This is a broad category covering many different spirits. The wine based ones include the vermouths. The aperitifs are generally before dinner drinks to stimulate appetite. The digestifs are usually herbal drinks to help digest a meal. This guide covers all the popular ones you’ll find in cocktails.
In the wine category there are subcategories of red and white table wine, sparkling wines like champagne, aperitifs and fortified wines. It also includes the vermouths and other herbal based products.
The aperitif is generally a before dinner drink, that when served by itself, is meant to stimulate the appetite. They vary widely in flavor which makes them difficult to substitute. Some popular aperitifs are Cinzano red vermouth, Martini white and red vermouth, Campari, Lillet, Aperol and Dubonnet.
The digestif is an after dinner drink meant to aid digestion. It could be a coffee drink, an herbal tonic like Fernet-Branca, or Amaro Montenegro, a cognac, or even a whisky liqueur like Drambuie. It could also be a sweet fortified wine like an aged port or sherry.
Fortified wines have a distilled spirit like vodka, brandy, or cognac added to the wine, while it’s still fermenting. This kills the yeast, which halts the fermentation process, leaving a residual sugar, or sweetness in the wine. It is then barrel aged for a number of years and may be blended with several vintages before being bottled.
Fortified wines can be anywhere from dry to very sweet. They include all types of sherry and port, Madeira, Marsala, and others. When comes to making cocktails, local domestic sherries and ports are usually preferred due to the high cost of imports.
Wines made using the ‘Champagne Method’ have their bubbles created by a second fermentation in the bottle. Sparkling wine and the less fizzy crackling wine, usually have CO2 (carbon dioxide) added after the fermentation to create the bubbles. They can range from dry to very sweet. Most cocktails calling for champagne are made using dry domestic sparkling wine, or inexpensive Prosecco, due to cost concerns.
Table wine is rarely used in cocktails, because like the premium and deluxe call booze, they are meant to be enjoyed on their own. If a cocktail calls for white or red wine, usually any mild flavored, dry domestic one will work. A neutral character and flavor is preferred, because it will be mixed with other ingredients.
White vermouth is a dry fortified white wine, to which botanicals and herbs have been added. Most of the product comes from Italy or France, where its often drank as a before dinner aperitif. In America, it’s usually drank in cocktails like Martinis and Manhattans.
The number of aromatics, types of sourness and acid levels in white vermouth varies among brands, but not nearly as much as they do in red vermouth. The white is usually far less bitter than the red, very dry and quite citrusy, which lets it blend well with gin and many other spirits.
Red vermouth is a sweet, fortified wine, where the strength of the botanical flavors vary widely among brands. Some are very herbaceous, sweet and bold. Others have subtle herbs, with a sweet and bitter balance. Professional tasters often use words like juniper, camomile, coriander, wormwood, quinine, roses and cloves, to describe it, which gives an idea into the complexity of this wine based aperitif.
The trend for red vermouths – that win gold and silver medals in recent competitions – are towards the lighter flavored brands. They also tend to mix better in cocktails, because they don’t overpower the other ingredients. It’s definitely worth having a red vermouth tasting with friends, to decide which you like best.
Dubonnet is a sweet, red, fortified wine that’s flavored with quinine, herbs, citrus and spices. It’s often drank on its own, or on the rocks with a twist of lemon as an aperitif. There is also a white version of the wine, but the red is more popular.
Dubonnet is interesting because it was developed a long time ago, as a way to get soldiers in tropical climates to drink the very bitter quinine, which was a treatment for malaria. It was also recorded as Queen Elizabeth II’s daily lunch aperitif, when mixed 2 parts Dubonnet, to 1 part gin, with ice and a lemon slice.
Lillet is a fortified white wine aperitif from France. It is made from a blend of Bordeaux region wines, sweet and bitter orange liqueurs and Cinchona bark, which contains the bitter quinine.
This delightful drink is unique, because it’s one of the few “tonic style” aperitifs that get aged in oak. It tastes like a mild orange cocktail sherry, with a flavor that lingers in the mouth, leaving a slight pleasant bitterness at the end, like a good aperitif should.
Lillet can be served straight up in a white wine glass, or used in cocktails. Its character would be difficult to substitute, so plan on getting a bottle if making Vespers, or some other cocktail that calls for it.
Campari is a strong yet pleasant Italian aperitif. It’s primarily flavored with herbs, fruit, bitters and quinine, although the exact ingredients are a family secret.
The aroma is herbal and aromatic like sweet vermouth, but it has strong citrus notes as well. It enters the mouth sweet, filling it with flavorful aromatics, yet ends on a dry, balanced bitter note that leaves you wanting another sip.
Overall its a very pleasant beverage, on its own, or with soda and a twist of lemon, but you do have to be a fan of bitters to enjoy it. It is used in classic cocktails like the Negroni and the Americano, which remain very popular with cocktail enthusiasts.
Prosecco is a dry white, sparkling wine from Italy, that’s made from the Glera grape. It’s used in tall refreshing cocktails like the Bellini and Spritz Veneziano.
A good Prosecco has a perfume of apple, peach and lemon. The flavor is high in acid like grapefruit juice and it’s just as invigorating. Other than that, the flavor is fairly neutral, fading quickly on the palate, which makes it ideal for mixing in cocktails.
If you can’t get Prosecco, use a very dry domestic sparkling wine, that’s also high in acid. Ideally it should have a strong fizz, like sparkling wine or champagne, and be citrusy on the palate, without any overbearing flavor characteristics of its own.
Aperol is classified as an aperitif. It is made of an infusion of herbs, roots and orange. What’s different is the low alcohol content which puts it in the flavored wine category, instead of being a fortified wine.
The first thing you’ll notice about Aperol is the fluorescent orange color. The nose does not deceive because it smells like an orange soda (soft drink). The ingredients on the label specify added flavor, salt and colorants, which are obvious in the product.
The flavor is similar to Campari in flavor profile, but only about a third of the strength in intensity. The orange component is strong, but it’s balanced between the bitterness of the quinine and the underlying sweetness. The low alcohol content makes it easy to drink, especially when made into an afternoon spritzer.
Pimm’s No. 1 Cup
Pimm’s No1 is a uniquely flavored gin based spirit, with the sugar content approaching that of a liqueur and alcohol content of an aperitif. The ingredients on the label are gin, sugar, color and herbs. The label also claims that it’s still made to the original recipe.
At first it has a delightful citrus scent, but it quickly disappears, because it’s overpowered by an intense caramel aroma. The flavor is like a distant cousin of a cocktail sherry with notes of berries, plums, citrus and the almost sherry like caramel that lingers on the palate.
Pimm’s is used in the fairly popular Pimm’s Classic or Pimm’s Cup. It mixes well with gin, citrus and most clear sodas, soda water, or ginger ale.
Fernet-Branca is an Amaro, which is a type of Italian bitter. It is intensely bitter, usually drunk neat, on ice, or sometimes with cola. Although used in few cocktails, it is always one of the top selling digestives, or after dinner drinks.
It has an intense peppermint aroma, along with 27 medicinal herbs, roots and spices. Every ingredient in it, has a history in herbal remedies, to treat one ailment or another.
A lot of people say it smells like a liniment, or it tastes like medicine. On my palate, the taste opens like a sweet scotch mint candy, which gives way to unsweetened dark chocolate and a double shot of bitter dark roast espresso. Yes, it is an acquired taste. Best to order it at a bar and sip it neat, before buying a bottle to meet its acquaintance.
Amaro Montenegro is another best selling Italian Amaro bitter. It’s a secret formula of 40 botanicals from 1885. But unlike some Amaro, it’s not very bitter and almost everyone loves it, the moment they taste it. It’s certainly well balanced and worth savouring neat.
The aroma is that of a familiar cola, combined with root beer, Angostura bitters and citrus, almost like a soda (soft drink). The flavor is sweet, but not too sweet, with vanilla, orange peel, cacao nut, sarsaparilla, cinnamon, and faint licorice. The aftertaste is a pleasant “over steeped tea” bitterness that slowly fades on the palate, in perfect balance with the sweetness.
It’s a good introduction to Amaro and a surprisingly pleasant beverage that’s well worth exploring. But be forewarned, a dinner party of six will go through a bottle rather quick, because it tastes great and goes down easy. So you better get two bottles. One to stash and one for the guests.