From the Latin aperire (“to open”), there is no clear consensus about where or when or by whom the first aperitif was consumed, but there are plenty of theories…
It must have been the French, right? I mean, there is no culture on earth that has so prolifically created the right beverage for every occasion!
Or perhaps it was the Brits? Afterall, between their love of Champagne and etiquette, it only makes sense that they would have created such a civilized concept.
Most historians however point to Antonio Benedetto Carpano and his creation of the ever-popular pre-dinner sipper – called vermouth – as the genesis of the aperitif. As early as 1786, citizens in Turin, Italy were enjoying a splash of vermouth before dinner.
Others still, point to the Spanish who have been enjoying a glass of their favourite beverage before dinner for centuries, as have many other tapas munching cultures in Latin America.
There is no dispute however, that by the late 19th century aperitifs had become very fashionable, from the cafes of Rome, Venice and Florence to emerging metropolitan cities in North America. Today, the various regional versions of the aperitif give us a wide range of flavours to choose from.
The Greeks enjoy a splash of Ouzo, while in Italy Bitters and Vermouth are king. You’ll see Pastis at the top of the list in many parts of France, while the Spanish would rather indulge in a copita of dry Sherry. But let’s not forget about Arak – the beverage of choice in most of the eastern Mediterranean. In North America we are pretty flexible – anything from a beer to a glass of dry wine or a mixed drink will do the trick.
So while there is no definitive aperitif per se, dry sparkling wines, liqueurs and fortified wines are the most common and traditional choices.
One of the things I love most about the whole idea of the aperitif is that it encourages exploration and the chance to experience flavours one might never otherwise. Some of the most fascinating and complex flavours I have ever experienced in a glass come as a small sip to inspire appetite and good conversation at the beginning of a meal.
Much like the exploration of various regional and ethnic cuisines, there is something so holistic, organic and real about experiencing the endless cultural versions of a global tradition, like the aperitif. I can literally close my eyes and feel the velvety sublime luxury so central to the very identity of Champagne when I recall enjoying a glass of Bollinger on the terrace at a top restaurant in Reims. I can feel the warm southern Spanish sun on my skin when I think back to the last time I enjoyed a copita of Lustau Fino on a patio in Jerez. I can smell the rosemary and herbs growing wild in the countryside of the south of France when I reflect on my last sip of pastis.
Aperitifs can be bone dry and austere, herbal and aromatic or fresh and fruity. They stimulate the palate, build anticipation for the meal to follow and offer a few welcome moments to sit back and reflect on one’s surroundings. Aperitifs are one of those nice little treats in life that soothe the mind, body and soul. These few sips before a meal are one more way to help transcend a meal into something more – an authentic and memorable sensory experience.
The next time you sit down for a meal be adventurous and explore the world of flavours that can be found in a few small sips.
Andrew Hanna is a third generation wine importer and Director of Sales & Marketing at John Hanna & Sons Ltd., one of Canada’s oldest independent wine merchants. He spends his days scouring the earth for handcrafted wines telling a story about the people and places in each bottle, while sharing these delicious discoveries with wine lovers across Canada. Connect with him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.