If you’ve ever asked someone to define a mysterious-looking spirit with a foreign-sounding name, you may have been told that said spirit is a “classic aperitif,” or a “traditional digestif.” It might even have been described as both.
That’s (one) of the tricky things about finding a definition of, and clarifying the difference between, aperitifs and digestifs. The terms themselves do not refer to legally recognized categories, but rather the timing of their consumption. Apéritif and digestif are French words—or, in Italian, aperitivo and digestivo—that indicate whether a spirit is drunk before a meal to simulate appetite, or after a meal to settle the stomach.
That’s a macro definition, with broad enough scope to include everything from low-ABV cocktails like the Aperol Spritz to classic post-dinner drams like port wine or cognac. To get a tighter definition of when spirits themselves should be classified as aperitifs or digestifs, we enlisted the expert aid of Sother Teague, who serves as the beverage director of New York City’s Amor Y Amargo.
“They need to be bitter,” Teague said via email. “Bitterness is what activates the digestive system.”
Teague explained that the brain perceives bitterness as a poison, and will signal the digestive system to expel it. Ironically, it’s that very act of evolutionary self-defense that allows aperitifs and digestifs to work their magic.
“On an empty stomach, this causes hunger,” says Teague. “A full stomach begins to evacuate.”
While Teague thinks that “tons” of gray room exists between the two terms and believes they are interchangeable, he does have some basic rules for differentiation. He says that aperitifs are largely light in body, low in alcohol, and have citrusy characteristics. Conversely, Teague says that digestifs are heavier in body, higher in alcohol, and have herbal characteristics.
Okay, that helped. Now, see below for our cheat-sheet definitions of each category and some of our favorite examples.
What Is an Aperitif?
An aperitif is a bitter spirit or fortified/aromatized wine that is generally dry and has a low alcohol content.
Common Types of Aperitif
- Aperitivo Select
- Bruto Americano
- Cocchi Americano
- Contratto Aperitif
What Is a Digestif?
A digestif is a bitter spirit or fortified/aromatized wine that is generally herbal, sometimes sweet, and has a high(er) alcohol content.