Aperitifs 101


If you’ve ever enjoyed a glass of sherry, vermouth or Aperol before a meal, you’re probably familiar with the term aperitif. Derived from the Latin term aperire meaning “to open,” aperitifs let you sip away the pre-dinner hour without getting totally sloshed and prep you for a feast at the same time. The typically low-ABV drinks are easy on the stomach and help stimulate the appetite, readying the drinker for the indulgence to come. Aperitifs are partner to digestifs, a typically richer, more potent drink that’s consumed after a meal to aid digestion.

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. However, pastis, Calvados, Greek ouzo and cocktails like the Negroni will also do the trick. An aperitif can also be as simple as a dry glass of wine or bubbly.

The ritual of enjoying a pre-meal aperitif is not ubiquitous in the U.S. like it is in Europe—particularly in Italy, where it’s known as an aperitivo, and France—but many craft cocktail bars are working to change that. At the same time, trends like low-ABV cocktails are helping boost the popularity of aperitifs in America. Learn about pre-dinner drinks now to be ahead of their eventual invasion into the U.S.

The History of Aperitifs

Though there’s no definite evidence of aperitifs’ birthplace, some say the practice dates back to the Old Testament days of ancient Egypt. However, aperitifs as we know them now were more likely born out of medicinal spirits created in the 16th century. (Wouldn’t it be nice if all you had to do to cure a stomach ache or cold was drink some vermouth? Much tastier than Pepto.) These potions were made by infusing liquor with a blend of herbs, spices, roots and other additives. Eventually, people realized they were completely ineffective, but because they tasted so good, people drank them anyway, serving the infused spirits as a precursor to meals.

During the 1800s, more and more companies began producing aperitifs for commercial consumption. Some of the first included Italy’s Antonio Carpano of Carpano Antica, who is credited with developing the first recipe for vermouth in 1796, as well as Gaspare Campari of Campari fame and the Cinzano family, another vermouth producer.

The commercial aperitif was introduced in France by Parisian chemist and wine merchant Joseph Dubonnet when he created a formula to make quinine more palatable for soldiers fighting off malaria in North Africa. It was so tasty it was soon adopted as an aperitif, served over ice or with soda water, as many liqueurs and aromatized wines often were. Today, Dubonnet is still a commonly used ingredient in cocktail bars around the globe.

In 1919, perhaps one of today’s most popular aperitif cocktails was born when Count Camillo Negroni asked for a stronger version of his favorite cocktail, the Americano, at a bar in Florence.

Aperitif culture continued to grow into the 20th century in Europe. In 1919, perhaps one of today’s most popular aperitif cocktails was born when Count Camillo Negroni asked for a stronger version of his favorite cocktail, the Americano, at a bar in Florence. The bartender swapped out the usual soda water for gin and the Negroni was born. Beware: The cocktail is far more potent than most aperitifs — so watch out for these on an empty stomach.

How Are Aperitifs Made?

Aperitifs are one of the most diverse categories of drinks out there, including fortified wines like sherries, aromatized wines like vermouths, liqueurs and a number of other drinks. For that reason, there’s no general method of production; the processes are as diverse as the styles and flavors of the category.

Where Are Aperitifs Made?

Aperitifs hail from around the world, explaining, in part, why the category varies so much in flavor and style. The pre-meal drinks are especially popular in France and Italy, where they’ve been made for nearly two centuries.

Italian aperitivi include everything from Prosecco and bitter liqueurs like Campari, Aperol and Luxardo Bitter to vermouths like Cinzano, Carpano Antica and Punt e Mes. In France, aperitif culture has rivaled that of Italy since the 1800s. Like Italy, the country also produces vermouth, but adds to its aperitif roster with anise-flavored drinks like pastis, as well as calvados, Champagne and aromatized wine like Lillet.

Throughout the rest of Europe, aperitifs vary even more widely by country and region. Sherry reigns in Spain, where it’s made in the southern Andalucia region. And in Greece, ouzo, which is flavored with anise and traditionally mixed with water, similar to absinthe, is the popular choice. Aperitifs like vermouth and bitter liqueurs are also made in the United States and in other countries, often highlighting local ingredients in their infusions.

How Do Aperitifs Stimulate Appetite?

Aperitifs are designed to get you ready for a meal, so they tend to be light and dry to avoid filling you up. Many are relatively low in alcohol so that you won’t get too drunk on an empty stomach before dinner (though there are plenty of full-proof options for those who prefer a decent buzz), but provide enough alcohol to give you a hankering for food.  

Some aperitifs are packed with herbs and spices giving them a bitter taste (that’s usually balanced with sweeter notes), but this complex flavor isn’t just because some old Europeans thought the dry, vegetal and bitter flavors tasted good. The included medicinal herbs are thought to stimulate your digestive tract and get your stomach juices flowing, while bitter flavors boost hunger. As any lover of bar food knows, a little booze also heightens the sensations of eating, so an aperitif also makes the meal to come more enjoyable.  

Aperitif Styles

Bitters and Herbal Liqueurs: Aperitif liqueurs come in a range of styles. Some are super low-proof varieties, while others, also known as amari in Italy, pack nearly twice the punch and bitterness. The recipes for a vast majority of these are kept under lock and key; only a select few people in the world are privy to the minute details of their processes. Most, however, are made by infusing wine or spirits with herbs, roots, spices, citrus and other ingredients, and then adding sweetener to make them palatable. Examples: Campari, Aperol, Luxardo Bitter.

Fortified Wine: This style of aperitif is made by fortifying wine with a spirit to give it a richer flavor and more of a punch. These wines are most often fortified with brandy after fermentation, and they can be aged. For instance, sherry is aged using the solera process, in which fractional blending is used to mix various ages of the fortified wine over time to achieve the perfect blend. Examples: Fino and Manzanilla sherries, dry Madeira.

Aromatized Wine: Starting with a base of fortified wine, aromatized wines—a category that includes both dry and sweet vermouth—are infused with a blend of spices, herbs and other flavorings. Examples: Lillet Blanc, Bonal, Dubonnet, Cocchi Americano, Punt e Mes, Carpano Antica, Quinquina.

Sparkling Wine: The idea behind the aperitif is to keep things light and refreshing, taking it slow until your meal begins. There’s hardly a better way to do that than with a dry, crisp, sparkling wine. Examples: Champagne, Cava and Prosecco.

How Do I Drink Aperitifs Straight?

Most aperitifs are best drunk straight. Vermouth and bitter liqueurs are best served over ice, while fortified and aromatized wines are best when chilled. Pastis and ouzo are often paired with water to dilute their intense anise flavors.

Notable Aperitif Cocktails

Americano: Though renamed for the Americans who grew fond of the drink, the Americano (originally the Milano-Torino) hails from 19th-century Italy, making it an old school, tried and true classic cocktail. A refreshingly bubbly drink, the Highball is made of Campari (for a bitter twinge), sweet vermouth (for sweet, tannic flavor) and soda.

Negroni: The Negroni sprung out of the lower-proof Americano (it was originally ordered as a stronger version of that spirtzy Highball), and went on to become the most famous aperitif cocktail of the day. An equal-parts cocktail made with gin, Campari and sweet vermouth, the Negroni is a serious, stirred pre-dinner cocktail. Unlike the Americano, which lengthens the bitter Campari with soda, the Negroni leans hard into the bitter profile.

Negroni Sbagliato: One of the countless variations on a Negroni, the Negroni Sbagliato is made with Prosecco instead of gin, and sits somewhere between a Negroni and Americano.

Aperol Spritz: This light and refreshing cocktail is traditionally made from a mix of bright red bitter Italian liqueur Aperol topped with Prosecco and soda water, then garnished with a slice of orange.

Bellini: Often served as a cloyingly sweet brunch cocktail in the U.S., the traditional Bellini was invented in Venice and is a simple blend of fresh peach puree and Prosecco.

Aperitifs in Culture

In the film Groundhog Day, Phil (Bill Murray) is forced to repeat the same day over and over again. In one recurring scene, he takes Rita (Andie MacDowell) to a bar where she orders sweet vermouth on the rocks with a twist, and talks about how the aperitif reminds her of Rome. Though Phil hates the drink, on the following repeat days he orders the drink before Rita has the chance to, impressing her with a similar story of the beauty of Rome.

On more than one occasion on PBS’ hit series Downton Abbey, the Grantham family can be seen enjoying aperitifs in the parlour (or wherever it is one enjoys aperitifs). Often these drinking sessions seem to involve cocktails, though we don’t know which ones in particular. One thing is certain: The family and their guests drink well.

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