif is served before a meal to stimulate the appetite. The word is French and is derived from the Latin verb aperire, which means ‘to open’ or ‘opening.’ Many places in Europe have their own version of an apéritif. The Italians have aperitivo and often serve a Campari, the Spanish also call it aperitivo and serve dry sherry, while the Greeks break out ouzo.
But what exactly is the purpose of an aperitif socially and when should one invite their friends to partake in one? Aperitifs are more casual and less involved than say, a meal in France. An aperitif can be served just before a lunch or a dinner, though in my experience, these are usually pre-dinner drinks. Apéritifs are a great way to invite new friends, colleagues, or neighbors to one’s home or out to a bar. It can be a sort of ice breaker that allows new acquaintances the opportunity to mingle, while also offering longtime friends the chance to catch up. Increasingly popular in Paris is the after work apéros, some of which specifically draw single people for the chance to meet other single people.
In France, what do they serve at an apéro? Well the selection has evolved considerably over the years—there’s something for everyone’s tastes. As mentioned, the aperitif is designed to stimulate the palate before a meal, meaning the dryer the drink selection, the better. Champagne is a perfect choice because it is dry, crisp, and in turn won’t diminish one’s palate. Other great aperitif drinks include: a light-bodied white wine, rosé, sherry, cider, pastis, lillet, vermouth, or kir. If you’ve been invited to an apéro, it’s always appropriate to ask the host whether or not you can bring a bottle of something, though in my experience if they’ve invited you, they will provide the drinks. And if you’re the one hosting the apéro, it’s a nice gesture to keep the supply flowing for your guests.
What could make an apéro even better? Well most are often served with some type of snack or pre-dining munchy. It’s standard to see nuts, chips, olives, cubes of cheese, sausage, red peppers, carrots, or cucumber sticks served with the alcohol. I’ve even seen things as extensive as garlic bread, little bites of pizza or eggs and caviar served with an apéro (though these aren’t as common—these are reserved for a more high end apéro).
In the spirit of preparing you for your next (–or first!) apéritif, I’ve provided some cool drink ideas below as well as how to prepare them. Tell us what you love about the apéro tradition!
2 oz gin
1 oz freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 oz simple syrup
4 oz chilled champagne
Shake the gin, lemon and simple syrup with ice and strain into a flute, then top with the chilled champagne and garnish with a lemon zest.
Two of the best known and most popular aperitivo cocktails are the Negroni and The Americano. Both drinks combine vermouth and Campari, creating the perfect storm of bitterness. Another drink that accomplishes this flavor in a raw way is the Milano-Torino.
2 oz Campari
2 oz Italian vermouth
Splash of soda
Build ingredients over fresh ice into a rocks glass. Garnish with a lemon slice.
The Black Rose:
2 oz French vermouth
1 oz blackberry cordial
1 teaspoon blackberry syrup
There is certainly something about the French mystique that’s as dark and alluring as a black rose, so there’s no better name for this blackberry cocktail that’s been a Parisian favorite since the Art Deco era. Just strain into a glass, garnish with blackberries, and voilà!
½ ounce crème de cassis
5 to 6 ounces champagne, chilled
Lemon twist for garnish
The original version of this bubbly aperitif was born in Burgundy in the 1940s when Frenchman Félix Kir, a priest, WWII resistance fighter, and politician, mixed a local Aligoté white wine with blackcurrant liqueur to serve to fellow delegates. Take the royale approach by kicking up the traditional Kir and replacing the white wine with champagne. Simply add crème de cassis to a champagne flute and top with your choice of bubbly!
The French Blonde:
½ oz. elderflower liqueur
1 oz. dry gin
2 oz. White Lillet
2 oz. fresh grapefruit juice
A few dashes lemon bitters
Channel the European glamour of a French Blonde by sipping this sweet and sour cocktail. Made with Lillet, an aperitif blend of Bordeaux wines and citrus liqueur, it’s the perfect pre-meal drink when you’re pretending to be in Paris.