The Cure for the Gin-and-Tonic Rut

Get your meal started off right and light.

Grandma and Grandpa used to like to have a martini or two before dinner, de rigueur for members of The Greatest Generation. My papa didn't even like to see a menu before he finished his Tanqueray. His taking time to enjoy himself always stuck with me, but if I start a meal with a martini I'm nodding off by dessert. An aperitif—just as flavorful and much lower in alcohol—allows me not only to finish a grand meal but to enjoy it to its fullest. Aperitif comes from the Latin verb aperire, to open. These drinks open your meal, they open your tastebuds, and they can open your mind. The identity of an aperitif isn't obvious from any verbiage on a label. A Campari on the rocks counts as an aperitif; so does a gin and tonic, barely and debatably, but a vodka tonic does not. Without putting an arbitrary constraint on them, aperitifs should contain less than 20% alcohol, as opposed to the 40% alcohol of common spirits. A gin and tonic still hits hard in the aroma category, but the alcohol-and-mixer combo of other highballs rarely achieve the same impact, the second requirement of an aperitif. When you taste a vodka or gin martini, they taste like burning. That sensation of heat and the assault of the increased alcohol on your tongue affects your ability to taste food in the same way that too much hot sauce won't let you enjoy your next bite of huevos. An aperitif doesn't burn; instead, it smacks your mouth awake. Aperitifs work because they usually have a little sweetness and bitterness and a host of aromatics to get your tongue curious. Like a liquid amuse-bouche, they prime the palate by introducing it to a litany of flavor and, I'm convinced, make you hungry. (I have no scientific study for this, only empirical evidence.) "Aromatized wines" all fit our criteria. Better known as vermouth, these beverages hail mainly from France and Italy, no coincidence since both are food-obsessed countries. My favorite affordable bottle, Martini & Rossi's Bianco Vermouth, always has a spot in the refrigerator. Different from dry vermouth, Bianco has kisses of sweet and citrus, and tastes phenomenal on the rocks with a twist or even with an added splash of soda or tonic. Try it with the French onion soup at Le Pichet; its complexity makes it a far better match for a bold appetizer than many wines. Added bonus: wine by the glass averages $8, while vermouth on the rocks rarely costs more than $5. Lillet Blanc takes the concept of bianco vermouth to grander heights, with a beautiful mouth-coating feel and a hallmark aroma and flavor of spiced orange. White port and pale fino sherries also count as aperitifs. As a bartender, I've turned people on to white port and tonic; they find it a lighter, more flavorful alternative to their usual G&T. Going red, I adore Aperol, a kinder and gentler version of Campari that explodes with strawberry and rhubarb flavors. It's a staple in southern Italy, where people order it the way we do our late-afternoon latte. I like to stop at Motore (1904 Ninth Ave.) for a glass of Lillet and a coffee after a bank run. Farther up the hill, Faire, the little corner cafe perched on the edge of Capitol Hill (1351 E. Olive Way), offers several vermouths and Dubonnet. Grab one of the latter on the rocks and step upstairs to one of the tables in the narrow balcony. If you were playing hide-and-seek, no one would ever find you here while you sipped your spicy wine and zoned out with the view. Aperitifs get little attention in our society; I think their low alcohol content plays a role, as does the American relationship with alcohol. Aperitifs are about moderation, savoring, and stopping to smell the, well, aperitif. I put them in the "millions of Italians can't be wrong" category. If you're looking for a new drink, few things offer such a high flavor-to-cost ratio so stylishly.

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