Consider, if you will, a cocktail that, rather than satiating the palate and leaving its drinker a trifle tipsy, actually encourages an appetite for more food and drink.
Certainly, that’s something every well-meaning and profit-minded restaurateur would wish to offer. But it’s also something likely absent from your drinks list — unless your list includes the traditional aperitif cocktail.
“Typically, lower alcohol is the hallmark of an aperitif cocktail,” said Seattle-based writer and cocktail blogger Paul Clarke, who led a seminar on the subject at last summer’s Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans.
“At the beginning of a meal, there is no reason to deaden the palate with high-strength [drinks], and [lower-potency cocktails] are psychologically better for the consumer as well,” he said.
Clarke’s co-presenter at Tales, San Francisco barman Neyah White, went one step further, saying that aperitif cocktails “are by definition appetite enhancers, and I don’t think I need to explain why that is good for the restaurateur. It is also very good for the guest, [since] it is pretty well-understood that diners get more nutritional value out of their meal after having a light drink beforehand.”
Aside from having less strength, aperitif cocktails tend to be drier and more bitter than typical cocktails, Clarke said, adding that both of those characteristics help prepare the body for food, with “an astringency that prompts the mouth to start watering, the same physiological reaction as is effected by hunger.”
Typical aperitif-style cocktails often contain fortified wines such as vermouth and sherry. The classic Bamboo Cocktail, for example, has a one-to-one mix of sherry and dry vermouth with a couple of drops of orange and/or aromatic bitters added. Others are made with stronger spirits, such as Pastis, liberally diluted with water or juice.
That brings further benefit to the operator, according to “Modern Mixologist” Tony Abou-Ganim, who developed a drinks program liberally studded with aperitif cocktails for ̓inoteca, a New York City bar and restaurant.
“As most aperitif-style drinks contain inexpensively priced vermouths, aromatized wine and lower-proof spirits, the cost basis is generally very attractive to the operator,” Abou-Ganim said. “Additionally, the lower alcohol content affords the opportunity to offer a second or third drink.”
That’s all well and good, but no one profits from drinks that don’t get sold.
But Clarke, White and Abou-Ganim all were cautiously optimistic that the American public is ready to embrace the aperitif cocktail.
“Our guests do indeed seem to be drinking less but drinking better these days,” Abou-Ganim said. “The consumer is and continues to become more fascinated with and knowledgeable of cocktails and our craft overall, and as everything old once again becomes new, we are seeing the return of smaller glass size and lower alcohol content libations.”
White echoed that view, noting, “I would like to think the public is ready for this. [Aperitif cocktails] are showing up more and more on better menus, and the craft bartending community certainly has embraced them.”
Still, for some, the question of value persists. Will the consumer accept the value of a lower-strength cocktail versus one higher in alcohol? For Abou-Ganim, it’s a nonissue.
“We must always keep our guest in mind first and foremost,” he said. “They are looking for value — not a bargain, but a value for their money. This means all the details must be accounted for: glassware, premium alcohols, fresh ingredients, professionalism and great technique. Regardless of strength, drinks should be priced fairly and represent the value of the ingredients included.”