Nobody does it better than the French — and by that, we mean cocktail hour. The French Apéro, a pre-dinner ritual involving French aperitifs, small bites, and good company is something that you should definitely consider doing the next time you have guests at home. Otherwise, you could try it out in the country itself when you visit France’s lesser-known cities. Unlike happy hour where working people saunter into bars to knock back a few drinks to celebrate the end of a workday, the apéro marks the beginning of the night, where dinner’s concerned.

For generations now, French gourmands have gotten into the habit of drinking refreshing cocktails before meals. Mostly done when dining with friends or family rather than alone, the apéro is a chance to relax, unwind, and enjoy conversation before the real meal starts. French aperitifs are not meant to be hard liquor, red wines, or full-blown cocktails. They are to be light and refreshing, designed as a mood enhancer and a drink to whet the appetite for the upcoming dinner. That’s why you can have more than one and not feel like you’re about to get too drunk.

Traditionally, aperitifs come with a side of light bites — think cheese and crackers, olives, or nuts — no different from your regular bar snacks. But don’t have too much that you’ll spoil your appetite. Now that you’ve got the basics settled, it’s time to ask the more important question: what alcoholic drink qualifies as a French aperitif? 

Pastis

Pastis is identifiable by its milky yellow colour after mixing the liqueur with some water. (Picture: Wikipedia)

This is an anise-based liqueur that is native to the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region in the south of France. It is made of distilled star anise, liquorice root for flavouring, contains sugar, and is bottled at 40-50% ABV. Pastis is usually mixed with water, creating a milky yellow colour. Thanks to its popularity as an aperitif, pastis is often also unofficially known as France’s “national drink”.

Lillet

Fortified wine that is best served chilled or on the rocks. (Photo: Pernod Ricard Malaysia)

Yet another classic French aperitif, the Lillet is a wine-based liqueur fortified with citrus liqueurs made from sweet and bitter oranges and grapefruit peels that hail from Podensac, France. For apéro hour, the Lillet is usually consumed chilled or on the rocks. Should you find the name familiar, it’s because it has been mentioned as a dry martini’s recipe by James Bond in the Casino Royale book.

Kir

Want a French aperitif that is as refreshing as the Aperol Spritz? Try the Kir. (Photo: Flickr/Michael Wurm Jr for Shari’s Berries)

Unlike the first two, Kir is an aperitif cocktail that is fashioned out of white wine and Crème de Cassis, a blackcurrant liqueur. Occasionally, if one is feeling fancy enough, they could substitute the white wine for champagne, and the drink will then become a Kir Royale. It’s a sparkly, refreshing drink that is a common apéro in France.

Suze

Some might find the Suze more palatable than pastis thanks to its floral, citrusy aftertaste. (Picture: Suze)

Created all the way back in 1885 and immortalised in Pablo Picasso’s painting “Glass and bottle of Suze”, this French liqueur is made from gentian root. It has an earthy, floral, and slightly bitter taste. While you could add this bitter into cocktails, the best way to have this as an aperitif is with ice and soda or sparkling water.

PohNee Chin
Associate Editor
Poh Nee is the associate editor and writes about travel and drinks. When she's not living out her holiday dreams via Google Earth and sipping on an Old Fashioned down at the local bars, you can find her snug at home bingeing on Netflix and mystery fiction.