What is an Apéritif?

If you’ve ever been to a traditional French dinner party, you’re probably familiar with an aperitif. It’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like, kind of like an appetizer or aperitivo it’s something that people consume before their meal. However, it is quite different from these things, as it is meant to stimulate the appetite. It is actually available, upon request, at many high-end restaurants within the United States. Let’s dive into this international sensation.


The word “aperitif” comes from the Latin “aperire” which translates directly as "to open". It is a light, most often dry and only modestly alcoholic beverage meant to spark the appetite without overwhelming the senses. That is to say, something to prepare your taste buds for the meal that’s about to enlighten them.

No single type of drink is served solely as an aperitif, but most have a few key qualities in common, including a bitter or spiced flavor profile and a dry mouthfeel. Bitter liqueurs are common choices for the pre-meal drinks, as are fortified or aromatized wines, like sherry and vermouth, which we learned about last month. Not exactly a spirit, not exactly a wine, aperitifs are a happy medium of both.

At said traditional French parties, you’d see aperitifs being served with the famous d'oeuvres and amuse bouches. The word, “d’oeuvres” by the way translates to “openers” so they go hand in hand. You’re not supposed to fill up on aperitifs and d’oeuvres but that’s the American way.

A Brief History:

The first time the term “aperitif” appeared in ancient scriptures, was during the 5th century within the Christian culture. But herbal spirits and wines have long been used as a medicine dating as far back as ancient China and Greece. Somewhere in between that and the late 1700s people started drinking them and realized, “Hey these make a heck of a meal opener.”

The exact year was 1796, when Turin distiller Antonio Carpano invented modern vermouth. That can be considered the first aperitif, is it really any surprise? Italians and the French know a ton about good food, after all.

The aperitif was introduced in France in 1846 when a French chemist, Joseph Dubonnet, created his eponymous wine-based drink as a means of delivering malaria fighting quinine. The medicine was a bitter brew, so he developed a formula of herbs and spices to mask quinine's sharp flavor, and it worked so well that the recipe has remained well-guarded ever since. Dubonnet's wife was so fond of the drink that she had all her friends try it, and its popularity spread. You may know it better as the dry vermouth, the French cousin of Antonio’s sweet vermouth.

Apéritifs were already widespread in the 19th century in Italy, where they were being served in fashionable cafés in Rome, Genoa, Florence, Milan, Turin, and Venice. Soon individually a bunch of different types of aperitifs became popular throughout all of Europe. Apertifs made their way from Europe crossing the Atlantic and by 1900, and began being commonly served in America. That’s how drinks like Manhattan and Martini came about, debuting the term “cocktail” in the spirit world.

Aperitifs vs. Digestifs

As their names suggest, aperitifs and digestifs are meant to begin and end the meal, and they actually serve a purpose! As you already know, aperitifs are meant to stimulate our appetite, while digestifs do exactly what it is you most likely assume they’re supposed to do, help us digest the meal.

Because an apéritif is meant to stimulate the appetite, the drink should be very dry (low in sugar), since sugar actually limits our appetite, as well as low in alcohol, because no one wants to get sloshed before dinner. If you’re looking for a cocktail to start the night, a dry martini would be perfect, just don’t have too many, as the apéritif would lose its purpose of stimulating your appetite the more inebriated you’d become.

After the meal is over and you have a full stomach, it’s time for the digestif to shine, and this is where just a touch of sweetness and a higher alcohol percentage is welcomed, as the drink helps our bodies settle the meal and bring everything to a close. In the digestif arena, options abound, from smooth whiskey and bourbon to brandy, port, sherry, and liqueur.

We’ve taught a little about each different aperitif so we figured it best to let you know exactly what we’re discussing. So, get ready to learn more and yes, don’t worry we’ll be discussing digestifs very soon. Hope you’ve learned something or a lot of things, thanks for reading and as always…

Cheers from,

Happy Hour City