Any dining experience can be taken to the next level with certain beverages at the right time. I’m not just talking about knocking the wine and food pairings out of the park. What I am really getting at is that every dinner needs a start and the best way is with an aperitif. What on earth is that? I’m glad you asked.

Aperitifs are the famous beginnings of many epic feasts. These are nothing new in European countries and over the years, industry professionals have become smitten with them. They are liqueurs that are mostly wine based with botanical or herb properties. These spirits are designed to kick start your appetite and get you ready to receive that third course you’ve been dreaming about all day. Usually, they taste herbaceous and dry. Here are some options to get you started:

Vermouth is one of the most renowned aperitifs around the globe. I know everyone reading this thinks I’m out of it. Am I suggesting drinking the stuff that you add to a martini by itself? Yes, yes I am. The ones I speak of are the color of white wine except lighter. They usually look like water. There are dry ones and not-so-dry (but still dry) ones. I know this is a cliché but the best ones are the imported ones. They are high quality and built to stand alone. One of my favorites is Boissiere. It’s old school and has been around in some form since the 1860s. Absolutely, it’s still relevant today. Boissiere has rose and chamomile essences with just a slight nutty finish. It’s easy drinking with some soda or tonic water and a lemon twist. If cocktails are your thing, this one makes a damn fine gin martini.

The next suggestion I have for you is probably my favorite aperitif. Lillet Blanc is a classic non-vermouth example of how to start a fire. Lillet is wine based Semillon from the Bordeaux region of France and is infused with bitter orange rinds from Spain and Haiti as well as some secret herbs. It’s then finished by aging in an oak barrel to mellow it down. Basically this little ditty is its own cocktail. So many flavors of herbs, honey, flowers, orange and just a hint of bitterness balance the finish. Yes, the bitterness is necessary. Otherwise it would be way too sweet. Drink it chilled on the rocks with an orange slice for extreme delight. How to cocktail with it? Try a classic “the morning after”/hangover cure cocktail: Corpse Reviver No. 2.

Great dinners are basically great experiences. Aperitifs can help set the vibe. Everyone with a drink in his or her hand before dinner seems like a great way to break the ice and get some conversation going. I encourage you to experiment with different liqueurs and see what works best for you. Of course gin and tonics, vodka sodas or white wine spritzers count. Just remember to keep your aperitifs light and not too heavy. Just like conversation at the dinner table.

Judd Smith is a local wine enthusiast who also works as Cadre Hospitality Group’s beverage director. To read more from Smith, check out his blog at