If you’ve ever been glancing through the drinks menu in a restaurant – or have been in a traditional French/Italian restaurant – then chances are you’ve have thought the question “what are aperitifs and digestifs?”
These terms will usually have their own section on the drinks menu, but they are not just to provide a particular offering like a starter or a side dish.
Aperitifs and digestifs each have a very specific purpose and when you order a drink from either of these menus, it would be best to have an understanding of what exactly you are ordering and why you are ordering it!
For this reason, we’re going to cover below exactly what an aperitif and digestif are, what the difference is between the two, and what the different types are – some of which you might find to be very familiar…
What Are Aperitifs?
An aperitif (French) or aperitivo (Italian) are both derived from the Latin word “aperire” meaning ‘to open’. An aperitif is therefore an alcoholic drink to be consumed before a meal.
The main purpose of an aperitif drink or cocktail is to prepare and stimulate your palate and stomach before food.
It’s used to inspire thirst and hunger and is often a light/refreshing drink that won’t sit heavily on the stomach or taste buds. As the name suggests, an aperitif can therefore be paired with an appetizer during a meal to prepare your palate and stomach before consuming the main course.
They are often a dry alcoholic drink (though some can be sweet) and come with a relatively low ABV.
The reason that these drinks are dry, instead of sweet, is because dry or salty drinks – like a Dirty Martini – will stimulate appetite and hunger. Sweet and sugary drinks can actually be an appetite suppressant which is not what you want before a meal!
What Are Digestifs?
A digestif (French) or digestivi (Italian) are again both derived from the Latin “digestivus” and it essentially means something to aid digestion. A digestif is therefore an alcoholic after-dinner drink that is used to aid digestion, or it can be used in place of a dessert.
For those based in the UK, you’ll most likely be familiar with digestives (in particular digestive biscuits) which originated in Scotland as a medicinal food to aid digestion.
A digestif is essentially the alcoholic/liquid version that is most popular around Europe… Unlike the McVitie’s digestives!
A digestif is a stronger drink in terms of alcohol content and is often quite bitter or bitter-sweet. A digestif is often considered to be in the same bracket as a dessert-style cocktail, however, the two are very different…
A digestif doesn’t have any of the ingredients or characteristics you’d usually associate with a dessert in terms of heavy creams, creamy liqueurs, or general sweet ingredients.
The reason being that on a full stomach and after some already sweet items, a sweet or heavy drink is the last thing people will want on an already full stomach!
Therefore, though a digestif can sometimes be sweet (like sweet vermouth), they are often more bitter and/or aromatic. This is the result of an infusion with herbs or spices which are thought to aid digestion.
What’s the Difference Between Aperitifs and Digestifs?
The main difference between an aperitif and digestif is when they should be consumed. An aperitif is a drink you’d consume before eating. It’s not something you would use to “cleanse” your palate but rather one you’d have to prepare your palate before eating a meal.
A digestif on the other hand will typically be consumed after the main meal (before dessert), in place of a dessert, or after a dessert.
When looking into the specifics, an aperitif is dry and low in alcohol. This, as mentioned earlier, is to stimulate your appetite and prepare your palate for a meal.
While we mentioned a dry drink is used to stimulate your appetite, the low alcohol content is also used so as to not dull the taste buds or get you overly drunk before your food (which your party and other guests at the restaurant would likely not appreciate).
A digestif on the other hand is a drink with higher alcohol content and is more bitter to the taste – though some digestifs can be sweet. Digestifs are used to aid digestion and are more palatable after food on a full stomach.
Another difference between the two is preparation and pour.
Most aperitifs can be mixed with other ingredients and are usually consumed with light, salty snacks like olives and nuts to build up an appetite. Digestifs, as a result of when they are consumed, are not often consumed with food and are also rarely mixed with other ingredients or as a cocktail.
Most digestifs are simply poured and will already have aromatic textures and a strong flavour profile like a cognac or fortified wine.
What Are Popular Types of Aperitifs?
An aperitif as mentioned earlier can both be an alcoholic drink that can be consumed on its own or can be the main ingredient in an aperitif cocktail.
The best (or most well-known) example of an aperitif is Campari. You can drink Campari as a regular drink over ice, you can mix it with some soda, or what most will know Campari for is being one of the key ingredients in a Negroni alongside vermouth and gin.
As above, another popular aperitif is vermouth. Vermouth is classed as an aperitif wine (though it is also included in some aperitif cocktails like Negroni) though you can just consider it to be a wine consumed before a meal as an appetite stimulant.
A final popular aperitif is Aperol. Aperol is a sweet and fruity liqueur that can be served neat over ice or with some soda water.
Something most people won’t be aware of either is one of the most popular cocktails to make a comeback in recent years – the Aperol Spritz – is also considered to be an aperitif as its main ingredient is of course Aperol.
Finally, while not considered to be an “aperitif” as such, dry white wine is often a go-to option as an aperitif – especially in Italy and other parts of Europe – and has all the characteristics that make for a good aperitif.
A running theme that you might start to notice with an aperitif then is that many are low in alcohol between 10% – 20%.
This is an ABV that’s typical in a liqueur range so that they won’t feel heavy on your palate before food. You’ll also notice that the aperitifs are mainly consumed with soda or neat over ice (if not in a cocktail) meaning they are usually light and refreshing drinks.
What are Popular Types of Digestifs?
When it comes to digestifs, the most popular types you are likely to come across are fortified wines like sweet sherry, brandy (particular cognac), or even a tequila or mezcal.
When considering Campari and Aperol are widely known drinks/ingredients, there are also a few well-known drinks (though to a lesser extent) that are synonymous with digestifs. These are Amaro and Cynar.
Amaro is an Italian herbal liqueur that is bitter-sweet while Cynar is a variation of an Amaro, so again it’s a herbal liqueur that has a bitter-sweet taste.
As mentioned earlier, these digestifs are usually consumed on their own and rarely mixed to create a cocktail, though there are some well-known cocktails that are consumed as a digestif like:
What Are Aperitifs and Digestifs: Final Thoughts
While aperitifs and digestifs are not really that popular in the US, Canada, or the UK, they are often considered to be a natural part of a dining experience in most of Europe (particularly France and Italy).
Therefore, if you ever dine in a European-inspired restaurant, chances are you’ll be faced with an aperitif and digestif section on the drinks menu.
With this in mind, the key takeaway from this article should be that an aperitif is a before-dinner drink mainly consumed to stimulate an appetite and prepare your palate and stomach for the meal to come. A digestif is an after-dinner drink used primarily to aid digestion.
If we’re honest, an aperitif and digestif is simply a classier way of drinking around before and after dinner and is great for those that want a complete “European” dining experience.