What Is an Apéritif?

The Spirits, Wines, and Cocktails Designed to Be Enjoyed Before Dinner

Aperitifs are perfect for serving before a meal.

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An apéritif is a refreshing alcoholic drink that is served before a meal to stimulate the appetite. Sort of a liquid appetizer, apéritifs may be served to mingling guests during a dinner party (with or without food) or while preparing your own dinner on an average night. They are also an excellent way to unwind from the day. From Campari and Aperol to cocktails like the martini, apéritifs offer a delightful and flavorful drinking experience.

What Is an Apéritif?

The word apéritif (plural, apéritifs) is French, and its Italian counterpart is aperitivo (plural, aperitivi). They stem from the Latin "apierire," meaning "to open, or uncover." These short, often aromatic, drinks are designed to whet the appetite and prepare the palate and stomach for food and the taste sensations that come with it.

Apéritifs are very common in Europe, particularly in France and Italy. They're often served as parlor drinks before dinner. A full-course meal is not required, though. In some countries, it's also popular to meet friends after work to enjoy apéritifs, maybe with some light appetizers. Similar to the American happy hour, it's an opportunity to relax and slow down.

There are many types of apéritifs, though all favor a general taste profile:

  • Sugar tends to limit the amount of non-sugary foods that a person wants to eat, so apéritifs lean toward a drier, more bitter (or herbal) flavor.
  • The appetite is also diminished when there's too much alcohol in the system, and that is why apéritifs are often low-proof.
  • Apéritifs include wines and fortified wines, botanical or bitter spirits, and many are served with carbonated beverages.

Apéritif vs. Digestif

The opposite of an apéritif is a digestif, which is typically served at the end of a meal to aid digestion. While both styles of drink often include botanicals, the digestif tends to be more bitter and sweet with less acidity than the apéritif. Digestifs include brandy and amaros, and most have a higher alcohol content than the bitters and fortified wines that are more often enjoyed as apértifs.

Types of Apéritifs

The word aperitif refers to both a class of alcoholic beverages and the cocktails they're found in. It is a vast category that includes a great variety of styles. The only common ground is that they typically involve herbs or other ingredients that arouse the drinker's appetite.

Aperitifs are an age-old tradition and have been produced for centuries. Some of the most popular use a signature recipe that has been used for a century or more or is proprietary and held under a single brand name.

  • Amer Picon: This bittersweet French apéritif has a unique flavor dominated by orange with a dry finish.
  • Anise Spirits: From ouzo or pastis, anise-flavored spirits are popularly enjoyed as apéritifs.
  • Aperol: An Italian aperitivo, the orange flavor matches its bright orange color, though herbs and roots are included to give it a bitter twist. It's often enjoyed as an Aperol spritz.
  • Campari: Possibly the most famous apéritif, this red Italian spirit has a very distinct bitter profile and is used in cocktails like the famous Negroni.
  • Cynar: While it has an artichoke base, that is not the dominant flavor of this bitter herbal liqueur. It's often mixed with orange juice and topped with soda or tonic water.
  • Dry Wine: When in doubt, any still or sparkling dry wine makes an excellent apéritif.
  • Dubonnet: Available as Rouge (more popular) or Blanc, Dubonnet is a proprietary fortified wine flavored with "herbs, spices, and peels." It includes quinine, which gives it a drier profile than vermouth.
  • Gin: The botanicals found in gin make it the ideal hard liquor for apéritif cocktails, even if that's simply a gin and tonic.
  • Lillet: This apéritif brand produces Blanc, Rosé, and Rouge. It's also similar to vermouth, though the proprietary recipes give them a distinct taste. Lillet Blanc is the best-known and was originally Kina Lillet, which included quinine.
  • Pimm's: One of those liqueurs that can serve as an apéritif or digestif, Pimm's is sweet with an herbal-spice flavor accented by caramelized orange. Before dinner, a Pimm's Cup with sparkling lemonade is a refreshing choice.
  • Sherry: Light-bodied sherries, such as fino and Manzanilla, are dry and fresh, making them excellent apéritifs.
  • Vermouth: Dry vermouth is most associated with apéritifs, though sweet vermouth can work before or after dinner. Enjoy them in cocktails, or chilled or on the rocks with a dash of bitters.

How to Drink Apéritifs

Any of the common apéritifs can be served on their own. Often poured into a snifter or small cordial glass that accentuates the aromatics, many are best when chilled. Pouring them over ice will soften the flavor and open up the aromas. Many people prefer to drink apéritifs 30 to 60 minutes before eating.

It's also common to top apéritifs with a little soda, making the drink as tall as you like. Great examples of these drinks are the Aperol spritz and Campari and soda. Since it includes quinine, which makes it drier, tonic water is an excellent option when you want a fizzy apéritif.

Aperitif Cocktails

When a cocktail includes one of the apéritifs, you can be assured that it will make an excellent before-dinner drink. Campari and Aperol are often found in cocktail recipes, though others can make fascinating drinks. Any drink in the martini family that uses vermouth or sherry can easily qualify as an apéritif as well.