Food & Drink

Aperitif Culture’s Bright, Botanical-Based Newcomers Are the Future of Drinking

haus aperitifs
Photo: Courtesy of Haus; Illustration: Emily Carpenter/Thrillist

At this point in your journey through adulthood you’ve probably figured out that drinking with friends is fun… until it’s not. What sounds like a good idea in theory -- Bar hopping! Opening yet another bottle! -- can lead to an unhappy lesson in diminishing returns. Oh, I don’t have to tell you. We’ve all been there: sloshed past the point of dignity, nauseous, laid-low with a hangover. Most of us are trying to cut back, which may be why aperitifs are trending right now.

These are the appetizers of the spirits world. The word comes from the Latin amperire, “to open up,” as in to open up your palate and prep your digestive system for a fine meal. As a category, aperitifs cast a wide net, encompassing everything from the Aperol spritz to the Negroni to a small glass of Cava to a Pastis. Typically it’s something dry and a little bit bitter, light and maybe bubbly.

What people are excited about now is the way aperitifs (or aperitivos, in Italian) lend themselves to low-ABV drinking. Lately, I’ve been having a splash of Spanish vermouth topped off with sparkling water with an orange slice and a couple green olives, for example, instead of a glass of red wine. It’s a step removed from the non-alcoholic cocktail movement -- because maybe you do want to craft a buzz, but a mellow one, and you want to maintain it at a certain level throughout the night without losing your cool.

"An approach to social drinking that leads to deeper connections"

The way third-generation winemakers Helena and Woody Hambrecht tell it, this is how Europeans have been drinking forever. And it’s why they created their own unique low-ABV aperitif spirit, Haus. “Aperitif culture is a way of drinking,” Helena told me, an approach to social drinking that leads to deeper connections throughout the evening, without the accidental drunkenness. “It’s about control.” And it’s not limited to before-dinner drinks.

You could describe Haus as an aromatized wine, but it’s lighter, and there aren’t any headache-inducing mystery ingredients. They start with a natural, low-sulfur chardonnay base and botanicals, some grown on their own Healdsburg, California farm, to create a “sessionable” 15% ABV spirit. It’s designed for flexibility -- an ounce or two on the rocks, with sparkling water or juice, or as a lighter sub in a cocktail. Currently there are three varieties: an amaro-like, lightly-spiced Bitter Clove, the Citrus Flower, made with meyer lemon peel and real elderflower, and a Rosé that’s expected to return in time for the summer season. The Hambrechts avoid artificial flavors or colorings, so it hits that all-natural, better-for-you sweet spot.

I was so taken with the barely-sweet, botanical blends when I tried Haus with the Hambrechts that I went and ordered a bottle for a fancy dinner party I had the following week.

That’s right, ordered. The Hambrechts are so into disrupting drinking culture, you’re not even going to find Haus on store shelves. Instead, you order it online, and it comes with this charming little ‘zine that shows you how it’ll fit into your lifestyle. And you can even sign up for a subscription, so the Haus keeps on coming to you, just like your quip toothbrush and your Billie razors, only much more fun.

“You can really tell the difference in the ingredient choices.”

But there’s more to the rise of aperitif culture besides their low-ABV appeal. Some of the newer spirits are being crafted in homage to the aperitivo’s origins as an herbal tonic. 

Before Daniel de la Nuez and Aaron Fox created their line of natural botanical spirits, Forthave, the two were nerding out over centuries-old herbal medicine recipes and collecting vintage spirits. “The thing we came across is that the further back you go to pre-1950s spirits,” (in other words, before the advent of artificial ingredients) “you can really taste the difference in the ingredient choices,” Nuez says. 

Forthave’s amaro, named Marseille, is adapted from a medieval tonic recipe attributed to 15th-century botanist Richard Forthave (hence the name of the label), which was used to protect people from the Black Plague. “We took out the stuff we didn’t think would be too yummy,” Fox says, “and added in honey from an upstate [New York] farm.”

Like the Hambrechts, Nuez is inspired by European aperitif culture. “It’s something that I grew up with,” he says. “In Spain you go to these lunches where you start with something light, like vermouth, to get your taste buds going.” Fox studied painting in Paris, where he fell in love with natural wines and spirits. Together, they began developing their own aperitivo recipes in their home kitchens and at the Williamsburg restaurant Fox owned then, and before they knew it, the dining world was catching up with them.

Aperitifs have become part of the dining equation.

The Marseille is the first in Forthave’s historical line of spirits. They also have a line created around colors: Red (similar to Campari), Blue (like gin), and Brown (crafted with single-origin coffee liqueur). I had a spritzer with their Red one chilly night while waiting for my table at Gaskins, a farm-to-table Hudson Valley, NY restaurant, and noticed it indeed had the bitter orange notes of Campari, but with deeper herbal tones that somehow made the drink’s experience feel lighter. It harmonized well, as I nursed it with my tart cabbage and gochujang salad and my duck with spaetzle.

And that’s exactly the kind of context in which the makers of Forthave want to see their spirit enjoyed. They want their spirits to fit in well with today’s brighter, ingredient-focused menus. “You’re seeing a direction towards lighter flavors,” Nuez says. Restaurants are moving away from heavy, intense sauces and playing with fresher taste profiles, and that’s something Forthave is trying to connect with, he says. 

When Fox was a bartender 15 years ago, no one was ordering these drinks. But now, “we’re seeing a tremendous amount of interest in the last few years,” he says. Beverage market research firm IWSR backs up Fox’s experience, reporting that global sales of aperitifs rose by 7.4 percent last year while vodka, brandy, and rum declined. They’re still but a tiny wedge in the overall market, but they’re gaining ground. Aperitifs have become “part of the dining equation,” as Fox puts it. “It’s how we dine, and the fact that people have taken to our style is something we’ve both been very, very happy about.”

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Adriana Velez is a senior food editor at Thrillist.