101 Series-A Beginner’s Guide to Aperitifs

Aperitifs 101One of my favorite parts of living in Paris is the culture of aperitifs. There’s nothing like an Aperol spritz or a glass of vermouth to signal the end of the workday and get you in the mood for a meal! But for the uninitiated, the idea of “apéro” can be somewhat confusing. What exactly counts as an aperitif? How are you supposed to drink it? What are the different aperitifs common in other parts of the world? Here I set out to answer all these questions and more!  

Orange SlicesWhat’s in a name? 

The French word apéritif (and its Italian counterpart, aperitivo) comes from the Latin word aperire, meaning “to open.” The idea of an aperitif is to open your palate to prepare you for your meal, hence the name. Because they are served before the main course, aperitifs tend to be dry rather than sweet. Their relatively low alcohol content makes them perfect for starting the night off since they are easy on the stomach and help stimulate the appetite.

Aperitifs before an evening outAperitifs tend to be lower than 20% ABV with bright, aromatic, and often bitter flavors, often with herbal ingredients or flavors. These medicinal herbs are thought to help stimulate the digestive tract while their bitter taste boosts hunger, having the combined effect of making the meal to come more enjoyable. Plus, the typically low alcohol content of aperitifs makes them an excellent choice for starting the night, so you won’t get too tipsy before your meal arrives!

A bit of history

In 1796, a man named Antonio Carpano created the first recipe for vermouth, ushering in the culture of aperitivi in Italy’s most fashionable cafes. A few years later, Joseph Noilly created his version of the Italian fortified wine, opting for white rather than red to create the uniquely French dry vermouth. The widespread popularity of aperitifs in Europe in the late 19th century traveled across the pond to the United States. Here they became commonplace, particularly in cocktails in the form of “happy hour” drinks. In turn, the popularity of serving food with drinks in the US influenced aperitivo culture in Italy, where food became an essential part of the practice. Today, aperitif culture is alive and well in Europe. Many French and Italian aperitif staples have grown significantly in popularity in other parts of the world.

Drinking around the worldTypical aperitifs around the world

One of the great things about aperitifs is that there are so many different kinds to choose from! Many countries have their own specialties, and because the aperitif is a category rather than one type of drink, you’re not likely to get bored. There are some different styles of aperitifs that you should be familiar with, though. Here are the most notable:

Hanging grapes on the vines in wine countryFortified Wine

Fortified wines like sherry and dry Madeira are made by–you guessed it–fortifying wine with a spirit to give it a more complex flavor and a higher ABV. The wines are fortified with brandy after fermentation and are usually aged. Sherry is a popular aperitif in Spain, and you can sample a wide range of varieties at one of Hemmingway’s favorite haunts, La Venencia in Madrid. 

Dubonnet apertifAromatized Wine

Aromatized wines start with a base of fortified wine infused with a blend of herbs, spices, and other flavorings. Both red and white vermouth are examples of this category. However, red vermouth is strongly associated with Italy, where it was created, and white or dry vermouth is more typically French. Martini & Rossi and Noilly Prat are two of the best-known producers, though several specialty brands are on the market. Lillet Blanc, Dubonnet, Punt e Mes, and Quinquina are other popular types of aromatized wines to keep an eye out for.

Bitters/Herbal Liqueurs 

Aperitif liqueurs come in a wide range of styles, from very low proof to stronger versions known as “Amari” in Italy. Made by infusing wine or spirits with herbs, spices, citrus, roots, or other ingredients and adding a bit of sugar to make the drinks more palatable, Aperol, Campari, and Luxardo Bitter are prime examples of this category.  Le Charlot is my favorite cafe in Paris for an excellent pre-dinner spritz.

Ruffino Prosecco drinks at the beachSparkling Wine

Of course, you already know what my favorite type of aperitif is–Champagne! Nothing epitomizes a good aperitif’s light, refreshing nature like a glass of bubbly. Keep it dry and crisp for the perfect precursor to your meal. Prosecco and Cava are also excellent choices, especially if you are looking for a sparkling wine that is more wallet-friendly. 

Ouzo AperitifEnjoying Aperitifs at the beach in GreeceSpirits

In addition to the many kinds of wine and liqueurs that make for a good aperitif, many regions have their specialty spirits for a pre-meal libation. In the South of France, pastis is a popular one. The anise-flavored spirit is usually mixed with some water since the flavor can be relatively strong on its own. And, if you’ve ever been to Greece, you’ll know ouzo, another dry, anise-flavored spirit. Ouzo will for sure get your even starting with a bang! 

Relaxing with a Ricard PastisHow to drink

In Europe, it is more traditional to drink aperitifs straight, either chilled (like sherry) or with a bit of ice (best for vermouth and bitter liqueurs). Cocktails are the game’s name in the States, though–think Negroni or Aperol spritz. But an aperitif doesn’t have to be fancy–even a simple glass of dry white wine can be an excellent aperitif in a pinch. I hope this article gave you some insight into the beautiful world of aperitifs. Stay tuned for a breakdown of digestifs in an upcoming article!

Eileen Callahan of Champagne Travels relaxing with an Aperitif

Check out Cognac 101 and Digestifs 101, and Cheers around the world here.