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Stew Cues: Summer in Med a perfect time to learn about aperitifs, digestifs


Stew Cues: by Alene Keenan

As yachts head off to the Med for the summer, yachtie newcomers may have their first introduction to the culture of aperitifs and digestifs. An aperitif is an opener to the meal, and a digestif is taken at the end of a meal. The idea is to accentuate the meal rather than dull the senses with heavy alcohol. 

Aperitifs are aromatized wines that contain herbs that stimulate the appetite by encouraging the release of digestive enzymes. Every country seems to have a version. A vermouth in France, fino in Spain, Aperol or Campari from Italy – aperitifs are on the menu and your guests may request them. 

So what are these potions, anyway? Vermouth is a fortified, aromatized beverage common in France and Italy. Whether dry or sweet, they all begin with dry white wines that are fortified with brandy and infused with herbs and spices. Some popular ingredients are coriander, nutmeg, clove, orange peel, chamomile, and sage. Both have sugar added, but sweet versions have more, as well as caramel for color. 

The martini and the Manhattan are two popular cocktails containing vermouth. The classic recipe for a martini contains one or one-half ounce of dry vermouth to three ounces of gin. Add more or less vermouth to taste. An extra dry martini means no vermouth is added and is merely chilled spirit served in a cocktail glass. Vodka is often substituted for gin, and both versions are served with either an olive or a lemon twist. 

There are two types of Manhattan. The Prohibition version was made with Canadian rye whiskey, but today bourbon is commonly used. The Manhattan is made with 2 ounces of bourbon or rye whiskey, 1 ounce of sweet vermouth, and a dash of Angostura bitters, garnished with a cherry. A Perfect Manhattan has 2 ounces of spirit, with equal amounts of sweet and dry vermouth, garnished with a lemon twist. A Rob Roy is a Manhattan made with scotch whiskey. 

Fino sherry from Spain is a pale, delicate, dry, fortified wine often served before a meal. It is made in southern Spain from white grapes grown in Jerez de la Frontera. It pairs well with many foods and should be consumed chilled. 

Campari and Aperol from Italy are liqueurs made from infusing fruit in alcohol and water. Also known as bitters, they are gaining popularity stateside. Campari is commonly used in cocktails or served with soda water, citrus juice, or with prosecco as a spritz. The classic Negroni is made with equal parts of gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth, and garnished with orange peel. An Aperol Spritz is made with 2 ounces of Prosecco, 1 1/2 ounces of Aperol, topped with soda, and garnished with orange. Some prefer equal parts Prosecco and Aperol without soda.   

Digestifs – fruit brandies, amaro and various bitters, and sweet liqueurs – aid digestion and are served after dinner in nearly every country. 

In France, Cognac and Armagnac are prestigious brandies commonly served. Made from grapes grown in the Cognac and Armanac regions of France, they are usually served neat in a special glass called a snifter that concentrates the aromas. 

Pomace brandies such as grappa are found in Italy. Grappa is made from the skins, stems and seeds left over after wine making. It has a reputation for being strong. Taste and quality vary. At its best, it can taste like plums with warm notes of honey and berries. On the other end of the spectrum, it is commonly called “firewater.” It should be served chilled or just below room temperature.

Amaro is an Italian herbal liqueur with a bittersweet flavor. It is made from infusing brandy, neutral spirits or wine with herbs, roots, flowers and spices, and then it is aged in casks. It can be sipped slowly or used in cocktails. Campari and Aperol are technically Amaros. Others include Cynar, Fernet-Branca, Lucano and Montenegro. They are all proprietary blends from specific regions in Italy, with their own history and taste profile. 

Part of the fun of being in other countries is broadening your horizons by enjoying traditional food and drinks.  These potions, enjoyed in the rest of the world for ages, are just now gaining popularity in America. They are a great alternative to overly sweet cocktails.  

Alene Keenan is former lead instructor of interior courses at Maritime Professional Training in Fort Lauderdale. She shares more than 20 years experience as a stew in her book, “The Yacht Guru’s Bible: The Service Manual for Every Yacht,” available at Comments are welcome below.

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