Taking aim at Sarah

It’s been a tough time for wise-cracking American talk-show hosts of late. Letterman, Leno and Stewart have found Obama just a little too perfect to make the butt of their jokes and their lines about McCain’s age were getting a little, well, old. But then along came Sarah, the answer to their prayers. They’ve been taking aim at her lack of experience, her image and of course her gun-love. "Another vice president who's a hunter” remarked Jay Leno. "What could go wrong there?"

With rumours of Sarah Palin having an affair appearing in the National Enquirer (who turned out to be right about John Edwards's indiscretions after all), it looks like Sarah will keep setting them up and the comics knocking them down until election day.

Coping with a leak

Now to hissy fit news. In a move that will only affect those who know the names of the Jonas Brothers, author Stephenie Meyer is threatening not to finish the final part of her Twilight book series (a sort of teenage romance with vampires) after an early draft was leaked online. "I feel too sad about what has happened to continue working on Midnight Sun, and so it is on hold indefinitely”, sobbed Meyer. “This has been a very upsetting experience for me, but I hope it will at least leave my fans with a better understanding of copyright and the importance of artistic control." We can but hope, Stephenie.

Elsewhere, Metallica are coping rather better with internet leaks after their new album, Death Magnetic, appeared online this week, ahead of its official release on 12th September. "If this thing leaks all over the world today or tomorrow, happy days", said Lars Ulrich. "It's 2008 and it's part of how it is these days." Whether their management will be quite as philosophical is questionable. Earlier this summer a playback of Death Magnetic was organised for a variety of music magazines. Thequietus.com turned up and wrote a fond review, only to face irate phone calls from the band's management demanding it be taken offline. At which point Metallica themselves got involved, and expressed surprise at their management’s decision: "WHY?!!! Why take down mostly positive reviews of the new material and prevent people from getting psyched about the next record. . . that makes no sense to us!"

No joy for lesbian horses

Finally, the wait is over. The Diagram of Diagrams has been announced. The Diagram Prize is the prize for the oddest book title, now celebrating its 30th birthday with a competition for the best of the worst. Despite tough competition from How To Avoid Huge Ships and People Who Don’t Know They’re Dead, the public has chosen a winner: Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers. Commiserations to the Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories.

NANCY JO IACOI/GALLERY STOCK
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There are only two rules for an evening drink: it must be bitter, and it must be cold

A Negroni is the aperitif of choice in bars everywhere from London to Palermo - and no wonder.

The aperitif has the odd distinction of being the only alcohol that can always rely on a sober audience: it is the opener, the stimulant, a spur to the appetite for good food and good conversation. This preparatory beverage is considered the height of sophistication, and certainly nobody labouring in field or factory ever required a pep to their evening appetite. Still, to take a drink before one starts drinking is hardly clever behaviour. So why do it?

One reason is surely the wish to separate the working day from the evening’s leisure, an increasingly pressing matter as we lose the ability to switch off. This may change the nature of the aperitif, which was generally supposed to be light, in alcohol and character. Once, one was expected to quaff a pre-dinner drink and go in to dine with faculties and taste buds intact; now, it might be more important for those who want an uninterrupted meal to get preprandially plastered. That way, your colleagues may contact you but they won’t get much sense out of you, and pretty soon they’ll give up and bother someone else.

The nicest thing about the aperitif, and the most dangerous, is that it doesn’t follow rules. It’s meant to be low in alcohol, but nobody ever accused a gin and tonic or a Negroni (Campari, gin and vermouth in equal portions) of that failing; and sherry, which is a fabulous aperitif (not least because you can keep drinking it until the meal or the bottle ends), has more degrees of alcohol than most wines. An aperitif should not be heavily perfumed or flavoured, for fear of spoiling your palate, yet some people love pastis, the French aniseed drink that goes cloudy in water, and that you can practically smell across the Channel. They say the scent actually enhances appetite.

Really only two rules apply. An aperitif should be bitter – or, at any rate, it shouldn’t be sweet, whatever the fans of red vermouth may tell you. And it must be cold. Warm drinks such as Cognac and port are for after dinner. Not for nothing did Édith Piaf warble, in “Mon apéro”, about drowning her amorous disappointments in aperitifs: fail to cool your passions before sharing a table, and you belong with the barbarians.

On the other hand, conversing with your nearest over a small snack and an appropriate beverage, beyond the office and before the courtesies and complications of the dinner table, is the essence of cultured behaviour. If, as is sometimes thought, civilisation has a pinnacle, surely it has a chilled apéro carefully balanced on top.

The received wisdom is that the French and Italians, with their apéritifs and aperitivos, are the experts in these kinds of drinks. Certainly the latter are partial to their Aperol spritzes, and the former to such horrid, wine-based tipples as Lillet and Dubonnet. But the English are good at gin and the Americans invented the Martini. As for Spain, tapas were originally snacks atop a covering that kept the flies out of one’s pre-dinner drink: tapa means lid.

Everywhere, it seems, as evening approaches, people crave a drink that in turn will make them salivate: bitterness, the experts tell us, prepares the mouth to welcome food. The word “bitter” may come from “bite”, in which case the aperitif’s place before dinner is assured.

I like to think that a good one enables the drinker to drown all sour feelings, and go in to dinner cleansed and purified. Fanciful, perhaps. But what better lure to fancy than a beverage that exists only to bring on the evening’s pleasures?

Nina Caplan is the Louis Roederer Pio Cesare Food and Wine Writer of the Year

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times