Aperitifs: In SF, a centuries-old drinking tradition resurges with a fresh face

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dark knight cocktail from two sisters
The Dark Knight from Two Sisters Bar and Books. Photo by Aubrie Pick

The roots of most aperitifs are old and, in some cases, medicinal secrets. The most classic of the mainstays—Dubonnet, Lillet, Campari, vermouth—have been around since at least the 19th century, and the recipes are the same tightly guarded mysteries they always have been. Typically light, dry and low in alcohol, aperitifs whet the palate, but they are as much about ritual as they are about taste.

In Europe, an aperitif signals a particularly sacred pause between the day and dinnertime, a restful waiting period. On this side of the pond, we’re not as easily talked into waiting for our food (unless, of course, we’re talking about a brunch line), and aperitifs have become more of a cocktail ingredient than a drink themselves. Happily, a few places around town are preserving both the flavors and habits that make aperitifs such a staple in other parts of the world.

Halfway down a perpetually damp, dark alley in the FiDi, a brooding street opens up into a warm café brimming with charm. Café Claude is French in the purest sense, and the best spot to find aperitifs in their natural habitat. Low red lights, a French menu, and live jazz four nights a week provides an authentic backdrop for sipping through the classics, from Campari to Dubonnet to Lillet and Pastis. And, if it’s that kind of night, you’ll find three different kinds of absinthe. Just don’t forget to eat.

More updated and localized, Range has dedicated an everyday happy hour to aperitifs only. Inspired by bar manager Taylor Buffington’s time in Madrid, the happy hour was his way of inoculating Valencia Street with that European pastime, demanding a deliberately slow transition into an evening of eating. While you can get an impressive spread of sherry, vermouth and amaro, the heart of the menu is the aperitif cocktails. The Sun Also Rises provides a bubbly and bitter stage for amontillado sherry, and the Paris to Milan spotlights the berries and aromatics of cocchi americano rosa and St-Germain elderflower. The madeira-dosed Kid Charlemagne is a bit smoother and sweeter—a better introduction to aperitifs if you’re the leather armchair, brandy-sipping type.

For a hit of nostalgia, try the “Inverted Classics,” following a similar formula to Julia Child’s famous “upside-down martini” that flips the ratio of gin to vermouth (a good way of turning any cocktail into an aperitif). Make sure to grab some house-made beef jerky or black rice chips off the bar menu to meet that appetite when it comes roaring up.

After too many years out of the spotlight, sherry has finally leapt back into bartenders’ favor thanks to its particular complexity. To start, hunker down at Nopa’s bar. From the lighter crisp fino cesar florido to the briny, savory Manzanilla sherries, from the nutty, caramel notes of the amontillado Fernando de Castilla to the rich complexity of a good oloroso, Nopa’s curated sherry lot is an education itself. And don’t forget to try a Palo Cortado, the rare variety wrought from grapes that naturally lose the yeast that protect them from oxidation. The result? A beautifully balanced sherry that rests in the sweet spot between clean and crisp, and warm and nutty.

If Nopa is the best spot for a first date with sherry, 15 Romolo is where you’ll likely move in together. Right now, 15 Romolo is the most curious, inventive shrine to that fortified wine. This past year marked the bar’s third annual “Sherry Christmas,” featuring a menu of sherry-based cocktails and a food menu designed around pairings. The cocktails are designed first to preserve the particular integrity of different sherries, building on their complexity in a wildly kaleidoscopic approach to flavor.

The best aperitif on the menu is the Penelope, a fragile balance of Palo Cortado sherry, brandy, cava, grenadine, lemon and cacao tincture: equal parts light, bitter, sweet and earthy. On the more classic side, the Shegroni swaps sherry for gin, bolstering the mix with an entrancing house-made ’roso vermouth. The recipe took over a year to develop, and begins with macerating botanicals in Spanish brandy, straining into a German eu de vie, and then using that to re-fortify sherry. The result is an herbacious sip that shimmers with pinelike ephemerals. Ask to taste it alone.

Down the road in Hayes Valley, in the shoebox-sized homage to precious drinking that is Two Sisters Bar and Books, you’ll find another house-made specialty: a robust and vinegary vermouth made from simmering pink peppercorns with balsamic vinegar, brown sugar and dried cherries. With equal parts red wine, the vermouth finds its home in the Dark Knight—a hearty cocktail of gin, Campari, and Aperol that’s bold enough to slow your roll, and bitter enough to make your palate water. Just don’t rush it, time is entirely beside the point.

Edible SF Guides:
Cafe Claude
Range Restaurant
15 Romolo
Two Sisters Bar and Books