Grilled: Kate Hawkings

We talk to this nationally celebrated drinks guru about the rise of low-alcohol drinks, why retro sips are making a comeback, and which local joints she heads to for that perfect aperitif…

Aperitifs occupy a particular niche in drinking land, writes Kate Hawkings in her timely and engaging new book, Aperitif.  Cocktails are all well and good in the drinker’s repertoire, but the aperitif suggests something lighter, something to tickle one’s fancy without wrestling one’s taste buds and sobriety into submission. There’s a trend towards drinking lighter alcohol and less of it, and the aperitif vibe fits this bill perfectly.

Released in June, this guide to the culture, rituals and drinks that govern the world of the aperitif has seen Kate add ‘author’ to her index of occupations, including restaurateur, columnist and wine consultant. Safe to say, then, that the nine-to-five life has pretty much entirely evaded her: instead of under the fluorescent strip lights of an office, you’ll more likely see her beneath the dim wall lamps of bars, tasting wines and building menus; her commute is to a different destination each day – often not in Bristol or, indeed, the UK; and instead of tied to a desk surrounded by filing cabinets, you’ve got a better chance of finding her with a laptop in small-plate restaurant Bellita, which she co-owns.  

Good food and drink has always permeated Kate’s life, and the moment she first dipped her toe in the hospitality pool, she knew where she wanted to be. 

“I come from a family who ate and drank well,” she tells us. “And I ended up waitressing in London when I was a student – about 400 years ago! I came back to Bristol in 1989 and worked at the (in)famous Rocinantes tapas bar on Whiteladies Road. I loved the whole world of restaurants; it was such good fun and such a pleasure to make people happy serving great food and drink. I was hooked.”  

Still in the business of eliciting smiles through mood-enhancing refreshments – albeit not by way of the front of house profession any more – Kate works with restaurants as a wine consultant, to make sure their drinks are punching as high as their food. Safe to say, then, she knows her way around a wine list, and explains why a great one is so challenging to create. 

“It should be short, but long enough to give real choice; interesting, but not scary; affordably priced, but not cheap and nasty,” she says. “It’s a real balancing act.” 

Of course, keeping her finger on the pulse of new trends and growing markets in the wine world is all part of the job, so we couldn’t resist asking what we should be keeping our beady eyes on right now.

“Natural wines are continuing to pique the interest, and not just among hipsters. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to source quality wines at affordable prices from Europe – just one consequence of the catastrophe that is Brexit – so look out for wines from countries such as Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria, where production costs are low and quality is rapidly improving.” 

Indeed, though, it ain’t all about the vino. As the cocktail scene improves, craft spirits continue to multiply and people become more experimental, other thirst-quenchers are coming into play at restaurants – and at home. 

“I think aperitifs are where the action is happening – think of the rise of vermouths and the like. They’re drinks to begin with, to kick off a meal, and are really best appreciated alone, or perhaps with a crisp or a twiglet. 

“[Aperitifs] became associated with 1970s naffness as wine and beer became more popular, and ended up gathering dust at the back of the cupboard. Although they are often used in cocktails, it’s only recently that people are starting to appreciate them for what they are in themselves.  

“The trend for ‘drink less, drink better’ is also a factor in their growing popularity, I think – they contain around half the alcohol of spirits. Although, it could be argued that you’d generally drink around twice as much vermouth as, say, a gin – so they’re not as pure as they seem!   

“Bartenders also tend to lead trends in drinking, and many of those I know are really into vermouths now – not only in cocktails, but as standalone drinks. 

“Could it be that we are finally moving on from gin? Having said that, a gin and tonic is quite definitely an aperitif.” 

So aperitifs – straight up or mixed into classic pre-dinner concoctions like Spritzs and Negronis – have officially been promoted from the dark, dusty back row of the drinks cabinet. And with them have emerged their fascinating stories and customs, too. Hence, this handsome new hardback. 

“I wanted to open people’s eyes to the concept of the aperitif, as something to mark the end of the day and to enjoy before eating,” Kate says. “A cocktail may be an aperitif, but not all aperitifs are cocktails. If I want a good cocktail I go out to a good bar; aperitifs, for me, are more about simple things you can knock up at home. 

“It seems so very civilised as a ritual. The drinks are so delicious, and fortified things like vermouths last for ages once they’re open.” 

Although the book of course includes recipes, it’s largely about the context of the aperitif – think trends, history, tradition and ingredients – and covers everything from the kind of glass to drink from to the way the custom came about in the first place.  

“[I researched] loads and loads. I love a bit of history to put things in perspective, and so many of these drinks have great stories.”

The most surprising thing Kate learned during said research?  

“That James Dyson owns more land in England than the queen, and is the biggest potato farmer in Europe. It came up when I was researching vodka.”

Aperitifs are huge on mainland Europe. And, although you won’t necessarily find British work-finishers rushing to their local bar for a 6pm Aperol Spritz, we do have our own version of the custom here. It’s just called “going down the pub,” Kate points out.

 “We’ve still got a way to go, but things are changing.”   

Aperitif: A Spirited Guide to the Drinks, History and Culture of the Aperitif by Kate Hawkings (Quadrille, £16.99); photography by Sarah Hogan