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NewCityNet Bitter Pleasures

By Keir Graff

JUNE 19, 2000:  As the class system has crumbled, the pleasant after-effects--besides allowing the pompous and proletarian alike to bend elbows together--have been decidedly less daunting dicta about choosing and ordering drinks.

For example, though wine connoisseurship flourishes, it does so in a remarkably low-key way; to wit, one is encouraged to drink whichever wine one prefers with a dish, rather than deferring to the fusty particulars laid down over the decades by distinguished sommeliers. One even finds beer being drunk with dinner in fine restaurants. "Do what thou will" seems the aphorism of the moment, and I would be the last to disdain this refreshing audacity of refreshment.

However, in our rush to feel "OK" with our lack of libational refinement, we too eagerly discard a voluminous science of drinking that has been amassed, drop by drop, over the centuries.

Just as it is still agreed that a fine meal has many courses--from soup to nuts, as it were--so too does an evening of bibulous conviviality.

Which brings me, belatedly, to aperitifs--the starting point, all too often passed by in the rush to the trencher. Though the category is, like so many in the order of gastronomy, somewhat arbitrary, we may state as a general guideline that the purpose of an aperitif is to enliven the taste buds, to stimulate the appetite. Any beverage that deadens or dulls the same is best saved for another purpose. And, while an aperitif most certainly should not be served as a companion to a meal, a few simply flavored snacks--nuts, olives, crackers and the like--may, in small portions, prove companionable.

Aperitifs, essentially, fall into three categories: cocktails, which is an American improvement upon the European tradition; wine-based; and spirit-based. The latter two are the heritage of southern Europe and would do well to gain more of a following here.

For a cocktail, you can't go wrong with a martini; however, please eschew any martini but one containing gin and vermouth, or if you wish to be very "now," vodka and vermouth. Martinis with fruit flavors not only are not martinis, but do not serve as aperitifs. Nor do martinis where the vermouth is a mere afterthought, for these bastardize the vision of the cocktail's creator (one Mr. Martinez) and also discard the herbal and appetite-stimulating properties inherent in vermouth itself. Other very acceptable starter cocktails include Manhattans, Bronxes and sidecars.

Wine-based aperitifs include vermouth, sherry and even white port. All these are fortified wines, meaning they are given potency and longevity by the addition of brandy. However, vermouth is flavored with herbs and spices, while sherry and port are not. While a glass of fine fino sherry is delightful, I prefer vermouth, as I am in awe of its generous nature. It blends well in cocktails and can stand on its own chilled, on the rocks or with soda. If you are like me, you will prefer the slightly sweeter bianco to extra dry for stand-alone drinking. And, in the winter months, I am known to tee off a hearty meal with a dollop of vermouth rosso on the rocks with a slice of orange.

Spirit-based aperitifs are, generally, either bitters or pastis. Though the former can generate powerful puckers, formulated properly they leave the tongue feeling lashed and cleansed, the drinker quite ready to pick up a fork and dig robustly at a gustatory treasure. Campari and soda is a classic, though perhaps a Negroni cocktail is a better way to habituate novice palates to the delights of Gaspare Campari's creation. As many bartenders have forgotten (or were never familiar with) the recipe, instruct them to shake equal parts Campari, gin and sweet vermouth, strain into a cocktail glass, and garnish with a lemon twist.

Cynar seems a relative of Campari but is considerably more complex, being formulated of artichoke extract and rhubarb, among other botanicals. Not for the faint of heart, it may be tamed with soda, tonic or cola, and tinged with lemon or orange. The gin-based Pimm's No. 1 Cup is milder, and not quite a true bitter. I realize to my horror that I have scant room to summarize the vast variety of anise- and licorice-flavored drinks. Allow me to suggest Pernod, or Herbsaint, a charming New World variant, served tall with water, either still or fizzy.

Even more aperitif rituals abound. One may serve champagne or a sparkling wine, chilled sake, even a glass of Chardonnay. In Germany, a short beer is thought to do the trick, and they sometimes end a meal with a bitter rather than starting with one. There are simply more varieties of beverage and serving modes than I can impart here. So please, experiment.

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