A Beginner’s Guide to Classic French Aperitifs

Start your soirée the French way.

French_Restaurant_Shutterstock_Petr_Kovalenkov

A great French meal starts with a pre-dinner drink.

Photo by Petr Kovalenkov / Shutterstock

In France, apéro hour is sacred. It’s simply unthinkable to jump from a busy work day straight into dinner without stopping for a little pause—and a little glass of something to awaken your appetite. No matter whether you’re at home or on a café terrasse, whether you’re pouring a glass of wine or a cocktail, it’s a moment to slow down, enjoy conversation, and appreciate good company.

Certain traditions are always respected. An aperitif is a predinner drink, which means it should be enjoyed somewhere between 6 p.m. and 7.30 p.m. One drink is standard. Knock back more than two in quick succession and you might get some disapproving glances. Light snacks are essential, perhaps a few salty chips, olives and nuts, or slices of saucisson and fresh tapenade. End up with one too many plates on the table and you’re verging on an apéro dinatoire, informal dinner-party territory that could last well into the night.

Essential rules out of the way, the options of what to serve for a tasty apéro are endless. As well as regional specialties such as pastis, wine, beer, and champagne are fail-safe pours. Add in a roster of bartender-loved brands, including the quirky cocktail-mixing essentials Lillet, Suze, and Dolin, and you’re all set to start a soirée the French way. Santé !

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Poair a glass of rosé or perhaps a pastis with an amuse-bouche of two.

Photo by Yulia Grigoryeva

The kir

A kir is the most classic French aperitif to order in a café, a sweet two-ingredient cocktail that takes seconds to make and is always served in a small wine glass. Sticklers for tradition will tell you that a kir is truly Burgundian, a slug of the blackcurrant liqueur cassis topped off with the local white wine, Aligoté. Some say it was invented to hide the wine’s poor taste.

These days, many Aligotés are seriously good, and the French are generally flexible about the recipe. You could swap out the cassis for crème de mûre (blackberry liqueur) or even crème de pêche (peach liqueur). In Brittany, the wine is often replaced with cider to make a lighter and longer kir Breton.

Picon bière

Picon is to half a pint of blonde ale what cassis is to a glass of somewhat unspecial white wine: an old-fashioned addition to pump up the flavor. Generally the balance is around 1 ounce of the bittersweet orange Picon to 4 ounces of beer. Blonde is the typical choice, but pilsners and lagers also work well.

The ingredients in Picon, now owned by Campari group, remain a closely guarded secret but the recipe for this amer (bitter) is known to contain orange zest, gentian (a medicinal herb) and cinchona (the quinine-containing bark of the cinchona tree). Although the first Picon distillery was in Marseille, it’s most popular in Alsace and northeast France.

Un ginto

Hear us out. The gin and tonic, better known as le ginto, might not be French. But with distilleries across France now creating some of Europe’s most exciting spirits, it’s becoming a staple apéro order from Paris to Provence.

The best-known French brand is the elegant Citadelle, created by Maison Ferrand to make use of its cognac stills out of season. Smaller names to search out include Camargue-based Bigourdan, which distills in the sleepy town of Arles, making a gin heady with the flavors of wild Mediterranean herbs, including thyme, lavender, and fennel seed.

St. Germain spritz

If you’re going to order a spritz in France, eschew Italian imposter Aperol and opt for a French version instead. The St. Germain spritz is made with prosecco and sparkling water to exactly the same measures, just with the fragrant St. Germain elderflower liqueur in place of a bitter base.

The result is a light and floral drink made for long summer nights, usually garnished with a twist of lemon or slice of cucumber. If you’re perfecting the art of the aperitif at home, the art deco bottle is also an enviable addition to any vintage bar cart or sideboard.

Pét-nat

Especially in Paris, ordering a glass of bulles (bubbles) doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be served champagne. Pét-nat, shorthand for pétillant naturel, has become le nouveau kif (the new jam) at norm-challenging wine bars like Lolo and Déviant.

It’s easy to see the appeal. Made by the méthode ancestrale, a single fermentation in-bottle during which the CO2 produced is trapped as delicate bubbles, pét-nats are fizzy, fruity, and often low-ish in alcohol. Do they have the elegance and complexity of champagne? No. Are they more fun? Always.

Cap Corse

A bottle of Cap Corse is an apéro essential on the island of Corsica. The liqueur was created in 1872 as a medicinal tonic by wine merchant Louis-Napoléon Mattei, who combined wine made from the local muscat and vermentino grapes with extracts of cinchona bark. Today, the recipe remains much the same, with the addition of Corsican lemon peel and other secret flavorings.

The complex and bittersweet drink, bold enough to drink neat over ice, has floral notes that shine in cocktails or when it’s served simply with tonic.

Photo of Corsica

A well prepared glass of Cap Corse is the perfect Mediterranean aperitif.

Photo by Pawel Kazmierczak / Shutterstock

Pastis

Nothing divides the French like the sight of a glass filled with intensely anise-flavored pastis. First there are the geographic battle lines: No true Marseillais or Marseillaise would denounce the city’s most famous drink, but Parisians are quick to turn up their noses. Then there’s the issue of age; despite Ricard’s best efforts, the quintessential image of a pastis drinker remains that of a gray-haired pétanque player.

The only thing that really matters is if you like it—and how you serve it. Never make the mistake of drinking it neat. You should start with a small pour of pastis in the bottom of a tall glass to which you add still water, watching it transform from a clear spirit to a milky yellow (usually four parts of water to one of pastis). Only at the end do you add ice, if you’d like, before sipping slowly in the sunshine.

Pommeau

The apple brandy calvados might be Normandy’s best-known boozy export, but it is strictly considered a digestif, to be drunk after a meal rather than before. By law, it must also be bottled with a strength of at least 40 percent alcohol by volume (abv): a punchy choice predinner.

For an aperitif, try pommeau (pomm-oh), the region’s lighter, sweeter alternative. A blend of fresh apple juice and calvados, it’s aged for a year in oak barrels. This maturation balances out its profile, adding structure and tannin. Drink it chilled or over ice.

Lillet

Lillet (lee-ley) is currently undergoing a resurgence in popularity. A crisp and floral aromatized white wine infused with fruits, herbs, and botanicals, it’s a uniquely French aperitif made just outside Bordeaux.

There are three versions: red, white, and rosé. Lillet Blanc is the original and the best. Look for it on a café menu and you’ll most likely see it served as a Lillet and tonic. You might be surprised to find it’s a star ingredient in well-known cocktails such as the corpse reviver and vesper martini.

Dolin

If you’re looking to add one French bottle to your home bar, make it Dolin (doe-lain) sweet red vermouth. Much like its Italian cousins Antica Formula and Cinzano Rosso, this is one of the most versatile cocktail ingredients, as at home in a negroni or manhattan as when poured over ice.

It’s been made at Dolin’s distillery in the town of Chambery in Savoie since 1821. We have Marie Dolin to thank for its early popularity in the United States; she traveled solo to the 1876 Philadelphia World’s Fair to present the family’s creations, picking up a gold medal in the process.

Rosé

The French often serve red and white wines as an aperitif, but rosé gets a special mention for two reasons. Firstly, rosés are much less frequently served with food. Many Provencal rosés in particular are blended to achieve delicate floral and fruity notes that are lost at the first hint of a cream sauce.

Secondly, and most importantly on sweltering summer days, a bone-dry rosé is the only wine into which it’s acceptable to drop glaçons (ice cubes). Choose a fancy spot, such as an umbrella-shaded lounger at one of Nice’s beach clubs, and you’ll even get a miniature ice bucket and silver tongs to dose your verre (glass) cube by cube.

Suze

If you like the bitter, almost medicinal taste of gentian, Suze is for you. Almost radioactive yellow in color, this French bitter is really in a category of its own. It’s not quite citrusy, not quite sour, at once as refreshing as it is powerful.

You want to let the flavor take center stage. At 15 percent abv, it’s intense in taste not alcohol: ideal for a relaxed apéro hour. Sip on Suze with ice and a splash of soda water, or try a Suze and tonic.

Pineau de Charentes

Made from the mutage (blending) of cognac and grape juice, Pineau de Charentes is as old-school as French aperitifs come. Under AOC laws, this vin de liqueur can only be made in the Cognac region, where it was the first fortified wine to be protected by the appellation d’origine contrôlée system.

Just like unfortified wines, red, white, and rosé pineaus can age. Younger bottles tend to show more fresh and fruity characteristics, while older pineaus express notes of honey and dried fruit. They should be served just a little warmer than fridge temperature and are traditionally poured in a small wine glass or tulip glass.

Le Diabolo

Apéro hour isn’t just for adults. Stroll through Paris around 7 p.m. and you’ll see plenty of families with young kids squeezed around tiny terrasse tables. Often, you’ll spot their drink first: a pint-sized pour of what appears to be a lurid green or candy-red cocktail.

This is the diabolo, France’s much loved syrup and sparkling lemonade combo. The most common are the diabolo menthe (with mint syrup) and the diabolo grenadine (with grenadine), although fancier fruit syrups turn up from time to time.

Eleanor is a writer based in Paris and the author of Paris: A Curious Traveler’s Guide. She specializes in food, travel, and (often natural) wine.
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