A small coterie of old-made-new, apéritif wines and spirits—part of the surging trend in aromatized beverages like amari or vermouth—has recently re-captured the American imagination. Generally, apéritifs are drunk before a meal or just on a sunny afternoon, meant to stimulate your palate and your appetite through the percolation of a fresh, vibrant base alcohol over a blend of regional herbs. It's an old-world tradition turned meme by a recent resurgence in popularity amongst stateside bartenders and bloggers at large. The broader tradition of aromatizing wines and spirits includes both aperitifs and digestifs, but whereas the Italians tend to focus on latter (after-dinner drinks that aid digestian) the French tend to make lighter, brighter versions that are categorized in the former.
A taxonomy of the variations might look something like a network map, showing the relationship of each recipe to another by variables like base alcohol, primary aromatic ingredient, appropriate context, etc. But for now, let's just focus on a pair of gentian-laden apéritifs from France, two of the newest examples to hit Nashville.
Salers (pronounced sah-LEHRS) starts off as a neutral alcohol which is then steeped with the roots of Gentiane lutea, or Great Yellow Gentian. The gentian soak imparts a bitter quality that is balanced by the sweetness of the spirit base. It's yellowsih-white in color, about like the flower of the Gentian plant itself, and has a wild that is as captivating as it is strange.
Something about ordering Bonal (pronounced bo-NAHL) just makes people stop and pay attention. It's got this deep ruddy color that catches the light like a well-cut gem. It's a mistelle base, meaning grape juice fortified with spirits, that is then aromatized with gentian and chinchona bark (quinine). Amazingly sumptuous, tart and slightly bitter with quenching, juicy quality that begs revisiting again and again. Pour it over ice with a wide slice of orange peel and summer takes on a suddenly bottomless sort of tone.
*If all that's not enough to tantalize you, wait to you see the bottles—super cool old-school labels replete with hand drawn botanical renderings.