Fasel Shenstone Brings the Aperitivo to America
We’ve recently made a new friend, and we want you to know all about them. Like most friendships, this one is built on a common interest, fortified wines. We know you’re not supposed to have favorites, and all of them have their good qualities and are special in their own way, but of the basic building blocks of a cocktail, fortified wines are our favorite. We’re endlessly charmed by the way a fortified wine dials down the alcohol content of a drink while simultaneously turning up its complexity and subtlety. Our new friend, Fasel Shenstone, is an importer of fortified wines.
Fasel Shenstone is a liquor importer on a mission: they want to bring the aperitivo to the US. We’ve mentioned here and there the European custom of the aperitivo, a sort of appetizer or small plate for drinking. While we Americans tend to use liqueurs and fortified wines exclusively as ingredients in cocktails, Europeans take them straight in small quantities or mixed with some seltzer, as a lighter, simpler opener to an evening’s–or day’s–drinking. Well, small plates are all the rage right now in new American restaurants. Fasel Shenstone asks, why not the aperitivo in American bars (both out and at home) too? When we asked Leith Shenstone, one of Fasel Shenstone’s principals, why he thought Americans might want to give aperitivos a chance, he mentioned a few good reasons:
- Better food pairing–cocktails can be a bit finicky to match with what you’re eating. Aperitivos are more versatile and accommodating, complementing rather than competing with your food;
- Lower alcohol–with its lower alcohol content, fortified wine is a nice way to ease into an evening’s drinking, or to keep up the sociable drinking longer. As Shenstone puts it, ‘Aperitifs offer an opportunity to drink for prolonged periods while socializing, day or night.’
- More simplicity–Shenstone calls aperitivos ‘virtual low-alcohol cocktails in a bottle.’ While you certainly can mix them in a cocktail, you don’t have to. They have nuance, balance, and complexity that spirits don’t always have straight out of the bottle. It doesn’t take a brilliant mixologist to add a splash of seltzer to a fortified wine, but your guest might respond to you as if you are one.
Of course, it takes a certain high quality to pull off being a ‘virtual cocktail in a bottle.’ So, in their efforts to entice us in the direction of the aperitivo, they keep an eye out for rare, unique fortified wines and liqueurs that have gone under the radar. All of their producers are field to bottle, using grapes from their own vines, and they tend to be family-owned houses who have quietly been making their product and selling it in a local market for generations.
In that vein, a major emphasis for Fasel Shenstone is on Spanish vermouth. We tend to think of vermouth as the unique provenance of France and Italy. As it turns out, though, fairly early after vermouth was developed, production of it expanded to Spain. No one knows exactly how that happened (Shenstone’s theory is that it had to do with the intermarriage of and ever-shifting sovereign borders of Europe’s royal houses). What we do know is that–while in its birthplaces vermouth production over time shifted toward mass export to the US market–the Spanish to this day make their vermouth in small, family-owned bodegas, and drink most all of it themselves. Keep in mind too that the French and Italian brands most firmly established in the US got their toe-holds here during the long, dark age between Prohibition and the recent cocktail renaissance. So, much of the vermouth we’re most familiar with was designed for mass export, to be mixed with a bunch of other things, at a time when cocktails weren’t exactly at their finest. The posters were awesome, but the vermouth wasn’t always so–a big reason why it’s probably never occurred to most of us to drink vermouth straight. Meanwhile, the Spaniards have been drinking theirs straight out of the bottle all along. If a cocktail tastes pretty good with a vermouth made under the theory that it could hide behind the spirit, imagine what it could taste like with a vermouth made to stand on its own.
As you might imagine, this extra quality comes at a price, perhaps 50% more than their nearest proxies. It’s probably not a surprise that Fasel Shenstone has an argument for why you’d want to pay that extra price: why spend a lot of money on a premium spirit, and then dilute its impact with a cheap vermouth? Say, though, that there’s an upper limit on what you’re willing to spend on your drinks. That’s where Fasel Shenstone’s argument strangely becomes more compelling. If you’re going to go premium on something, they say, make it the vermouth; the drink is just as good–maybe even better–and your costs are actually lower than with a premium spirit and a cheap vermouth. It’s seems at least worth finding out.
Our new friends at Fasel Shenstone were kind enough to send us four of the bottles in their current portfolio: two reserve red vermouths from Spain, a sweet white vermouth from Italy, and an orange peel liqueur. We’ll be enjoying them over the rest of the week.