Apéritif: A Cocktail Before Dinner

The Negroni cocktail, a classic apéritif.
Monty Rakusen / Getty Images

Someday, instead of the lowly serf tasked with writing words, I want to be the person whose job it is to invent words.

I say that because it had to be among the most satisfying moments of that person's career when they took something as prosaic as "drinking before dinner" and made it sound elegant and refined by giving it the name "apéritif" (pronounced "ah-pair-ee-TEEF").

But that's exactly what an apéritif is: a cocktail or other alcoholic beverage that's specifically served before a meal, or with a small appetizer, with the purpose of stimulating or arousing the appetite.

I mean, arguably what it arouses the appetite for is more drinks. And of course, there's the drinking that takes place after dinner, which itself goes by the magnificent name of digestif

On second thought, the people who invented these words had a life expectancy of about 45 years, so maybe I'll keep the job I have.

I jest, of course. Apéritifs are a real thing, and whatever you may think of the idea that a cocktail after dinner will help your digestion, a well-crafted cocktail before dinner can absolutely stimulate and arouse the appetite.

To my mind, a light, sparkly drink is just the thing to enliven the palate, especially on warmer evenings when the appetite can be a bit sluggish. Typical apéritifs include champagne, sherry, vermouth or bitters. Liqueuers made from anise, such as ouzo or anisette, are often featured.

A word about vermouth. Yes, Virginia, you CAN drink vermouth. If you thought vermouth was nothing but an epithet to be muttered over the rim of your cocktail shaker while pouring in the gin, you're only half right.

Vermouth is indeed one of the ingredients in a martini. But the problem is that, since it's used in such a minuscule amount, most people, Americans, anyway, are probably accustomed to drinking bad vermouth. And why not? We live in the "dirty Martini" era, where all you taste is olive juice anyway.

And it's unfortunate, because a sweet vermouth on the rocks is one of life's great pleasures. Lest we forget, vermouth is wine — as in, you're supposed to drink it. Not apply it with an eyedropper like some sort of tincture.

Fortunately, the Negroni, a classic apéritif, is making a comeback. Made from equal parts gin, sweet vermouth and Campari, served on the rocks and garnished with a twist of orange peel, the Negroni is proof that apéritifs can taste as good as the word sounds.

The main challenge with a Negroni, as I alluded to earlier, is that they're so delicious, it's nearly impossible to have just one. And after your second, it's not entirely clear where dinner is going to come from, particularly if you're the one who was supposed to cook it.