Awesome Aperitifs

Vermouth, Amaro & Pastis

During Aperitivo Hour, when the day’s work is done but the sun is still shining, squares and terraces all over Europe are bustling with imbibers. Throughout Europe, dinner is late—very late—sometimes past nine or ten o’clock.

Lunch to some is the biggest meal of the day, so around five or six o’clock, it’s time for a refreshing drink and maybe a nibble or two. In this article, we will focus on my three favourite countries in the world for food and drink: Spain, Italy, and France. The citizens of these countries know how to indulge and enjoy life and its surroundings, yet Spain, Italy and France each have different, but familiar traditions when it comes to afternoon drinking. All include food as well as drink, all include low-proof beverages, and all tend to happen outside in between lunch and dinner.


In Spain, vermouth is all the rage these days. The name originates from the term for wormwood, which is a staple ingredient in this fortified wine. Vermouth is made by infusing a base wine with a bounty of herbs, botanicals, and spices. Alcohol is also added to up the proof, and sometimes caramel is added for colour. Vermouth has been hot for a while with the cocktail trend, but now people are drinking it on its own in crowded tapas bars all over Barcelona and Madrid. Just add ice, a slice of orange, and an olive. Vermouth is a wine so keep it in the fridge, where it will keep for up to a month. Some quality vermouths that are always in my fridge and available in BC are El Bandarra from Barcelona, Spain, Cocchi Torino from Asti, Italy, and Dolin Dry from Chambéry, France. Locally, Odd Society Distillery makes a lovely, bitter sweet vermouth.


In Italy, it’s all about the bitter, or “amaro” as they say. Amari come in many levels of bitterness. A bitter is derived from a base spirit, and like vermouth, is packed with different herbs and botanicals. There is the light and fruity Aperol, the bitter orange-laced Campari, or the fruity and bitter Amaro Montenegro. Fernet is another bitter that is popular among bartenders, although heavy bitters are best savoured after a big meal, as all the botanicals aid digestion. Try the new Fernet from Gancia, a great producer from Piedmont. The most popular way to drink amaro in Italy is in a Spritz. Take a wine glass full of ice, add one part bitter, 2 parts club soda, and 3 parts Prosecco. Add a slice of orange, and you’re off to the races. Aperol Spritz is by far the mainstay on terraces throughout Rome and Florence, but if you want to try something new, go for a Cynar Spritz. Cynar is a bitter made primarily from artichokes, and you’ll see the artichoke labelled bottle on any decent cocktail bar around the world. If you are lucky enough to be in Italy during artichoke season, order them fried and enjoy with a Spritz. Bitterhouse is a local line of bitters made in Delta at G&W Distillery. They have three types: Rubato, Daman, and Ladame. Try a Rubato Spritz for your next new cocktail.


In France, it’s all about Pastis. Pastis is an anise-flavoured spirit hailing from the south of France. It is deceivingly high proof, so mix carefully. Crowds in beach towns all over Provence will sip this cloudy tipple while taking in the sun and the Mediterranean. Since it is so high in alcohol, bartenders will mix one part Pastis to five or six parts water. Make sure the water is cold, and watch the cocktail louche, the magic that happens when water is added. Voila! A reaction with the water turns the clear liquid into a cloudy thing of beauty. Beware—those who don’t like licorice won’t be keen. Freshly shucked oysters or steak tartar are great friends with a glass of Pastis. Iconic brands like Pernod and Ricard dominate the options available on our shelves, as no local brands have yet to turn up. Maybe this is a shameless cry for help!

Low-proof drinking has now caught on in North America, as people are more conscious of the level of alcohol they are taking in. Aperitivo is the answer. So next time someone orders a Manhattan, suggest just the vermouth.