Recently I taught a bartending class and we had a discussion about the difference between simple bartending and mixology. We determined that mixology is a step up from bartending, a sort of alchemy, and that aperitifs, digestifs, and liqueurs are a large part of the magic equation.
There is an amazing variety of such elixirs available, many of which were initially formulated for medicinal purposes. Understanding these products and their place in different cultural traditions can help us understand why a yacht owner might pay more than $1,000 for a bottle of cognac or liqueur.
And it can help us sort out that perplexing jumble of bottles we find stashed in the back of the liquor cabinet onboard. Knowing how to store and serve these beverages can enhance our guests’ enjoyment of food and drink, and add to their overall enjoyment on board.
So what is the difference between the three?
An aperitif is served before a meal or with a small appetizer to stimulate the appetite. Common examples include dry champagne, sherry, bitters, or vermouth. You can serve it with an amuse-bouche such as crackers, cheese, pate, nuts, chips or olives.
Anise-based aperitifs are popular in Europe; Pernod and Ricard are the most famous. They are often mixed with water, shaken with ice, and strained into a cocktail glass. These are stored safely at room temperature for several months.
Vermouth is a classic aperitif worldwide. It is a wine-based bitters drink invented in 1786 in Turin, Italy. Popular Italian brands include Martini, Cinzano, and Gancia. French brands include Noilly Prat and Amere.
Most companies produce two styles of vermouth: a drier, white-wine based vermouth and a sweeter, red-wine based vermouth.
Dubonnet and Lillet are both forms of “tonic wines” that contain quinine. Joseph Dubonnet invented one of these first wine-based drinks in 1846. Intended to deliver malaria-fighting quinine, it was a favorite of the French Foreign Legion based in mosquito-infested North Africa.
Lillet is based on 85 percent wines from Bordeaux, 15 percent macerated liqueurs from citrus fruits. Lillet has been around since the 1870s.
Bitters-based aperitifs contain herbs that stimulate the appetite, such as Campari, a popular Italian drink from the 1860’s, and Pimms, which originated in Great Britain in 1856 and is a favorite worldwide.
Vermouth, tonic wines and bitters are served simply over ice, either alone or mixed with juices. Drinks like Pimms are often made into a punch, served in a tall glass over ice with lemonade or soda, garnished with slices of lemon, lime or cucumber and a sprig of mint.
They are fortified wines, so they will keep longer than table wines, but the best way to store them is to refrigerate them after opening. I would check them at the end of every season to see if the quality has deteriorated.
A digestif is served after a meal to aid in digestion. They usually have a higher alcohol content than aperitifs. Fortified wines such as port, sherry and Madeira are also served as digestifs, as well as brandies, cognacs, and many liqueurs. Serve them in smaller sherry or port glasses, or in brandy snifters.
Cognacs and other distilled spirits are stable and have a long shelf life. They do not need refrigeration. Sherry and port have a shorter lifespan, but will last several months to several years before they start to lose quality.
A liqueur is a sweet distilled spirit that may have had sugar and various herbs, fruits and spices added to it. Many are based on spirits, including Drambuie (Scotch); Irish Mist (Irish whiskey); Nassau Royale and Rumona (Rum), to which honey and botanicals have been added.
And then there are proprietary liqueurs protected by specific brands and known only by the brand’s name. Some of these recipes date back centuries, such as Frangelico (17th century Italy), Benedictine (Original recipe/Venice, 1510; Benedictine DOM/ France, 1873), and Chartreuse (Original recipe 1605, took 32 years to decipher; 1737 recipe for green Chartreuse perfected, 1838 yellow Chartreuse created).
These latter two, in particular, are known as monastic liqueurs. They are the descendants of the original medicinal elixirs, and are still made by monks according to ancient and closely guarded secrets. In both instances, only three people reputedly know the recipe at any given time.
Liqueurs have many uses, and forms of serving vary. Many of them are great served in or with coffee. In meal service, there is often a beverage course where these after-dinner drinks are offered.
Liqueurs can be stored safely for months or even years, depending on their alcohol content. If you see sugar crystallizing on the bottom of the bottle or changes in color or appearance, you might want to taste them to see if they are all right before serving.
Cream or egg-based liqueurs, such as Bailey’s and Amarula, however, should be discarded after 18 months. Check for an expiration date to be certain.
Learning about this class of drinks will give you plenty of opportunities to use various beverage recipes to create a variety of potions that add to your guests’ enjoyment and enhance your level of service. Grab a recipe book and get started. Practice makes perfect.
My favorite recipe for Chartreuse is a Green Dragon.Mix 2 measures of Stoli vodka and I measure of green Chartreuse in a shaker with ice. Shake well, strain into cocktail glass, garnish with a twist of lemon. Sip it slowly, or be brave and take it down in a couple of gulps. Then lie down.