A few months before the pandemic hit,  we journeyed to South Africa to celebrate Carol’s retirement (30 years as a classroom teacher in Berkeley!). 

There, we discovered many things that were wondrous, wonderful, and amazing – including an aperitif called Caperitif.

We bought a bottle, liked it very much, and consumed it on the rocks over a few days.   End of story.   Actually, no – as Adi Badenhorst’s marvel is available in the US, and we’ve brought in a few bottles in each shop.  

By the end of the 20th century, Caperitif had become a ghost ingredient in classic cocktail recipes. What was this mysterious ‘Cape Aperitif’ that was referenced in the Savoy Cocktail Book, that classic cocktail bible from the early 20th century??

This question asked by an adventurous Danish mixologist led to a meeting with Adi Badenhorst, a maverick South African vigneron,  and the rebirth of South Africa’s once-famous vermouth.

Caperitif is a fortified and aromatized wine similar to vermouth, made bitter with cinchona bark, a major ingredient in tonic water. Like its European cousins Lillet and quinquina, it’s a near-perfect aperitif – at once deeply fruity and herbal, sweet and bitter but not too, with aromas of citrus, cola and tea.

Badenhorst and crew forage a diverse and unusual array of native plants, everything from geraniums, calamus (illegal in the U.S., and omitted from our imported version), African wormwood, and agathosma, to figs, Satsuma mandarins (or naartjies in Afrikaans), cape gooseberries and dates, then steep them with Chenin Blanc in big gorgeous glass demijohns.

The rich tangerine hue and complex flavor derive chiefly from blending these distinctive local botanicals, fruits, herbs, flowers, and what South Africans refer to as fynbos, shrubbery native to the region.  

To consume Caperitif at its best, try it on the rocks, garnished perhaps with a twist of orange, or a sprig of fynbos, if you have some lying around. Badenhorst particularly likes it mixed with tonic and recently started making Swaan tonic water infused with the local quinine, lime, cardamom and mint — it’s only available in South Africa at the moment. Combine 1 part gin, 1 part Caperitif, top with your favorite tonic water, and toast the Swartland.


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