Vermouth, created by Antonio Benedetto Carpano of Turin, Italy in 1786, is credited as the first drink formulated specifically for the purpose of igniting the appetite, though the historical record indicates that the ancient Egyptians would oftentimes drink a small amount of alcohol before meals. By the 19th century, various types of apéritifs were known in the major cities of Italy, and their popularity had spread throughout Europe by the late 19th century. By the beginning of the 20th century, they were popular in the United States.
The word “apéritif,” which derives from the Latin “aperire,” meaning “to open,” is also used to describe pre-meal snacks. Olives, pickled pearl onions, salted nuts, and salted crackers are amongst the most popular.
The typical commencement time for a formal dinner varies from country to country, culture to culture. But regardless, in most cultures where alcohol is consumed, social drinking will usually take place before sitting down to a formal meal. Cocktails, also called apéritifs, not only serve to ignite the appetite, they also tend to enliven conversation; and a gentleman should use this time to acquaint himself with his dinner partner, be introduced to other guests, and, of course, speak with his host and/or hostess, being sure to express his sincere gratitude for the kind invitation.
Whether cocktail orders are being taken by the service staff or are being requested directly from the bartender, a gentleman should see to it that his dinner partner is provided with a drink of choice. Exceptionally sweet or heavy drinks should be avoided during the cocktail hour so as not to compromise one’s appetite. Likewise, exceedingly complicated drinks should be avoided so as not to overburden the bartending staff. A pina colada, for example, would be an inappropriate request during a cocktail hour, for it is both sweet and complicated—in addition to being noisy to make. A gentleman should also bear in mind that combining distilled liquor with wine is oftentimes a recipe for next-day hangovers; consequently, he should limit his cocktail intake so as to be able to fully enjoy the dinner with its carefully selected, complementary wines—and be alive and well the morning after to talk about it. For men with delicate constitutions, sherry serves as an excellent apéritif since as a wine, though a fortified one, it will not be chemically incongruous with the wines which are likely to be served with dinner.