Apéritifs Secret Ingredient to Cocktail Success

Fortified wines and spirits in cocktails
Photo Courtesy of Kimpton Hotels

The secret to the Manhattan’s popularity can be largely attributed to the natural affinity that exists between spirits and fortified apéritif wines. These venerable products are imbued with appetite stimulating flavors and satiny textured bodies, making them incomparable ingredients in cocktails. The annals of mixology are replete with classic drink recipes that marry fortified wines and spirits, and today’s practitioners are continuing to explore and redefine the boundaries of this magical pairing.

The explanation for their compatibility lies in how they are crafted. Back in the day of sailing ships, sending wines across the oceans required vintners to add spirits to their wines to enable them to withstand the rigors of long sea voyages. The spirit, typically a grape distillate, raised the wine’s alcohol level to 13% to upwards of 20%. Out of necessity was born an entirely new and delightful genus of potables.

Vermouth is the most frequently relied upon apéritif wine behind American bars. It is flavored with aromatic herbs and spices according to closely guarded trade recipes. Sweet vermouth—often referred to as Italian vermouth—is typically made from Apulia and Moscato di Canelli grapes. After aging, the wines are blended, filtered and fortified with distilled spirits. Dry (French) vermouth is made from light, thin-skinned Picpoul and Clairette grapes. The wines are aged 2-3 years in oak casks that are exposed to the elements to accelerate maturation. After aging, the wines are infused with botanicals and fortified with spirits.

Those with adventure in their soul may want to try replacing the sweet vermouth with PINEAU DES CHARENTES in their next specialty Manhattan. Pineau des Charentes is a French apéritif made from a blend of unfermented grape must and Cognac. Most varieties of Pineau are crafted from the grapes Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche and Colombard, along with the occasional Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Montils. The blend is aged for at least 18 months in oak barrels. Pineau seems created specifically with the Manhattan in mind. Its natural sweetness is expertly balanced by the acidity and increased percentage of alcohol.

Success in mixology is predicated on the belief that life is far too short to drink bad cocktails. Inspiration is typically the essential difference between a great drink and one that’s merely adequate. When searching for that one special ingredient to catapult a cocktail into the fabulous range, mixologists are increasingly turning to apéritifs and fortified wines. To that end, here is a cross section of what the market has to offer.

APEROL — Originated in 1919 in Padova, Italy, the bright red/orange apéritif is famous for its subdued bitterness, lively notes of rhubarb and strawberry, and calming, restorative properties. Lightweight and aromatic, Aperol is infused with a blend of bitter orange peels, gentian, rhubarb, cinchona and various other herbs and botanicals. It has a prominent citrus and herbal palate that gradually fades into a slightly floral, spicy and bittersweet orange finish. Its delicate bitterness and dry citrus components make it a natural modifier in cocktails.

BARSOL PERFECTO AMOR — Produced at Bodega San Isidro in the heart of Peru’s Ica winegrowing region, BarSol Perfecto Amor is an artisanal, small batch apéritif distilled exclusively from the valley’s three major grape varietals—Quebranta, Italia and Torontel. Each grape is juiced separately and fortified with pisco distilled from the same grape variety prior to fermentation. Afterwards, the three varietals are fortified with pisco brandy and then blended together to become BarSol Perfecto Amor. The apéritif has a velvety textured body, a lavish, floral and fresh fruit bouquet, and a palate loaded with the long lasting flavors of raisins, pears, apricots, caramel and marzipan.

CAMPARI — Incomparable as it may be as a digestive, its distinctive personality has made Campari one of the fundamental building blocks in mixology. The apéritif is still produced according to the 1860 recipe created by Gaspare Campari in Novara, Italy. It is an infusion of 60 different herbs, spices, roots, barks, aromatic botanicals and fruit. The 48-proof apéritif has a generous bouquet brimming with earthy, spicy aromas. It quickly fills the mouth with a wondrous blast of warmth that bathes the palate with dry, spicy, and bitter herbaceous flavors. Campari is an integral ingredient in such classic cocktails as the Negroni and the Americano.

CARPANO ANTICA FORMULA — Created in 1786 in the heart of Turin, Italy, Carpano Antica Formula is acknowledged as the original vermouth. Today it is handcrafted at Distillerie Branca according to the same secret recipe. The process begins with a base of red wine into which a proprietary mix of aromatic herbs, roots and bark are added. After blending, the vermouth is rested for 2 months to ensure that all of the various flavors have fully integrated. Carpano Antica Formula has a generous bouquet and a palate of red wine, dark chocolate, baking spices, almonds and citrus. The lingering finish is both semisweet and slightly bitter. It is an experience not to be missed.

DOLIN VERMOUTH — Located in the town of Chambéry high in the French Alps, Maison Dolin is one of the last independent vermouth producers and the only remaining producer of Appellation d’ Origine controlled Vermouth de Chambéry. Dolin vermouths are still handcrafted according to their original recipes, secret formulas dating back to 1821. The iconic brand features 3 expressions—Rouge, Blanc and Dry—each of which is made on a base of white wine. Most of the aromatics and botanicals used in production are indigenous exclusively to the region. Dolin is perhaps most famous as the originator of the clear Blanc style, which eventually lead to the creation of Dolin Dry Vermouth, one of the celebrated marques in the world.

DUBONNET —Dubonnet Rouge is the bestselling apéritif wine of its type in the United States. It was created in 1846 by Frenchman Joseph Dubonnet who intended it to serve as a restorative elixir for French Foreign Legion troops in Africa and Asia. This grand dame of apéritifs is produced in two versions. Dubonnet Rouge is produced on a base of premium red wine infused with a blend of herbs, spices, peels and quinine. It is light and refreshing, characteristically aromatic with a delicate body and a palate of tangy fruit. Dubonnet Blanc is crafted on a base of botanical-infused white wine and fortified with grape spirits. It is significantly drier than its red wine counterpart.

LILLET — Traditionally served before dinner as an apéritif, the venerable French import is also a versatile and dynamic ingredient in scores of classic cocktail recipes. Lillet has been made in the town of Podensac in southern Bordeaux since 1887 from a blend of barrel-aged Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon wines, spices, cinchona bark—the source of quinine—and various types of sweet and bitter orange peels. The fruit is rendered into individual liqueurs by macerating them in alcohol and aging in wood. The wine and liqueurs are blended together—85% wine and 15% liqueurs—and matured in French oak for up to a year. Introduced in 1962, Lillet Blanc is produced with Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc wines and decidedly drier than the Rouge.

VYA SWEET VERMOUTH APÉRITIF — Made at the Quady Winery in Madera, California, the
highly sought-after brand is a blend of Orange Muscat, French Colombard, and Valdepenas varietal wines infused with herbs, spices, flowers, and citrus. An added dose of Quady Port imbues the finished wine with a beautiful tawny hue. The vermouth has a lush, medium-weight body and a tantalizing semi-sweet bouquet. The palate is an incomparable array of spicy and tangy citrus flavors. Vya Extra Dry Vermouth Apéritif is made from a blend of French Colombard and Orange Muscat white wines infused with highly aromatic herbs, flowers and plants. The vermouth has a complex floral and fruity bouquet and a dry, mouth-filling palate laced with spice and citrus.