Now that spring is officially here and summer is on its way, it is once again possible to enjoy apéritifs outdoors at a French café or on a terrace at someone’s country home. Designating both the beverage and the social moment before lunch or dinner, the apéritif is a time-honored French ritual that encompasses people from all ages and all walks of life, from young to old, from blue-collar workers to aristocrats.

Whether it’s followed by a meal or is just drinks alone, the apéritif moment in France is the chance to slow down, imbibe alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverages with a salty snack and engage in leisurely conversation with friends or colleagues. This apéritif menu from a popular Left Bank café in Paris captures perfectly the French dedication to this social custom: “L’apéritif, c’est la prière du soir des Français.” Translated into English, “The aperitif is the evening prayer of the French.”

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Not to be confused with the Anglo-Saxon ‘Happy Hour’ where bars try to attract customers to a late afternoon or pre-dinner drink through elaborate cocktails or 2-for-1 specials, the French apéritif time seems to be built into France’s social DNA. In other words, no encouragement is needed to get the French to stop for a convivial drink with friends, colleagues or family. Nonetheless, some Paris cafés are currently capitalizing on the French mania for anything American or British and are trying to tempt customers with happy hour drink deals…

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Translation: “Happy Hour 4 to 9pm: All cocktails (with or without alcohol) and draft pints 5 euros.”

So what do the French have as apéritifs? Here’s a short description of some typical French beverage offerings of the non-hard alcohol variety:

WINES: Still and sparkling wines are always good options. One can have un vin blanc or un vin rouge – a glass of white or red wine. With so many wine-producing regions in France, the possibilities are endless. Or a sparkling wine from Champagne, Burgundy or the Loire Valley is nice too. Ordering a glass of champagne is done with the expression une coupe de champagne. (You can click here for a previous article on French champagne and a great champagne bar in Paris!) But nothing says French apéritifs more to me than sitting at a cafe in southern France with a glass of wonderful rosé wine. There are terrific rosés found all over Provence but I particularly like those from Bandol, Tavel and around Aix-en-Provence.

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KIR: Originally from Burgundy, a classic kir is a wine cocktail of inexpensive dry white wine and crème de cassis (black currant liqueur). Another variation is to substitute red wine for the white to make a cardinal, so named for its very red color. One can take the regular kir up a notch by adding champagne instead of white wine for a kir royal. I have tried the kir royal with other liqueurs such as crème de pêches (peach), de fraises (strawberry), or de mûres (blackberry). My favorite is a liqueur I buy in Paris at a charming wine shop* specializing in Armagnac, an earthy cousin of Cognac. Their crème de mûres à l’Armagnac (blackberry liqueur with Armagnac) is heavenly when paired with champagne. * The wine shop in Paris is Ryst-Dupeyron, located at 79, rue du Bac in the 7th arrondissement.

FORTIFIED WINES: Then there is the whole other category of fortified wines, or vins de liqueur. Some French prefer a glass of dry sherry or port as an apéritif. Or they might have some Pineau de Charentes from the Cognac region of France, a lesser known wine blend apéritif that includes cognac brandy. On occasion, I’ll be in the mood for a lightly fortified wine such as a Muscat or Sauternes. Known in the States as ‘dessert wines,’ these are white, slightly sweet and made in many regions of France. Some popular ones include the Muscat des Beaumes de Venise  from Provence and the Muscat du Cap-Corse from Corsica. Or there are some interesting ones from the Dordogne region in southwest France such as Rosette and Montbazillac. I was introduced to Rosette a couple of years ago by some British friends. Roger and Sue invited my husband and me over for apéritifs at their home outside Bergerac and served the local white dessert wine. The Rosette came well chilled and was a delightful surprise with its fruity aromas of apricot and peach. Later, as we took a walk in the countryside near their home, we came upon the hamlet and vineyards of Sainte Foy des Vignes where Rosette is made.

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LILLET: Last but not least in the fortified wines category is the legendary Lillet. Dating from 1872, Lillet is a secret blend of Bordeaux wines, fruit liqueurs and quinine from the village of Podensac in southwest France. Lillet is served very cold –  as the bottle says, “Servir très frais” - and can come straight in a wine glass or served over ice with a twist of orange. Today, there are several versions of Lillet. The mainstays are classic white, red and rosé Lillet, though the rosé version is a new addition to the Lillet stable having just come out in 2012. And there are some new reserve versions that are exceptionally good including Réserve Jean de Lillet Blanc, Réserve Jean de Lillet Rouge and the Magnum Réserve Jean de Lillet Blanc Cuvée 1996. Lillet is proud of its heritage – go to lillet.com and then select “Lillet Visuals” for a great collection of Lillet advertising posters from the late 19th century to the present!

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PASTIS: This French apéritif  tastes of licorice and herbs and is for me an acquired taste. Still, you could say it has a cult following, especially in the south of France. In fact, pastis is often called the “national drink of Provence.” Transplanted Brit Peter Mayle, Mr. Provence himself, even wrote a novel entitled Hotel Pastis. To be sure, the intense libation is not limited to southern France. In the rest of the country, however, you’re more likely to hear it by the brand names of Ricard or Pernod. Now I wouldn’t put the taste of licorice on my top ten list… EVER…but there IS something about sitting at a café in the shady square of a Provençal village on a really hot day with a shot of pastis in the bottom of a tall glass, a carafe of water and a couple of ice cubes. Here’s how it works: You pour as much or as little water as you wish into the glass of pastis, watch as the clear golden liquid turns milky white, and add the ice cubes. Voilà, you have a drink so thirst-quenching and perfect for the setting that it just might turn into a favorite apéritif.

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A pastis afternoon at Les Deux Garçons in Aix-en-Provence

FRUIT DRINKS: Fruit-based options in France are popular too and may or may not contain alcohol. One can order un jus d’orange (orange juice) or un citron pressé (fresh squeezed lemon juice to which you add water and sugar). There are also a variety of flavored syrups diluted by water. You’ll often see French kids with un menthe à l’eau, or mint syrup with water, hard to miss with its super bright green color. Also popular is the French drink known as un diabolo menthe – mint syrup with limonade (lemon-flavored soda similar to Sprite). On a cultural note, “Diabolo Menthe” also refers to a 70’s French movie of the same name directed by Diane Kurys. This autobiographical film tells the story of two Jewish sisters in a Parisian high school in 1963 against the backdrop of the Algerian war.

To be sure, there are plenty of other drinks out there suitable for the French apéritif moment – including Dubonnet, Campari, vermouth, etc – but this list covers the main characters and will certainly get you started at any café or soirée in France. Cheers!

A NOTE ABOUT APERITIF SNACKS: When having apéritifs, the French don’t overdo in the snack department. Since the point of the ritual is to enjoy conversation and to whet the appetite a bit for the meal to come, something salty but light is often served. Snacks might include some olives, peanuts, crackers or even potato chips. It always surprises me to go to the home of French friends and see a small bowl of potato chips sitting there. However, in recent years, the French have tended to serve more substantial snacks with their cocktails and even turned the moment into what they call a “cocktail dinatoire” where the heavy hors-d’oeuvres are the meal itself.

A GUIDE TO FRENCH CAFES: For a previous article on navigating the French café experience, please click here.