It’s the mellowest moment of a day in France, a delightful interlude between the day’s activity and a pleasurable meal: l’heure de l’apéro.
When a waiter says those magic words—Désirez-vous un apéritif?—think of it as an invitation to adventure. Your only problem is l’embarras du choix. A well-stocked French bar displays an enticing array of aperitifs, some of which have fascinating histories going back a century or more. All apéros are designed to whet the appetite—the word derives from the Latin aprire, to open—and while the younger French tend to regard them as vieux jeu, some of the most venerable brands are enjoying newfound popularity in the United States. While the comeback is partly due to their use as cocktail ingredients, they were originally meant to be enjoyed straight, and the complexity of their flavors, the result of jealously guarded secret recipes, still rewards the intrepid sipper.
One of the oldest of the traditional apéros is that essential ingredient of the dry martini, vermouth—in this case, Noilly Prat. Created in 1813 by herbalist Joseph Noilly, France’s first dry aperitif became Noilly Prat when Joseph’s son Louis created a company with his brother-in-law Claudius Prat to commercialize his father’s elixir. It’s still made in Marseillan, a village on the Mediterranean coast near Montpellier, and its fabrication process has remained the same for nearly 200 years. Two white wine varieties from Languedoc, Picpoul and Clairette, are aged separately, first in caves for eight months in large oak vats then, transferred to smaller oak barrels, in an outdoor area called the Enclos, where they remain for a year. While indoor aging results in 3% evaporation (called the part des anges, or angels’ portion) the outdoor rate is twice that, yielding wines with lower alcohol content but more intense flavor. The maître de chai then blends the dry, full-bodied wines with raspberry and lemon liqueurs as well as a secret mixture of aromatics—bitter orange peel and some 20 herbs and spices, including chamomile, coriander and nutmeg, macerated directly in the wine. After pressing and filtration, the wine rests another six months in oak barrels before bottling, resulting in a flavorful potion that, while perfect in a martini, is well worth enjoying on its own, chilled or on the rocks.
Several decades after the creation of Noilly Prat, a new batch of French aperitifs appeared in response to a government appeal for a palatable way for troops in North Africa to absorb enough quinine—the bitter bark of the Peruvian cinchona tree—to ward off malaria. One of the earliest formulas to meet with commercial success was St Raphaël. According to company history, in 1830 a certain Docteur Juppet worked such long hours night after night to create a tasty quinine-based drink that his eyes began to fail him. Remembering the Bible story in which the archangel Raphael cured Tobias of blindness, he prayed to the saint and was rewarded not only with the recovery of his sight but also with a winning formula that he named for his heavenly helper. The sweeter St Raphaël Rouge tempers the astringency of quinine and bitter oranges with red wine and cocoa, while the wonderfully fragrant Doré or Gold version, also called Ambré—is based on white wine and also includes vanilla. Both formulas are among the easiest of quinine aperitifs to like.
Promising in early ads to “prevent or repair fatigue”, and asserting that “a glass before or after a meal is a patent for a long life,” St Raphael used pictures of cyclists and other sporty types to promote its product. The intense competition among aperitifs resulted in a huge volume of advertising material, from mammoth murals to the many smaller items that fill the flea markets and brocantes today: posters, of course, but also metal plaques, menu holders, ash trays, matchboxes and even fans.
Joseph Dubonnet was another aperitif maker who quickly realized the importance of advertising. He came up with his namesake apéro in Paris in 1846 by blending quinine with orange peel, chamomile, cinnamon and other aromatics. The original Dubonnet Blanc is dry, herbal and aromatic, while the Rouge is sweeter, spicier and richer in flavor. If Dubonnet became one of the most familiar aperitif names world-wide, it’s partly thanks to some memorable ad campaigns, the best known of which is the famous 1930s poster by the artist known as Cassandre, using a clever play on words—a funny little man gazing at his full glass, drinking it and refilling it—Dubo, Dubon, Dubonnet.
Byrrh (pronounced beer—which can lead to some confusion when ordering) is another red-wine-based quinine drink. Created in 1866 by Simon Violet in Thuir, near the Spanish border in the eastern Pyrenees, it was promoted as “tonic, stimulant and hygienic”. Its flavor is refreshing and slightly nutty, and it’s still got quite a following—some 120,000 visitors a year make the pilgrimage to Thuir to tour the company’s 1892-vintage buildings (one of which was built by Gustave Eiffel), where Byrrh and several other aperitifs are now made. In fact, Caves Byrrh, part of the Pernod-Ricard group since 1976, is now the largest producer of wine-based aperitifs in France.
Another old-time apéro has recently been updated to appeal to a younger market. In Podensac, near Bordeaux, wine merchants Paul and Raymond Lillet first marketed their health-giving tonic in 1887. Lillet’s unique taste comes from a combination of sweet, bitter and green oranges macerated in brandy with quinine; it’s then blended with white Bordeaux wines and aged for a year. Its original claims were sweeping: “Very agreeable to the taste, and one of the most active tonics. It can be drunk by the most delicate people, at any age, to their great benefit.” Reaching its height of popularity in 1937—when Robert “Roby” Wolff created his memorable poster design—Lillet is still going strong. A red variety was introduced in 1962 and the formula was tweaked in the 1980s to create a fresher, fruitier Lillet with less bitterness and a lower alcohol content. Limited edition bottles feature charming vintage advertising posters on the label.
Perhaps the bitterest of French aperitifs, Suze, created near Paris in Maisons-Alfort in 1885, is not based on wine but distilled from the roots of the gentian plant, renowned for its appetite-opening and digestive properties. Originally a Swiss formula that was bought and perfected by Fernand Moureaux, Suze acquired its unusual name—depending on which story you believe—either from Moureaux’s liqueur-loving sister-in-law whose nickname was shortened from Suzanne, or from a little river in Switzerland to which the seller of the formula supposedly pointed during negotiations, saying to Moureaux, “You’ll see, this aperitif will flow in France like the Suze at our feet.” Golden in color, mouth-puckering and earthy in taste, it’s refreshing and absolutely addictive. A delightful place to sample a Suze is under the chestnut trees of the Luxembourg Gardens, where it’s on the drinks list of the wooden kiosk near the bandstand.
Finally, from the south of France comes one of the country’s all-time favorites, pastis. Created in Marseille in the early 1920s, when anise-based drinks began reappearing after absinthe was outlawed in 1915, it’s a potent beverage made by macerating green anise, star anise, licorice root and other aromatics in alcohol. Pastis is produced under many labels, and each company has its own secret recipe.
Pernod, the original absinthe maker whose controversial potion—notoriously known as la Fée Verte, the green fairy—had been fueling artists and poets since 1805, converted to pastis in 1928 and is still a popular brand. But the company recently revisited its roots when, in 2001, it launched its Pernod aux Extraits d’Absinthe, a drink inspired by the original recipe that reintroduces thujone, obtained from wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), into the formula, in the amount currently allowable by law. It’s an emerald-colored tribute to the Paris of the Belle Epoque.
Like absinthe, pastis is meant to be diluted with water—usually one part pastis to five parts water—and turns milky white when it is. The giant in today’s market is Ricard, created by Paul Ricard in 1932 and the number one seller in France today. The company’s catchy slogan once ticked off the aperitif hours: “Midi et quart, sept heures et quart, l’heure du Ricard“. For those who find the diluting step too complicated, the company introduced ready-to-drink Ricard in 2003, already mixed and conveniently packaged in 25 cl (8.5 oz) bottles.
In the annals of aperitifs, even the ubiquitous kir, a relative newcomer, has a tale to tell. It’s named for Félix Kir, a mayor of Dijon in the 1940s who served it at official functions, popularizing an already well-known wartime drink in which a splash of syrupy crème de cassis masked the taste of inferior white wine. (At the same time, the kir gave a boost to the sales of Dijon’s crème de cassis).
France is also rich in regional aperitifs. Many are based on centuries-old recipes using plentiful local products, like the pommeau of Normandy and Brittany, a mixture of unfermented apple cider and Calvados. Some, like pineau des Charentes, a fortified wine made from grape must and brandy that comes from the western departments of Charente and Charente-Maritime, can be found in larger Parisian liquor stores or even in supermarkets. The Bon Marché’s Grande Epicerie is the best place in Paris to find a large selection of regional aperitifs, including Guignolet d’Angers, made from sweet and tart cherries macerated in brandy; Rinquinquin, a Provençal refresher based on white wine and peaches; and Picon, a syrupy blend of bitter oranges, quinine and gentian that’s added to beer or club soda and is a favorite in France’s northeast. Other Provençal specialties on the Grande Epicerie shelves include Figoun, made from figs, and Noix de Saint Jean, from walnuts.
But the real treasures for an aperitif collector are those local treats you won’t find anywhere but where they’re made. A recent trip to the Atlantic coast turned up Troussepinette, a dark purple and deliciously tart specialty of the Vendée (western Loire) made from the blackthorn (Prunus spinosa), a spiny native plant that produces dark blue berries, called sloes in English.
French aperitifs are a little bit of bottled histoire. So when someone next asks if you desire an aperitif, respond with an enthusiastic oui! and sip your way back into French history.
Originally published in the November 2008 issue of France Today.