Make time to have an aperitif

Wednesday, October 1, 2003 at 1:00am

I love a long casual evening with good friends, hours of great food, and the full gambit of wines and spirits. To start a night off like this there is only one way to get things started - with a good old fashioned aperitif. The word comes from a Latin root that means "to open" and the whole point is to open the digestive system and kick start the appetite. It should be something light and spirited. Often you can go with a light white wine or something sparkling, but this week I want to focus on some flavored spirits and cocktails that really do the trick.

The basis of many of these is wine. Whether it is wine that has been fortified with herbs and brandy or wine that has been fermented and infused with fruits, the results can be unique. Take, for instance, Lillet, France's premier aperitif made in Bordeaux. It is made from 80 percent wine and 20 percent brandy then aged for at least three years in French oak, giving this aperitif a honeyed, vanilla flavor. If you ever read the old Ian Flemming's James Bond books you might remember that he always use Lillet instead of Vermouth. Personally, I love to drink it over ice with a splash of soda and a twist of lemon.

Dry and sweet Vya vermouths

While we are on the subject of vermouths, in Europe they are used for a lot more that just making martinis. Vermouths are made from bad leftover wines. Vya, made in California, is made from wines produced from Orange Muscat, Colombard, and Valdepenas. The sweet vermouth has huge notes of gingerbread, dates, molasses, and my mother's Christmas plum pudding. In dry vermouth Vya has more subtle hints of spearmint, green melons and limes. You can use Vya sweet in a killer Manhattan with Gentleman Jack, but try blending equal portions together over ice.

Dubonnet Rouge

One of the things about most of these aperitifs is that they like to keep their recipes secret - so half the fun is in just trying to find out what is in them. I know that Dubonnet is made from wines from all over Europe, but what are the flavors added? I know there is some fruit essence like black currant but there is a good amount of roses on the nose as well. I also get a heavy dose of spices from India. Dubonnet should always be served slightly chilled but also try it with a demi sec Champange or Cremant de Loire.

Pernod

Many people think that Pernod is a style of Passis because they both share similar flavor. But the truth be known, whole Passis relies on licorice root for its primary flavor and Pernod uses distilled star anise that makes it much lighter and smoother. It is a great sipper straight up but a more traditional approach is to put it with two rocks and a splash which gives it a milky apperance. I must also point out that it is great to cook with. I usually deglaze my pan after saut

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