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Something to whet the appetite

24 June 2004
Something to whet the appetite

Want to know where to get the best apéritif in town? Cellar Gascon, apparently. The London bar was recently voted Best Apéritif Bar in a new initiative created by Sopexa and endorsed by the French government. Why? Apéritifs are crucial to the bottom line and, well, Brits tend to stick with what they know and this is one way of giving the apéritif the proverbial leg up.

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Pascal Aussignac, chef at Cellar Gascon which won Best Apéritif 2004
Actually I already knew Cellar Gascon was a hot spot for an ap‚ritif. I'm rather partial to Lillet, the classic Bordeaux apéritif, which I've been known to sip there on occasion. It's a delicious concoction of red or white basic Bordeaux fortified with Armagnac, herbs and fruit, matured in oak, with an abv of 17%. Cellar Gascon is already well known for its wines (and its delectable South-west tapas). It offers 20 by the glass and a further 40 by the bottle, mostly from France's South-west and deep South - hence the name. But for this award, a decent selection of wines by the glass - and the odd glass of Lillet - wasn't enough. So, without further ado, here are Cellar Gascon's top 10 selling ap‚ritifs. At number one, there's pastis (Ricard just happens to be one of the awards' sponsors), the aniseed-flavoured spirit from southern France; with the number two slot taken by Dubonnet (another award sponsor) - a bitter Vermouth that comes in red or white, made from Carignan and Grenache, Malvoisie and Muscat, flavoured with quinine and bitter bark, at 17% abv. At three, it's Desbons - a wine-based apéritif fortified with a prune- or pear-infused spirit from the South-west, which can be mixed with lemonade and crammed with chopped fruit - think of it like a kind of French Pimm's. Number four is my favourite - Lillet - while number five is Gentiane, a bitter liqueur digestive made from the gentian root that is great after a heavy round of foie gras (Cellar Gascon's thing), and works well mixed with tonic or lemonade. "The bitterness is great on a hot day," declares Cellar Gascon's manager Olivier Rigolot, who likes to use Gentiane 1920. At six, it's a white Banyuls - a vin doux naturel made from grapes grown on vertiginous terraced vineyards above the Mediterranean at the southern end of Roussillon. "A great alternative to white port," adds Rigolot, who isn't averse to adding a splash of tonic and sprig of borage as the Portuguese do - though definitely not to the classic and far more superior red Banyuls. Then there's floc, a fortified unfermented grape juice apéritif that originally hailed from the Gers Département, with a 16-18% abv. "It's a bit like Pineau de Charentes but sweeter," explains Rigolot. "And it's delicious served well chilled with a plate of saucisson sec," he adds, revealing that he gets his from Pietri Giraud (supplied by Les Caves de Pyrene). At number nine, it's the house cocktail called, simply, Cocktail Gascon - Champagne Ruinart and a splash of VSOP Armagnac - though Rigolot admits that they sell many more of these at Cellar Gascon's older, smarter sister, Club Gascon, a few doors up. Finally, Grey Goose vodka, where the Martini rules, along with a Cosmopolitan made with the orange version. In the two years that Rigolot has worked here, he has seen interest in apéritifs such as these pick up. "Though usually it's down to us to sell them," he admits. "But once I've suggested it, I find customers very receptive." The boys, apparently, tend to lean towards floc, while the girls lap up the Lillet. Funny, that. n ShortsAriba Ariba Spirits importer Malcolm Cowen (020 8965 1937) has introduced Cacha‡a Tucano made by Fazenda Soledade. This fast-growing Brazilian spirit is distilled from hand-picked sugar cane grown on the slopes of S‹o Fidelis. Distillation takes place in copper pot stills, with the spirit matured in malt whisky and sherry oak casks. The UK's longest-brewed lager Liverpool-based Robert Cain Brewery (0151-709 8734) has launched what it claims is the UK's longest-brewed lager. Brewed to a strict three-month maturation process, it's been in development since the brewery was snapped up by brothers Sudarghara and Ajmail Dusanj two years ago. Head brewer David Nijs has focused on the original meaning of lagering, which referred to the storage process. Why? A smoother beer, fuller flavour and richer colour than your younger matured beers. Says leading beer writer Roger Protz: "Who knows, it may also encourage large British brewers to improve the lagers they foist on the drinking public." Here's hoping.
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