Cover Rosemary negroni (Photo: Edward Howell / Unsplash)

Learn about the two complementary beverage families and explore the many ways to enjoy them

As the delectable, boozy bookends to any repast (especially dinnertime), aperitifs and digestifs are longstanding European traditions that respectively open and close a meal. Learn more about the two beverage classifications, what distinguishes them, and how to enjoy them, below:

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Aperitifs

Also known as apéritif (French), apéro (French colloquial), aperitivo (Italian and Spanish)

As its name suggests, aperitifs are thought to arouse an appetite and are traditionally enjoyed before a meal or alongside canapés. This family of beverages includes liquors, liqueurs, and wines that whet the drinker’s appetite, as well as the cocktails that implement these ingredients. For example, gin, Campari, and vermouth are all considered to be aperitifs on their own, and so it follows that a negroni, which is made of the three spirits, is also treated as an aperitif.

Many characteristics may warrant a beverage to be an aperitif. Bitterness and botanical notes are central themes, profiles easily discernible in Italian aperitivi like Campari, Aperol, Cynar, as well as French apéritifs like Suze, Lillet, and dry vermouth. 

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To counterbalance the distinct bitterness imparted by herbs and other botanicals in these spirits, a pronounced sweetness is sometimes added, resulting in a saccharine aperitif with comparably understated bitter notes—take pastis, sweet vermouth, and amaretto, for example.

Additionally, many dry wines are also considered to be aperitifs. Think sparkling wines like Prosecco, Champagne, and Cava, as well as dry rosés, and again, some wine-based aperitifs such as Lillet and vermouth.

While you may enjoy most aperitifs neat, on the rocks, topped off with some soda water or tonic water if you’re after more bitterness, you might like to explore some aperitif cocktails as well. Classic concoctions include the aforementioned negroni, white negroni (gin, Lillet, Suze), Aperol spritz (Aperol, Prosseco, and soda water), martini (gin and dry vermouth), and French 75 (Champagne, gin, lemon juice).

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Digestifs

Also known as digestivo (Italian and Spanish).

Conversely, digestifs are beverages often consumed at the end of a meal, to aid with digestion after a hearty feast—best enjoyed alongside your dessert, or shortly after. Like aperitifs, the family of digestifs encompass liquors, liqueurs, and wine. However, digestif cocktails are far less common. Another key point of difference is that digestifs tend to be more full-bodied, with a richer flavour and higher alcohol content to boot.

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Fortified wines like port and sherry are popular nightcap picks, as well as dessert wines, whiskey, cognac, grappa, Amaro, and limoncello, all of which are typically consumed straight (at most, with some ice, depending on the beverage). In some cases, spirits with saccharine yet bitter and full-bodied natures are commonly used as both an aperitif and digestif—sweet vermouth is a prime example. Although not alcoholic, coffee is also frequently consumed as a digestif, and may be spiked with alcohol (e.g. Frangelico hazelnut liqueur, Irish whiskey for an Irish coffee) to produce somewhat of a cocktail.

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