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The 5 Major Differences Between Aperitif and Digestif

Vicki Denig By Vicki Denig, Editor 03.03.2021
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Diving head-first into a big meal can wreak havoc on the stomach. Our solution? Do as the French do and kick the night off with a stimulating apéritif. 

Although less common in the States, the ritual of the apéritif (or apéro, in France) is sacred across most of Europe. This pre-dinner moment both creates the opportunity to gather around with friends and catch up, as well as helps prepare the body for a hearty meal ahead.

Additionally, ending your dinner on a high note is just as important. Enter the digestif. These small yet serious beverages are staples in European dining culture and are great ways to finish meals on a high note. Looking to learn more about these booze-soaked rituals? We’re breaking down the five major differences between apéritifs and digestifs, here.

Difference #1: Definition of Apéritif vs. Digestif

An apéritif is a pre-dinner alcoholic beverage consumed with the purpose of stimulating the palate and getting the body ready for a big meal ahead. Apéritifs are generally dry, though sweet versions exist. Apéritifs are commonly served with small hors d'oeuvres or finger foods, such as nuts, cheese, olives, or paté. In France, the practice of consuming this beverage and snack prior to dinner is commonly referred to as apéro. The word apéritif comes from aperire, the Latin verb for ‘to open.’

Digestifs are alcoholic beverages served after a meal to help settle the stomach and commence the digestion process. These beverages tend to be stronger in alcohol than apéritifs and are usually consumed neat. When served after coffee, digestifs are referred to as pousse-café. Bitter distillates, such as Italian amari and other liqueurs, are commonly served as digestifs, as their herb-heavy content is believed to help with the digestion process. 

Difference #2: History

The practices of consuming apéritifs and digestifs date back over 1,500 years. However, the apéritif (aperitivo) practice became common in Europe, specifically Italy, during the 1800s. Café culture in major Italian cities (Rome, Turin, and Genoa) are credited with making the ritual of the pre-dinner drink fashionable. In France, the practice became popularized during the mid-19th century, when local chemist Joseph Dubonnet crafted his eponymous quinine-based brew to fight malaria. To hide the quinine-driven flavors of the concoction, Dubonnet macerated a handful of herbs and spices into the blend. It’s said that Dubonnet’s wife enjoyed the potion so much that she began to share its joys with her friends before and after long meals.

On the contrary, the digestifs were originally used for medicinal purposes. These strong beverages were generally prescribed for every sickness under the sun, from stomach pains to other ailments. By the 1700s, digestifs finally made their way to the table, with the primary use of aiding in digestion after a long meal.

Difference #3: Timing

The main difference between apéritifs and digestifs is the time in which they’re consumed, as well as their sweetness level. Apéritifs are served before a meal and are generally drier, whereas digestifs are served after a meal and tend to be sweet, stronger in alcohol, and/or more bitter.

Difference #4: Beverage Specifics

Popular apéritif choices include vermouth, pastis, dry sherry, and Champagne. Dry, acid-driven white wines are also frequently consumed. In France, apéritif options can vary by region. In the south, pastis is commonly sipped before dinner, whereas Calvados is more fashionable in Normandy. Throughout the country, Kir (blanc-cassis) is a popular apéritif pick. This basic cocktail is crafted from blackcurrant liqueur (crème de cassis) and a splash of white wine, traditionally Aligoté from Burgundy. When the Aligoté is replaced with Champagne, the cocktail is referred to as a Kir Royal.

Common digestifs include fortified wines (sweet sherry, port, madeira), various brandies (cognac, chacha, grappa), bitter liqueurs (Fernet, Chartreuse, Sambuca), or other distilled liquors (ouzo, mezcal, aquavit).

Difference #5: Preparation

Apéritifs are usually served with light savory snacks, so simply grab some chips, nuts, or briny olives, pour them into a small dish, and pop something dry and delicious to sip. For a heartier apéritif, slice up some baguette, snag some artisanal cheese, grab a saucisson, and curate a customized charcuterie board at home.

Digestifs are simple. Pop, pour, and let the digestion commence. Although digestifs generally don’t include food, as they are consumed after long and robust meals, serving a small cookie or biscotti alongside a pour of something strong always adds a nice touch.

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