Discover the appeal—slightly bitter, slightly sweet, fully invigorating—of the aperitif.
by Whitney Pipkin
For novices, Society Fair in Alexandria is a good place for an aperitif primer. The market and eatery also sells about a dozen bottles of traditional aperitifs and offers tastings at a sprawling marble bar.
I recently pulled up a barstool to learn more from Thrasher, whose restaurant group opened this “boutique emporium” of food and drink three years ago.
It was Thrasher’s restaurant partner and chef Cathal Armstrong who first introduced him to aperitif culture. Armstrong, who is from Ireland, would often start his evenings with a glass of Lillet Blanc on ice and a twist of orange peel.
“He was the only person I knew that was really drinking that kind of stuff,” Thrasher says, as he pours me a glass of the same.
The taste is bright, slightly sweet with hints of vanilla and orange teased out by a sliver of peel. A combination of herbs and roots lends balance to the wine-based aperitif, which is made from white (Lillet Blanc) or red (Lillet Rouge) grapes. The brand also launched Lillet Rosé in 2011.
“How could you not like that?” Thrasher asks of the drink he calls “a gateway drug” to appreciating the broader category of aperitifs.
Lillet first romanced American drinkers in the 1930s and became “the star of every New York bar” by midcentury, according to a history of the brand on its website.
When Thrasher opened his speakeasy PX above Eamonn’s A Dublin Chipper in Alexandria almost 10 years ago, no one was ordering aperitifs.
One of the first cocktails on his menu, called Sweet Basil and inspired by an abundance of the herb that grows in Restaurant Eve’s kitchen garden, has remained ever since, thanks to the complex sweetness three ounces of Lillet imbues. It’s still one of his most popular drinks and one of 17 bottled cocktail mixes he sells at Society Fair.
While Lillet makes for a refreshing entry point to the family of aperitifs, some might prefer its stronger Italian cousin. Cocchi Aperitivo Americano captivated many craft cocktail bars when it first splashed onto the American scene about five years ago, lending a bitter edge to mixed drinks.
The wine-based drink is flavored with botanicals and, most importantly, cinchona bark, the original source of the bitter element called quinine that defines this genre of aperitifs (chinatis in Italian; quinquinas in French).
Three years ago, Thrasher says, he couldn’t imagine patrons walking into his speakeasy and ordering “a Cocchi on the rocks.”
“Now, you start to see it,” he says.