What’s happened to the aperatif, long a staple in France?
The aperitif was introduced in 1846 by French chemist Joseph Dubonnet, who wanted to be able to give the public quinine to fight malaria, which was rampant during that time.
Dubonnet added different herbs and flavors to make the bitter drink enjoyable. In the early 20th century, it was used to stimulate the appetite before a meal. The aperitif was contrasted with the digestif, which was used after a meal to aid in digestion. In addition, it provided a way to entertain guests and was typically served with small finger foods like crackers, cheese and olives.
The aperitif, though, has been declining in popularity since World War II.
One aperitif that was popular in France for many years is Byrrh, a bitter aperitif made of red wine and quinine or tonic water. Opened in 1873 by the Violet family, the factory in Thuir at one time employed more than 700 employees and produced nearly 35 million bottles a year. (A staff of 77 now makes just 1 million bottles a year.)
Byrrh takes three stages to perfect. First, the grapes are received from the producer. Next, workers extract the “mistelle” — grape juice, pips, stalks and skins. After it is pressed, alcohol is added to stop the fermentation process, keeping the grape’s sweetness intact.
Then comes the period of maceration. Different herbs and plants are added, depending on the flavor and aroma of the wine. Quinine, bitter orange skins, coffee and cocoa are among the ingredients that may be added to spice the drink.
The wine is then left to mature for two to three years in an oak vat, before the Byrrh is bottled and packaged to sell.
Byrrh reigned over the other “A.B.V’S,” (or Alcohol-Based Wines) up until the 1940s. The aperitif was most popular among housewives, who would serve it to guests. However, other hard liquors, such as vodka and whiskey, began taking over the entertainment market. Beginning in the 1950s, whiskey became the drink of choice while sales of Byrrh slumped dramatically.
This declining popularity of aperitifs prompted the Violet family to sell the company in 1961 to the Dubonnet-Cinzano Company. Since 1976, the corporate name of the business has been Cusenier, a branch of the Pernod Ricard Company.
Although a large corporation heads the Byrrh production today in France, competition is still a big problem. “Unfortunately today, there is a lot of competition from the vodka, whiskey and gin products,” says Josephine Blad, communications director for Caves Byrrh.
Even so, 45 percent of Caves Byrrh’s production is still strictly Byrrh products. However, only 1 million bottles are now produced annually.
Although aperitifs are not as popular as they once were, some still enjoy a traditional before-dinner beverage. With the growing popularity of cocktails such as the ‘cosmopolitan,’ made famous by the ‘Sex and the City’ series, vermouth is making a comeback.
“We have a laboratory of research and we are always trying to come up with new ways in order to be more competitive and for what the customer wants,” said Blad. Even so, Byrrh is and probably always will be, a staple in French society. A resident of Thuir touring the Caves Byrrh factory proved just how close French people hold Byrrh to their heart. “I live in this town (Thuir) so I am proud that I still drink the product that comes from my hometown factory,” said Paula Italia.
Visitors can tour the Byrrh factory in Thuir and view one of the largest oak vats in the world. For more information go to Caves Byrrh website.