Well this is timely. Did you know that today, May 16th, is National Apéritif Day, here in the UK? In the US, it's National Piercing Day (I'm not making this up), and in Malaysia it's National Teachers' Day, but it's already Apéritif Day where I am, and it's only ten o'clock in the morning.
How do I know this? Because Apéritif manufacturers Lillet have declared it so. Neither PK nor myself are going to get snotty about this appropriation of an entire 24 hours in mid-May, not least because last week we attended a little cocktail festival in the bar of the Brasserie Zédel (in the heart of London's bustling West End) where many delicious drinks were confected, all of them using Lillet in some combination - in a nod, as it happens, to James Bond, a Lillet fan. And yes, the whole event was so delicious it would be churlish and perverse to say otherwise.
Lillet itself, the classic apéritif tout court is also extremely likeable, perhaps not the red, a bit Christmas Puddingy, but the rosé - fresh, citrussy, astringent, nicely finessed - is worth shelling out for. On instruction, I went home and added a dash of it to some sparkling white - an Undurraga Brut from Chile - which wasn't a totally harmonious creation, the Undurraga having a touch of gravel about it, the occasional tartness of the Lillet making for something of a tangle, but the principle was sound. Prosecco, yes, might have kept the Lillet in better order, but still.
All that said, a hint of nervousness creeps in at the idea of a Day. I mean, it's worth a try, but National Apéritif Day isn't a day to focus consciousness on an emergent or already-well-established practice or concept; it's a day to try and drag something back from the lip of the grave before it disappears completely. This is not expressing a trend or desire, this is attempting to stay the cold hand of Fate.
Because however lovely and multifarious French apéritifs may be, they're stuck with at least two cultural difficulties: they belong to the wrong generation; and they often contain more than a whiff of provincial France, with all its touchiness, inconvenience, and regional amour-propre.
It's your parents (or, charitably, the Mad Men crowd) who used to get stuck into the Dubonnet and Noilly Prat (as, indeed, they got stuck into the Campari and the Cinzano), not least because the demotic wine revolution hadn't yet happened, there was a higher tolerance of sweet & sticky, and everyone seems to have been plastered half the time, anyway.
Equally, there are slightly too many products to get your head round; all of them marked by some potent local characteristic - guaranteeing on the one hand a certain delirious otherness (especially when you drink them in context, on-site, on a warm evening), but on the other, generating a ton of complexity when you get back home and try and remember what was different about them in the first place. Byrrh, Suze, Pommeau, Dubonnet, Pineau des Charentes, Salers, Lillet, Bonal, Saint-Raphael - to say nothing of pastis (when I want my gums disinfected, I'll make an appointment) - are all good, sometimes great, in their ways, apart from the pastis, but (a) in London, on a wet February night? and (b) when the alternative is, say, a plain-dealing, no-nasty-surprises whisky & soda? And this is just when you're on your own. You know very well that if people come round, and pre-meal you start gesturing towards some obscure wine-based beverage infused with wild gentian, the act will reek of nothing less than a pathetic desperation to seem different.
Nevertheless. In the spirit, no pun intended, of National Apéritif Day, I shall slightly preciously and self-consciously fix myself an evening apéritif (Lillet? Noilly Prat? Punt e Mes?), before getting stuck into my usual special-offer grog, and see how the rest of the day pans out. Assuming it does pan out and I don't, as a consequence of my unfamiliar pre-drink drink, simply fall asleep at eight-thirty. Santé!