An appetite for starters

The dear old aperitif seems to have gone out of fashion, but Christine Boggis finds it might just be a question of semantics, as plenty of people seem to be enjoying a regular pre-dinner snifter

Since I was little, I can remember my parents drinking a Cinzano every evening before supper. At my grandmother's home, a bloody Mary or a vodka and tonic are a must before the evening meal.

But when it comes to my generation, the twenty and thirtysomethings, the aperitif seems to be a thing of the past - and sales of traditional pre-dinner drinks such as sherry and vermouth are plummeting.

In the year to April 21, sherry sales dropped 7 per cent to £95 million, fortified British wine dropped 6 per cent to £52 million and vermouth dropped 5 per cent also to £52 million, according to Nielsen.

Is it because we're all wolfing TV dinners and not making an occasion of the evening meal? Or could it be the healthy drinking lobby that says it's just about OK to open a bottle of wine with dinner, but mixing a cocktail first is going too far?

Diageo thought it might be because today's instant gratification society has made us too lazy to mix our own drinks. It tried to reclaim the aperitif as the drink for the moment we come in from work and open the fridge door - and targeted its pre-mixed Classic Mix range squarely at that gap.

Since it was launched in April 2006, the brand has won listings in Asda, Sainsbury's, Morrisons, Tesco and a number of convenience stores, and marketers say it is performing well with a sales uplift in spring and summer.

Changing habits

The "rules of the day" have changed, according to Paul Flatters, chief executive of consumer research organisation the Future Foundation. In 1961, 25 per cent of British adults were eating at 8am and 6pm, and nearly 30 per cent between noon and 1pm, with very few eating between those times.

In 2001 those peaks and troughs had nearly flattened out, with the number of people eating in the evening peaking at under 15 per cent around 7pm.

"In 1961 there was a really strong rhythm to the day - at one o'clock the nation would sit down to lunch, we would all follow rigid rules about where to be during the day. At one o'clock in 2001 lunch is a minority sport - more of us are out shopping. There is a more diverse way of spending our day, let alone how we spend our leisure time," says Flatters.

Martini marketing manager Caroline Herbert says that even in markets where the aperitif is an institution, such as France, Italy and Spain, the moment is being eroded. "Things are becoming more blurred in terms of what people drink before a meal. In places such as Italy where they have aperitif promotions and aperitif hours, they are including things like a mojito cocktail."

She notes that restaurants do not promote the aperitif moment, listing drinks at the back of the menu rather than the front. "We try to encourage people to look at aperitifs in a different way, particularly in the on-trade, but I think it is a long, uphill battle. The pre-meal occasion is not that formal, particularly in the off-trade. A lot of people don't sit down for meals - they have people coming and going, eating at different times.

"I think you would find it quite difficult to get people to have an aperitif as such when particularly the younger end of the market might not be doing as much socialising as they had been over meals, and instead are looking forward to eating something in front of the telly," she adds.

But Herbert and other drinks marketers say the 5-8pm gap between getting home from work and eating is still a key occasion. Kathy Sawtell, marketing manager for gins at Diageo, says: "The biggest drinking occasion across all spirits is this 5-8pm occasion . People are still drinking spirits before food - but if you actually talk about aperitifs, people say 'I don't, but I do have a drink before a meal'."

Gordon's gin particularly targets this market, notably by sponsoring Channel 4's Kitchen Nightmares with celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay.

"Current trends make me confident the 5-8pm occasion is going to increase," says Sawtell. "Some of the trends are around entertaining at home - what people are going to be wanting to do is offer more of a special experience to their friends who come round, and that is going to be all about offering more of an aperitif. For example, a Gordon's Sloe Royale, which is sloe gin and Champagne. There are different ways to drink a traditional aperitif at home."

Sherry is the most obvious of the traditional aperitifs. Jeremy Rockett, of Gonzalez Byass, which supplies Tio Pepe and Croft, says the market has been hit by its most loyal consumers growing older and dying off, while younger drinkers are having a glass of wine as an aperitif.

Generic body the Consejo Regulador de Jerez has been trying to move sherry away from the pre-dinner occasion and market it as a wine to drink throughout a meal.

Spokesman Matt Arrowsmith said: "The notion of sherry as an aperitif only, as has been the case in Britain historically, is now thoroughly outdated. We are looking to Spain for an example, where they drink sherry as a wine throughout a whole meal - there is a different sherry for every moment in a meal."

Gonzalez Byass is trying to reposition Croft, targeting it at women and relaxing moments, while it wants its Tio Pepe to be seen as a pre-dinner drink - "without using the word aperitif, which is too passé", says Rockett.

"Dinner parties still happen but they are not called dinner parties, and aperitifs still happen but they are not called aperitifs. The word has become old-fashioned - you just don't use it anymore," he says. "People are still having a drink before dinner as an appetite-sharpener or gap-filler, but they are not calling it aperitif because they don't think it applies to them."

GB's marketing campaign includes 20cl trial bottles of Tio Pepe with money-off vouchers in the off-trade, it has signed up wine writer and broadcaster Olly Smith to promote the brand in radio interviews, and is planning to sample the sherry with food at farmers' markets.

Rockett says the positioning of Tio Pepe is targeting three occasions: "When you get home from work and you get that hunger and you just want to eat. That is the moment when you drink Tio Pepe. It is also when you go to a restaurant, have a bowl of bread and olive oil. That is a Tio Pepe moment. Or it's when friends come round, formal or informal. It is posh snacks - olives, salted almonds, anything that is not crisps - and that is the Tio Pepe moment as well. It is about preparing for food but always with a little bit of food."

Gallo has also recognised the potential of the pre-dinner moment and has teamed up with Walkers Sensations in a wine-and-crisp-matching venture to target that market.

Vermouth is another traditional aperitif looking for new drinking occasions. Martini has redesigned its bottles and launched a rosé variant in a bid to "reverse the brand's outdated perceptions". Marketing director Liam Newton says consumers need to "reassess the brand".

A new marketing campaign targeting 25 to 34-year-old women, including sponsorship of the film Ocean's Thirteen, links Martini to cocktail drinking, ­fashion, parties and girls' nights in - but not food.

Herbert says Martini's position is based around what it is, not when you should drink it. "If you are appealing to a broad church you don't want to lead them to think that they have been doing it wrong, and they then contract back to 'I should only drink this before a meal'," she warns.

The word aperitif may be out of fashion, but the drink before dinner is still very much a reality. And if predictions about the effects of the smoking ban and trends toward the off-trade continue as expected, and as people become older and more sophisticated in their tastes, it is likely to expand beyond wine or gin & tonics - maybe even as far as the traditional aperitifs that seem to have been forgotten by today's average consumer.

What makes these drinks good aperitifs?

Fino sherry: Jeremy Rockett, marketing director, Gonzalez Byass

"We've done some research and the saliva response is almost as much as lemon juice without the lemony flavour. It cleans the palate to make it more prepared for food."

Gin: Kathy Sawtell, gin marketing manager, Diageo

"Gordon's is produced from a combination of botanicals: juniper, coriander and angelica. Gordon's has far more juniper than other gins, which gives it a really strong taste. Juniper is known for its stimulating properties and for stimulating the taste buds before food, which is why traditionally it was seen as an aperitif. Classic Gordon's and tonic is a refreshing taste to start the evening off."

Vermouth: Caroline Herbert, marketing manager, Martini and Noilly Prat

"Vermouth will have a lot of herbs, spices and botanicals that go to make it up, so you have the different taste elements that stimulate the tongue. When you eat something you taste it better because the tongue is limbered up."

Riesling: Nigel Blundell, national sales executive, ABS Wine Agencies

"The first thing is that the alcohol level of Rieslings from such northern countries as Germany is relatively low, typically anything between 8 and 10 per cent for the Mosel and not much higher than 11 or 12 per cent for drier Rieslings. To balance their natural acidity they have lots of sunshine hours, which gives wonderful concentration and wonderful flavours, and Rieslings really do pick up terroir. There might be a little bit of residual sugar because you have stopped the fermentation and that, with the lowish alcohol, is absolutely fantastic with some nibbles before lunch or dinner."

Beer: Rupert Ponsonby, beer expert, R&R Teamwork

"Beer has a strong case as an aperitif. There are the emotional exciters, the beer world's Sauvignon Blancs - beers in this camp include frisky, lighter-coloured India Pale Ales, or lemon-coloured pale ales such as Sierra Nevada. Fuller-bodied India Pale Ales, such as Worthington White Shield, and higher-strength beers excite the palate pre-food - Belgian classics, or wild yeast-fermented lambic beers from Belgium with those wonderful sour, almost raw cider flavours. Think Cantillon from Brussels, with its big oak vats and pre-Dickensian brewing equipment."

Who drinks traditional aperitifs?

57 per cent of people who drink traditional aperitifs are over 55, compared with 34 per cent of wine drinkers

73 per cent of aperitif drinkers are women, compared with 54 per cent of wine drinkers

Most in-home wine drinking happens at the weekend, with 21 per cent drunk on Friday, 20 per cent on Saturday and 18 per cent on Sunday

Aperitifs are spread more evenly over the week, peaking at 22 per cent on Thursday and Saturday, and dipping to 8 per cent on Friday and 3 per cent on Tuesday.

Source: TNS Worldpanel NDS At Home, 12 months to Sept 2006, based on traditional aperitifs such as sherry, vermouth and gin

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