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Why you should pay attention to aperitifs

April 04, 2012|By Emily Van Zandt | RedEye

Put down that lager, that pour of merlot or that heavy craft cocktail. If you haven't eaten yet, you might be treading dangerously close to doing what your mother warned you about: You're going to ruin your supper.

Instead, bartenders suggest reaching for something a little lighter to stimulate the appetite, rather than drown it out. Enter the aperitif, a French term for a light drink served before a meal.

"Typically the flavors range from bitter, [to] dry or acidic," explains Stephen Cole, owner and bartender at Lincoln Park's The Barrelhouse Flat. "You want to go with a flavor profile on the bitter side. Bubbles, as in sparkling wines, do the trick as well."

Those colorful bottles of Aperol, Campari, Cocchi Americano, Lillet or Dolin seen gracing the back shelves and drink lists of cocktail bars around Chicago? Served over ice, perhaps with a little soda and a twist of citrus, they're all traditional aperitifs (or for the Italian brands, they're called aperitivos). But few Chicagoans are bellying up to the bar to order them in such a simple form.

"It's more of a European thing," says Tim Lacey, bar manager at Ada Street, a recently opened bar on the border of Bucktown and Lincoln Park. "I think in general we just haven't been exposed to them in this country."

Instead, most drinkers are used to seeing the spirits served in classic and modern craft cocktails, which also made decent options to start a meal.

"There's always the negroni [a mix of Campari, gin and sweet vermouth]," Lacey says. "I really dig its forerunner, the Americano [traditionally Campari, sweet vermouth and soda water]."

For an aperitif at his bar, Cole recommends the Cape Suzette -- scotch and rum drink made with Aperol -- but anything with absinthe, Cocchi Americano or Dolin's dry vermouth will do. For Lacey, the best starter is a pour of sparkling wine.

"With wine, you're looking for something high in acid to get your mouth watering -- either the Bouillot sparkling rosé or the Vilarnau brut cava," Lacey says.

If you're looking for a cocktail to start your night at Ada Street, Lacey recommends the Falling in Love Again, a mix of riesling, Imbue (a vermouth made in Portland) and lemon juice.

Aperitifs' after-dinner counterpart, the digestif, is having a moment in the Chicago cocktail scene as well, with amaro-based cocktails are being played up at spots such as RPM Italian in River North and The Purple Pig on the Mag Mile. Recently opened Lincoln Park restaurant Balena features a cocktail list with Italian aperitivos and digestivos.

"[Digestifs or digestivos] are meant to aid in digestion ... they tend to have more intense, darker flavors," Lacey says. "Something like Fernet Branca is more complex and bitter. It tastes, and I say this as someone who genuinely loves it, like menthol and dirt. In the best possible way."

While Cole does occasionally see customers ordering an aperitif on the rocks, it's a trend that hasn't caught on just yet -- but give it some time.

"With the cocktail trend in the states coming back over the last 20 years, our customers have the ability to venture out a little more and they're starting to realize all the new interesting products that are available to them." | @redeyedrinks

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