The Five Best French Apéritifs + Everything You Need to Know about the French Apéro!

Me. After a late-afternoon swim on my balcony in Collioure, during that magical time of the day called the apéro.

Me. After a late-afternoon swim on my balcony in Collioure, during that magical time of the day called the apéro.

What is an apéritif? Is there a difference between an apéritif and a cocktail? Read on to learn everything you need to know about apéritifs, including the five best French apéritifs.

If you read my blog at all, you know how passionate I am about the apéritif—that ritualistic pre-dinner drink that stimulates the appetite and enhances your mood without making your head spin. More interesting than a glass of wine, but not as overwrought and fuzzying as a full-blown cocktail, the apéritif is just the best way in the world to shrug off the cares of the day and ready your spirit for the joys to come—whether it’s a simple Tuesday night meal at home or a dinner with friends.

No matter what else happens in our day, Dave (aka Mr. Sportcoat) and I generally stop everything at an appointed hour and sit down together for our little drink and a snack. Sometimes, it’s the only drink I have in an evening; the pleasant feeling I get from it, and from stopping and relaxing and reconnecting with Dave, just gives me a bon feeling (as my Québecois friend Richard used to call it) that sustains me through the night. If I’m dining with friends, I’ll usually switch to red wine for dinner.

What, then, do I serve most often as an apéritif? Here are five classic French apéritifs—plus see below for one drink you should never, ever serve as an apéritif.

Now: Five Typical French Apéritifs

A Classic Kir au Vin Blanc (Kir with White Wine).

A Classic Kir au Vin Blanc (Kir with White Wine). Photo credit.

1. The Kir, of Course

Surely—if you’re a fan of France—you know this one, but I must mention it anyway. The Kir (rhymes with beer) is the unofficial national apéritif of France; though it’s from Dijon, it’s served all over the country.

How to Make a Kir:  Simply mix about 1 tablespoon crème de cassis with about 4 ounces of a dry white wine. Traditionally, the wine used is Aligoté, a white wine from Burgundy, but take my word for it: All over France, they’ll make it with just about any good, drinkable dry white wine they have. I personally like using an inexpensive white Bordeaux, but I’ll also use whatever good dry white I have on hand, as long as it’s not a big, heavy, overly oaky Chardonnay.

Here’s what you might not know: Crème de Cassis is not the only pony in the Kir rodeo. The French very often use other fruit- or even nut-flavored liqueurs, such as liqueur de Pêche (peach liqueur), liqueur de mûres (blackberry) liqueur de framboise (raspberry), and—one of my favorites—crème de Chaitagne (chestnut liqueur).

Why limit yourself to Crème de Cassis? The French don't! Many liqueurs can be used to make a great Kir—if you can find them.

Why limit yourself to Crème de Cassis? The French don’t! Many liqueurs can be used to make a great Kir—if you can find them.

The trick is, of course, finding these flavored liqueurs stateside. If you live on the coasts, I bet you can score some. I tend to bring it home from you-know-where. And if you’re lucky, you can mail-order them, if you live in a state that allows this.

Start every dinner off with one of these things, and I’ll guarantee you’ll enjoy everything that comes after it more fully.

Classic Kir Royale with crème de Cassis, though you can use any fruit liqueur, as with a kir. Photo by Richard Swearinger

Classic Kir Royale with crème de Cassis, though you can use any fruit liqueur, as with a kir. Photo by Richard Swearinger

2. An Unbeatable Choice: Champagne

Travel into the Champagne region of France, and the apéritif is very often simply an uplifting glass of Champagne—it’s a great apéritif that never fails to set a fine tone for the night.

What’s better than Champagne? Apéritifs made with Champagne. A Kir made with Champagne is called Kir Royale; you can make it with crème de cassis, of course, but you can also use any of the fruit-flavored liqueurs mentioned above. Those are the simplest.

Of course, many drinks are made with Champagne–including the French 75 (with gin) and the classic Champagne Cocktail (with Cognac). But in my view, once they include a spirit, they’re no longer an apéritif, but a cocktail—and that’s a different kind of pleasure (more on cocktails versus apéritifs, below).

For Champagne cocktails that work best as apéritifs, stick to fruit liqueurs and such.

3. An Uncommon Apéritif Here—But Quite Common in France: Fortified Wines

Fortified wines are made by adding a spirit (such as brandy or Cognac) to the wine early so that the fermentation process stops early on. This halts the fermentation and keeps the wine’s sugars intact. The resulting sip has the luscious density and–yes–sweetness, but also sparks of flavor from whatever grapes are used as well as from oak-barrel aging. 

Martini Bianco (White Vermouth) on the rocks. A wonderfully refreshing apéritif.

Martini Bianco (a brand of white vermouth) on the rocks. A wonderfully refreshing apéritif.

Though we often think of fortified wines, such as Port, Madiera, and Marsala, as after-dinner drinks, the French serve them equally often—chilled and in small portions—as apéritifs. You see, something viscous and lightly sweet (but with intrigue) stimulates the appetite better than, say, a light, citrusy Sauvignon Blanc or other super-dry wine. The French have figured this out. Why haven’t we?

A few terrific fortified wines that the French serve as apéritifs include:

• Port (red or ruby–generally not tawny). Serve chilled.
• Vermouth: Fortified wines with aromatic herbs and spices. You’ll generally drink sweet vermouth for your apéritif, the most famous of which is the Martini brand, which comes in white, red, or rose. These are fabulous apéritifs. Serve these chilled, with a couple of ice cubes.
• Madiera: Either dry or sweet can be served as an apéritif. Serve chilled.
• Marsala: Again, either dry or sweet can be served as an apéritif. Serve chilled.
Pineau des Charentes: Harder to find stateside, but definitely worth seeking out, this fortified wine is made in the Cognac region. It’s a golden sip with the luscious density of port, but with bright, honeyed orchard-fruit flavors like golden apples, pears and apricots. My favorite of all the French fortified-wine apéritifs. Serve chilled, in 3- to 4-ounce portions.

Dave, drinking Un Perroquet (Pernod with mint syrup). Honestly, I swear we don't match our outfits to the drinks. Really!

Dave, drinking Un Perroquet (Pernod with mint syrup). Honestly, I swear we don’t match our outfits to the drinks. Really!

4. The South-of-France Go-To: Pernod, Pastis, Ricard, etc.

These anis-flavored apéritifs, classic in Provence, are not for everyone (Mr. Sportcoat enjoys them; I’ll have about one per trip to Mediterranean, just to ease into a sense of place). To serve Pastis, you pour one part over ice, then add water (about 4 parts). Generally, the water is served separately, so that the guest can add water to taste.

The real fun, however, begins when you start adding a flavor to the Pastis. The colors of the drink become amazing, and its anis-flavor a little less one-dimensional. Two favorites:

La Tomate: This drink is named for its color (in this case, a pretty pink). To make pour one part Pernod into a glass; add 1 dash grenadine syrup and add a few ice cubes. Fill glass with four parts cold water. The results taste like a very adult version of Good-and-Plenty candy.

Le Perroquet: Again, this drink is named for its color (again, an amazing green). To make, pour one part Pernod into a glass; add 1 dash crème de menthe syrup and a few ice cubes. Fill glass with four parts cold water. The mix of cool mint and smooth anis makes an amazingly refreshing drink.

CampariRocks

Campari on the rocks.

5. Those Amazing Amari — Apérol and Campari

Although they hail from Italy, not France, the French love these bitter (amari, in Italian, amer, in French) spirits, especially during the apéritif hour. And if you just will not get on the lightly-sweet-apéritif train with me, then drinks made with apérol and Campari are for you.

These refreshingly bitter, ruby-red apéritifs are flavored by top-secret blends of herbs, spices and fruit peels (bitter orange peels and wild herbs come mostly to mind when I sip). Campari is more bitter (and higher in alcohol content–23%) than Apérol (11%), but both are incredibly refreshing.

Best ways to enjoy Campari and Aperol:

• Campari (or Apérol) and Soda: One part of the spirit to two parts soda, on the rocks.
• Campari (or Apérol) on the Rocks: Just pour about 2 ounces on the rocks. Simple and refreshing.
• Apérol Spritz: Consider this a Kir Royale for those who don’t want anything sweet in their sip. Place ice in a big-globe wineglass; add 2 ounces Prosecco, 1 1/4 ounces Aperol, and a splash of Soda water.
• Américano: 1 part Compari and 1 part Red Vermouth plus a splash of soda. A beautifully complex drink that takes the edge off the bitterness of the Campari–but it’s still not sweet!
• Negroni: It’s an Americano with 1 part gin added, and no soda. But to me, with all that booze, this veers into the cocktail camp—it’s not my idea of an apéritif.

More Things You Need to Know: The Apéro

Sweatshirt that says, roughly, "Sorry! Can't do it! It's apéro time!"

Sweatshirt that says, roughly, “Can’t do it! It’s apéro time!”

What is an apéro? Is apéro just a hipster way of saying apéritif?

Not exactly. When people talk about an apéritif, they’re generally talking about the little drink itself (though keep in mind that the drink is rarely served without a little nibble alongside).

When people talk about the apéro, however, it refers to the entire ritual of the drink and the little bite to eat with it—as well as the time you take to relax and enjoy it all with friends.

Question: Can I serve red wine as an Apéritif.

Non! Most red wines are meant to drink with a substantial meal; they’re not apéritifs. They’re not refreshing on their own and they don’t arouse the appetite.

However, if someone you’re hosting specifically requests a glass of red to start off the evening, then, because you’re an excellent host, you will gladly and graciously pour a glass. Because, of course, you are not the kind of know-it-all who would embarrass a guest by mentioning that red wines aren’t meant to drink as an apéritif.

Question: Can Cocktails Be Served as an Apéritif? What’s the Difference Between a Cocktail and an Apéritif?

Sigh. Yes, you an serve a cocktail as an apéritif, if you must. But once you get high-proof spirits in the mix, they’re a different experience than a classic French apéritif, which is generally not a high-proof drink. Apéritifs give you a lift; cocktails give you a buzz.

But I must admit that sometimes cocktails are served as apéritif; one of the most common cocktails served as an apéritif is, of all things, a gin and tonic. I’ve also seen very small glasses of whisky on ice served as apéritifs, but I personally haven’t seen that many French people imbibing one. (UPDATE: In comments section, below, a reader tells me that single-malt Scotches are incredibly popular apéritifs right now!).

Gin + Tonic is an apéritif, as are whiskies. But they're not as common as others I've mentioned above.

Typical apéritif menu in a restaurant: Note that Gin + Tonics are considered apéritifs, as are whiskies (but they’re served in small portions, let me tell you). Oh–and please note that the “Martini” on this menu refers to Martini & Rossi Vermouth (not the cocktail!).

Can Wine Be Served as an Apéritif?

Yes. Rosé and white wines are sometimes served as apéritifs, especially at very casual gatherings. I’ve been served both in French homes; however, it’s been more common, in my experience, to be served one of the apéritifs I’ve mentioned above.

Question: What Do I Serve with an Apéritif?

Good question, because remember: The apéritif is rarely ever served without a nibble.  That bite doesn’t have to be elaborate (some nuts or olives or well-chosen chips will do, if you’re not entertaining). But when a friend stops by, I try to make it nice by putting a few things out. Not too many and not too much. It’s not about grazing until you’re full and no longer want dinner. Because dinner is its own separate pleasure.

The type of thing I'll serve if having a pal stop by.

The type of thing I’ll serve if having a friend stop by. Mozzarella pearls with basil and olive oil, almonds, olives, crackers with a spread I have tucked in the fridge, and some chips.

Remember: The apéro is not meant to be dinner. That would be an apéritif dînatoire (roughly, a heavy cocktail/hors d’ouevres buffet), another topic for another time.

So tell me: What’s your favorite French apéritif? Did I miss one of your regulars? And, if you have any further questions on this favorite topic of mine, don’t hesitate to ask, either in the comments section below, or on my Facebook page.

 

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22 comments to The Five Best French Apéritifs + Everything You Need to Know about the French Apéro!

  • Ellen

    So, what’s your favorite? Which ones do you have on hand all the time?

    • Wini

      At home in the US, I have a kir every night. Generally, it’s Cassis, but I also like pêche.

      In France, I’m partial to the “ameri” drinks: I love both the Aperol Spritz and the Americano, but I only have those if I’m going out–generally not in my apartment (where I drink Kir most often)

      If I’m in Collioure (near Banyuls), I’m very happy to drink a Banyuls!

  • George Griffith

    Thank you. Very informative. Love the Bonne Femme cookbook, which I use all the time.

  • Rick

    One thing I’ve noticed is that the French rarely drink more than one apéritif. Have you noticed this, too?

    • Wini

      I’ve noticed that, too. Once in a while, in homes, I’ve noticed my hosts will open a bottle of white after the apéritif in case people want something before dinner is served. But, for instance, I’ve never seen anyone drink two kirs!

  • I have to disagree with you about whisky.
    France is the biggest market outside of Scotland for single malts and they are *always* drunk as an apéritif here. Admittedly more commonly found in the home setting rather than a restaurant, whisky has become the go-to drink for men anywhere north of Lyon.

    • Wini

      Interesting! Thanks for the update. I just hadn’t seen anyone order it as an apéritif, but sounds like they’re the thing—I added your point to the story. Thanks!

  • Robert

    I have never thought of port as an apéritif, but after trying it (chilled, as you suggest), I’ve got to say that’s how I like it best. Thanks for this suggestion.

    • Wini

      Agreed! It’s the only way I enjoy ruby (or red) port. I like tawny ports after dinner, but the luscious red ports are just perfect apéritifs–chilled and in small portions, of course!

  • Nancy LoBalbo

    Thanks for this info! My husband and I love that late afternoon apero tradition and usually enjoy a campari and soda. With these additional choices, we can now vary our menu (-: Point to mention: on the Aperitif menu above is listed “Martini”. Novices should know that this is NOT the martini we typically think of in the U.S. (gin or vodka with dry vermouth–a cocktail) but a light concoction made with red or white wine. I discovered this when I ordered one several years ago in a restaurant in the South of France. Delicious, but not what I was expecting (-:

  • Nancy LoBalbo

    PS Visiting friends from Troyes recently remarked that the “Spritz” is now all the rage in France!

    • Wini

      Nancy–are you talking about general Spritzes (like Wine spritzes) or Aperol spritzes? I drank Aperol spritzes this summer in Menton, an I absolutely loved them. In fact, I enjoyed them so much, I’m thinking getting the fixings for them so I can enjoy them on my balcony here in Amerique profonde!

  • Nancy LoBalbo

    Not the wine type, the Aperol type are the ones she says are all the rage and that I would LOVE it. Question: is Aperol a pastis? and can you pass along how to make a Spritz please?

    • Wini

      Sorry for the late reply. I needed to do a little testing (!!!). Here’s what I came up with and it was great!:

      1 ounce Aperol (actually, I used Campari,because that’s what I had!)
      2 ounces Prosecco or another sparkling wine
      Splash of club soda or sparkling mineral water

      Place ice cubes in a globe-shaped wine glass. Add Aperol; pour in the sparkling wine and add a splash of soda. Enjoy!

  • You are making me homesick for Collioure!! We’ve got our sights set on next June. Hoping it happens….

    • Wini

      Good to hear from you, Jessica! We should keep in touch, because I might be in Collioure next June, too. After spending this year’s stay in Provence and the Côte d’Azur, I’m missing the Roussillon!

  • Greg

    What a fantastic post! We had friends over last night and I served Pernod for the first time – they loved them – next time I’ll add a flavor… such a great addition! Thank you Wini for making me a better cook and what is even more special is that now having people over is a joy – more relaxed and focused on the joy and pleasure of company – while your recipes and the ease in which they are made makes for a wonderful backdrop that never goes unnoticed or appreciated!

    • Wini

      What a nice note–and it’s everything I wish for with my recipes–that they be an appreciated backdrop to an evening where the real focus is on the joys and pleasure of the company! This comment made my day!

  • Cissy B

    We served Lillet as an aperitif at a “French dinner night” we had with friends. It has become a staple for several of us.
    Here’s my favorite version:
    Drop a handfull of mint or basil into a stemless wineglass and lightly muddle.
    Fill glass with ice.
    Add ~ 4oz of chilled Lillet blanc
    Cut an round slice from an orange (navel or blood orange), then cut the wheel into quarters.
    Squeeze the orange quarters into the drink.
    Top off the glass with sparkling water (San Pelligrino, La Croix, etc)
    Give a stir.
    The herbs and oranges look beautiful in the glass and the drink is light and refreshing.

    • Wini

      I love the idea of adding a little sparkling water to the Lillet–it makes it into a drink you can enjoy longer. And it does sound pretty, with those garnishes. Thanks!

  • Pat

    Don’t forget vermouth, dry or sweet. My current favorite is Dolin, dry.

  • Rob

    I have been obsessed with all things vermouth lately. Served on the rocks. Try carpano antica or cocchi vermouth di Torino. Amazing!

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