The Differences Between Aperitifs and Digestifs

by Sara Rodrigo

You may have guessed that these drinks are usually enjoyed before and after meals. There is a wide range of liqueurs, which can serve as aperitifs (before the meal) or digestifs (digestive aid after the meal). If you want to find out which type of drink to serve you must analyse the sweetness and the alcohol content.

Which Drinks Can You Serve as an Aperitif?

We often categorise spirits with bitter notes as aperitifs. Manufacturers obtain the bitter flavours by distillation or by maceration of herbs in alcohol. They may or may not also contain wine. You can enjoy an aperitif before the meal to whet the appetite. In fact, the word aperitif comes from the Latin word ”aperire” which means ”to open”.

The host will usually serve the aperitifs in the form of a dry drink meaning not sweet and low on sugar. Sugar limits the appetite instead of stimulating it, so serving a sweet drink before a meal would not have the intended effect. Aperitifs are usually composed of fruits, in most cases citrus, as these bitter components will help wake up the taste buds. The drink should also have a lower content of alcohol.

Some examples of typical aperitifs include sangria, beer, or white wine.

The Origin of Aperitif Drinks

Historically, the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans served aperitifs for medicinal purposes. In the Middle Ages monasteries turned into places specialising in preparing herbal concoctions. In the 19th century distillers in Turin (Italy) with surnames such as Martini, Cinzano, Gancia and Campari were the first to mix herbs with alcohol that had a low alcohol content. This combination basically constitutes the aperitif as we know it.

How to Pair Aperitif Drinks

We especially recommend that you enjoy the aperitif wines with cheeses, olives, croquettes, and fried potatoes. They also go well with dry vegetables cut into sticks and a dipping sauce on the side. We suggest that you keep the temperature of a light aperitif wine (such as dry Cavas, fino sherries, manzanillas, etc.) around 7-10º C. The liqueur wines (such as amontillados and olorosos) can be served at a slightly higher temperature of 12-14º C.

The Most Famous Aperitif Wines

  1. Vermouth: The base of the vermouth is wine. However, it is also composed of wormwood, herbs, and other bitter substances. It comes in three varieties: dry white, sweet white and red.
  2. Sherry (Jerez): This type of wine is produced in Spain, in Jerez de la Frontera, and is made from ripe grapes using the Solera maturation system. There are several types of sherry wine: fino sherry, manzanilla and oloroso.
  3. Port wine: This wine is produced in Portugal, very dark in colour, tasty, and with a high alcohol content. The sweeter port wines are usually used to accompany desserts and the dry ports are served as an aperitif.
  4. Campari: This aperitif has a reddish-brown colour and is produced in Milan, Italy. The bitter herbs, roots, orange peel and cinnamon water give it a very particular flavour.
  5. Bitters: As the name suggests these are bitter drinks indeed. They are made from alcohol, fruit extracts and herbs.
  6. Madeira: This wine is made with grapes that grow in volcanic rock from Madeira Island. The manufacturer uses a Solera system similar to the maturation process used for sherry.

What is a digestif?

Contrary to the aperitifs the digestifs are usually enjoyed at the end of a meal. The digestif liqueurs help with the digestion once the meal has been consumed. The high concentration of sugar in an alcoholic digestif provides a feeling of satisfaction.

The most popular alcoholic digestifs are usually distilled from liqueurs and spirits. You can serve digestifs to satisfy all types of taste buds: sweet, semi-sweet, creamy, and bitter.

The Origin of Digestive Drinks

Digestif drinks became popular in the 18th century but date back to the Middle Ages. Alcohol was often used for medicinal purposes, and it was taken at the end of meals in the form of wine, sugar, and spices (hippocras) to help promote digestion.

Despite the name, there is no evidence that the hippocras drink was invented by the Greek physician Hippocrates who lived in the 5th century BC. He did, however, devise the Hippocratic sleeve which was then used centuries later to strain out the spices from the wine to create the digestive drink.

How to Pair Digestif Drinks

Unlike aperitif wines, the digestif drinks are generally sweet. They pair very well with desserts.

The ideal temperature of an alcoholic digestif varies considerably depending on the drink you want to serve. You should generally serve it very cold, although never excessively cold. To serve as an example, the Orujo (pomace brandy) should be served at a temperature of around 8-10 ºC. The aged version of the drink, however, should be served at a temperature of around 15-18 ºC.

The Most Famous Digestif Drinks

These are some of the most popular liqueurs to serve as a digestif after the meal:

  1. Anise liqueur: This liqueur can be clear, white, or yellow in colour and it has an alcohol content of between 40% and 60%. It is distilled from the fruit of the green anise plant and other aromatic ingredients are added.
  2. Frangelico: Made from roasted wild hazelnuts, which are immersed in alcohol along with vanilla berries and spices. Once the ingredients have added the flavours, they are separated from the liquor through a filtering process, and the drink is then sweetened and bottled.
  3. Coffee liqueur: It is a famous spirit in Mexico and the rest of the world. It can be drunk alone or with a cup of coffee on the side. It is often used in dessert recipes. The Black Russian cocktail is one of the most famous cocktails that contains coffee liqueur.
  4. Amaretto: It combines the sweetness of apricot kernels with the bitterness of almonds and is accompanied by pure alcohol, sugar, caramel, peach, cherry, and the essence of various aromatic plants. Its alcohol content is between 25% and 30%.
  5. Limoncello: It is made by the maceration of alcohol from the lemon peel (hence its name). We suggest you enjoy it very cold or at room temperature. The alcohol content is 38%.
  6. Sambuca: This liquor is colourless and has an aroma of star anise, aromatic herbs, and spices. Most people serve it either neat, with ice or with one or two coffee beans. It usually has an alcohol content between 38% and 40%.
  7. Pacharán: This drink is made in Navarra and it typically has an alcohol content between 25% and 30%. It is obtained by macerating sloes in a sugary and aniseed alcohol.
  8. Grand Marnier: This classic is the result of the mixture of exotic oranges and different cognacs.
  9. Prosecco: It is par excellence a digestif that stands out above other liqueur wines. The soft and velvety Proseccos are the most popular digestif wines.
  10. Marsala: One of the best-known wines in Italian oenology. Marsala, in addition to being very aromatic, is ideal to pair with chocolate.
  11. Tokaji: This drink presents a noble structure which makes it suitable as a digestif.
  12. Chartreuse: This is a French elixir that is known as the “liqueur of health”. It is available in both yellow and green versions.

Translated from Karoline Arberg

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