Happy hour in France and in other countries in Europe is a tradition that is a time honored ritual. Affectionately called “l’apero,” it is a shortened term for aperitifs, or as we know it, happy hour. L’apero is a sacred time of the day. It is a time to gather with friends as the sunlight fades, slowing down, engaging in conversation, and sharing small plate nibbles and drinks.
I have fond memories of several occasions in France, with friends, usually outside on the terrace or in the jardin, sipping pastis (yes I actually do like that herbal, fragrant anise flavored liqueur ) or wine, and enjoying the conviviality of the evening. One time I was in a small village, Cadrieu, in the Lot Department in southwest France in the Midi Pyrenees region. It was a cool crisp evening and I was being welcomed as the visiting American by a group of townspeople from the village to enjoy their apero tradition. The snacks were so substantial that I seem to recall a prolonged happy hour with multiple aperitifs, low alcohol content of course, and lots of yummy appetizers which precluded the need for dinner.
A couple of years ago on a visit to Bretagne to see some American friends, we started the evening on the terrace with a a blend of American cocktails and french aperitifs. That evening did end with dinner and wine in their dining room once darkness and a light evening mist and fog descended on the jardin.
In recent years, there has been a revival of popular aperitifs such as fortified wines and other low alcohol, ABV (Alcohol By Volume) low proof drinks. These low alcohol drinks are also referred to as “shims.” The positive thing about sipping aperitifs is that you can tolerate 2-3 of these low alcohol drinks, maintain your senses, and still enjoy the big flavors you may be accustomed to in a traditional cocktail.
There are a few of these drinks that have floated around the bars in the US for years such as the wine spritzer, kir and kir royal, and more recently the Aperol spritz. Have you thought about traveling to other parts of the world and introducing your palate to aperitifs such as spicy and bitter Italian vermouths, the nutty taste of Spanish sherries, herb infused fortified wines and liqueurs? Think of this not as a compromise, this is, rather, a taste adventure into a world of bold and intriguing flavors.
So you may be wondering, where do I start and how do I stock my bar? Start with the basics and don’t be afraid to experiment. Sweet and dry vermouths, Aperol, champagne or prosecco, Campari and sherry. Lillet and Dubonnet are also good additions. You should also consider bitters. A standard bitters such as Angostura or Peychauds then perhaps at least one infused bitters such as orange bitters. You will also need mixers such as a sparkling water or soda, tonic, and perhaps a bitter lemon soda.
Here are a couple of recipes for a few of my quick and simple favorite traditional aperitifs.
11/2 oz of Campari
11/2 oz sweet vermouth
Splash of soda or sparkling water
Serve in a tall glass over ice
Garnish with a lemon twist or wedge of orange
11/2 oz of sweet vermouth
11/2 oz of dry vermouth
Dash of orange bitters
Luxardo cherry with a touch of cherry juice
Pour all ingredients into a cocktail shaker and add a little ice. Stir.
Strain into a cocktail glass with ice.
Garnish with an orange twist
Check the the American in Paris as well! Sante!!