It wasn’t long ago that aperitifs were seen as the kind of everyday luxury consigned strictly to holidays. Leave it to the Italians: for those of us hailing from less languorous climes, the idea of a ritualistic drink at the end of the afternoon – accompanied preferably by a plate of crostini and a terrace on which to sun oneself – seemed an impossible indulgence.
But these days, the aperitif is gaining a new foothold amongst British drinkers. It’s not just thanks to our neighbours on the Continent: lately, what we’ve been drinking is homegrown.
The aperitif isn’t really as foreign to British drinking customs as some might think. The G&T, that staple of pub gardens everywhere, could itself be classed as a “British aperitif,” despite the connotations of amari and vermouth that the word conjures. There isn’t an exact definition, after all, for “aperitif”, beyond a drink that one enjoys before dinner. Traditionally, aperitifs tend to be bracing, bitter, chilled, refreshing, and frequently carbonated – think staples like spritzes, simple cocktails like Negronis, vermouths like Carpano Antica, or even a simple flute of Prosecco.
But the recent rise of the new British drinks category can be credited, largely, to a number of small batch spirits producers who are crafting their own, one-of-a-kind recipes. Some feature dozens of herbs and aromatics; others use their artisanal spirits as a base for lighter, afternoon imbibing.
One of the first – and finest – in the new batch of British aperitifs comes courtesy of Sipsmith, the copper pot gin distillery that opened in Hammersmith in 2009. The first “one-shot” gin distillery to open in London in just shy of 200 years, Sipsmith uses their clean, citrusy London Dry Gin as a base for Sipsmith Summer Cup.
Developed initially as an answer to summertime’s ubiquitous pitchers of fruit-filled Pimms, Sipsmith Summer Cup is much dryer, subtler, and more sophisticated. Gin is infused with bergamot-rich Earl Grey tea, a hint of lemon verbena lends a herbal quality, and the rest is all quenching cucumber. It’s refreshing on ice, and Sipsmith recommends mixing it with lemonade and garnishing with a single wheel of lemon.
Another creative take on the British aperitif is being produced by Sacred Spirits Company, located in Highgate, London. Launched around the same time that Sipsmith opened its doors, Sacred famously began operations in the living room of its founder, Ian Hart; he even constructed his own stills from parts ordered from a scientific equipment supplier. These days, Sacred’s range has expanded from its London Dry Gin, and now features the Rosehip Cup, among other varieties.
Closer in identity to sweet and bitter Campari, the ruby-red Rosehip Cup is made from 27 botanicals, of which British rhubarb and rosehips feature prominently. Sacred advises using it in a Negroni, mixing with Champagne, or stirred with lemonade for something particularly refreshing.
Perhaps no other drink has been associated with the birth of the new British aperitif quite as much as Kamm & Sons, which this year underwent a makeover pitching it as the perfect pre-prandial pour. Made from ginseng as well as an impressive roster of 45 botanicals, it’s the creation of Alex Kammerling, who’s worked in various capacities in the drinks industry – from bartender to brand ambassador – over the last two decades.
Elegant and exceptionally moreish, the aperitif comes with several recommended serves: the simplest is over ice with a lemon twist, though the Brits Spritz, which pairs the spirit with elderflower cordial, sparkling English wine, and soda water, is an appropriate seasonal tipple. Overall, several dozen recipes see Kamm & Sons star in everything from a Bloody Mary redux to warming toddies, but its appeal as a before-dinner drink is undeniable.
And there’s more to the British aperitifs scene. Nyetimber, an award-winning English sparkling wine produced in West Sussex, is a natural choice on scorching days but works equally well at dinner parties. And while Fever-Tree doesn’t produce its own spirits, its ginger beer, Sicilian lemonade, delicious tonic water, and other products make for natural pairing partners in a number of aperitif serves.
Britain may not abut Mediterranean seas or sparkle under endless days of sunshine, but the aperitif is a custom that’s set to thrive on our soils. With British brands creating refreshing spirits with local ingredients and small-batch spirits, the rise of the British aperitif is something to be celebrated. With a drink in one in hand, preferably.
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