Anyone who sits down for a full-course meal in an upscale restaurant may hear the words aperitif and digestif being thrown around by wait staff, but may not understand what they mean.
An aperitif is an alcoholic drink taken before a meal to encourage your appetite, while a digestif is an alcoholic drink taken after a meal to encourage good digestion.
Both aperitifs and digestifs use many different drinks, cocktails, and blends to achieve their effects. This article will go over the differences between these two drinks, what some of those drinks are, and how they work in your body to stimulate either your appetite or your digestion
What is an Aperitif?
An aperitif is any drink designed to stimulate someone’s appetite and sense of taste before a meal. This encourages the drinker to eat more and increases the quality of each bite by making the natural flavors of the food stand out more. Aperitifs are generally dry, with a very low alcohol content, each of these factors contributing to the effects of the wine.
Aperitif’s are dry because ingesting sugar limits our appetite and makes us feel fuller, faster, since it is a carbohydrate and our bodies naturally try to conserve this type of food. The wines are often low acid creating the perception of sweetness, because this leaves a pleasant, but not overpowering taste in the mouth that whets the appetite without ruining the taste of the meal.
As for the low alcohol content, it is important not to dull your senses before a meal or make yourself sick. Strong alcohol dulls your sense of smell and taste, which is why highly alcoholic wines need bold flavors to overcome this effect. Alcohol can also fill you up and, in high enough quantities, make you sick to your stomach, so a low alcohol content is essential to aperitifs.
Some aperitifs are blended, fortified, diluted, or mixed into a cocktail to preserve the appetite-enhancing qualities of the drink while limiting the potentially numbing effects of alcohol. These mixed aperitifs are designed to balance the qualities of their components to ensure they stimulate your appetite instead of stunting it.
As an interesting side note, the word “aperitif” does not actually come from “appetite”, instead coming from the Latin word “aperire”, meaning “to open”. The earliest use of the term comes from a 5th century Greek Saint named Diadochos, meaning these drinks have existed in some form since the fall of the Roman Empire.
The purpose, properties, and origins of the Aperitif are vastly different compared to digestifs, which are explained in further detail below.
What is a Digestif?
A digestif is a drink designed to settle one’s stomach after a meal and help with the digestion of food. This helps reduce discomfort after a meal and ensures the drinker is getting the most out of their food. As opposed to aperitifs, digestifs are usually bitter drinks with a high alcohol content, often mixed with herbs and spices designed to help digestion.
The bitter taste of the drink discourages the appetite and helps stop the drinker from eating more than they want to. Some digestifs may even contain additional, bitter ingredients such as orange peel zest to enhance this effect.
The high alcohol content has two effects on digestion that help in this instance. First they make you feel fuller which encourages you to eat less, helping you digest the food you’ve already eaten. Secondly, alcohol helps your body release enzymes that break down both food and alcohol faster for better digestion.
Some digestifs also contain herbs known as bitters and carminatives, both of which can help with digestions. Bitters such as cascarilla and cinchona bark help digestion by encouraging the formation of enzymes in the gut. Carminatives, on the other hand, prevent gas from building up in the digestive tract to stop gas and bloating.
While the term digestif is fairly recent, the concept of using bitters, carminatives, and alcohol to relieve digestive problems dates back centuries. Mixing herbs with wine to create digestive medicine dates back to ancient Egypt, thousands of years before Rome.
The bitter flavor, high alcohol content, and almost medicinal qualities of digestifs are a sharp contrast to the sweet, dry flavors of low-alcohol aperitifs.
Examples of Aperitif and Digestif Wine
Since both aperitifs and digestifs have different qualities and goals, they largely apply to different types of wine. As a general rule, aperitifs are generally dry, and low alcohol while digestif wines are bitter with a high alcohol content, sometimes supplemented with mixed herbs and spices.
Good aperitif wines are generally fortified or dry white wines, since these embody the traits needed for an aperitif. An example of a wine in this category is amontillado, which is dry with a lower alcohol content. If you are looking for a white wine look for the driest, lightest forms you can find such as Champagne.
Digestif wines tend to be bitter, although they can also be fortified as long as they have a high alcohol content. Port is a fortified wine that works better as a digestif than an aperitif, while other strong wines like brandy work as excellent digestifs. If you are not interested in brandy or fortified wine, look for tannic red wines like Merlot.
There are some wines that, depending on their specific qualities and brands, can work as both aperitifs and digestifs. These are generally fortified wines such as sherry, vermouth, and madeira, all of which balance sweetness and dryness with a high alcohol content. If you want to bookend your meal with the same wine as you started, consider one of these fortified brews.
Although there are some wines that can pull double duty as aperitifs and digestifs, there are many key differences in what types of wine work in each position.
When and How to Serve Aperitif and Digestif
While there are no set-in-stone rules regarding when and how to serve aperitif and digestif wines, there are a few tips that can help maximize the effect of these wines at a meal. If you are attending or throwing a party consider following these steps to get the most out of your before and after dinner drinks.
Aperitifs should be taken around half an hour to an hour before eating to let to let their natural properties take effect. Serve small portions of aperitif with equally small portions of dry snacks such as pretzels, crackers, and other appetizers. This will help keep guests happy while the aperitif does its work.
Digestifs, on the other hand, have less to do with timing and more to do with atmosphere and tone. After dinner, prepare glasses of digestif wine and try to engage in calm, civil conversation. Keep the mood in the room relaxed and so that the digestif can work without upset stomachs or strenuous activities to throw them off.
Aperitifs more formalized rules and need for long term planning are different from the less formal, more social rules that surrounding digestifs.
It can be confusing, even for a wine enthusiast, to sit in a high-class restaurant and hear about aperitifs and digestif drink choices.
Remember that aperitifs are wines designed to stimulate the appetite and prepare you for the meal ahead, while digestif wines encourage good digestion and help settle your stomach after a meal. These are the main difference between aperitifs and digestifs.