As two cornerstones of European drinking culture, apéritifs and digestifs have long enhanced the dining experience. While the finer details of these drinks might remain a mystery to many Americans, they hold a great deal of social significance in many nations, particularly France and Italy, where they’re known as aperitivos and digestivos.

Many of the beverages that fit into these categories will be familiar to all, however, with popular apéritifs and digestifs including vermouths, amari, sherry, and herbal liqueurs and spirits .

Understanding the basics is the first step to fully appreciating these categories; so read on to discover how and when these beverages should be enjoyed, whether dining out or at home.

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What Is an Apéritif?

An apéritif is an alcoholic beverage that is made to stimulate the appetite and prepare your palate for the meal to come. They are typically low in alcohol and tend to be dry tasting with the occasional hint of sweetness.

More than just characteristics that define the category, these traits aid in the very purpose of an apéritif (i.e., stimulating the palate). On the other hand, consuming sugary drinks before a meal reduces the appetite for savory foods, as do high-alcohol drinks, which also dull taste buds.

Apéritifs come in a variety of styles including liqueurs, wine, and simple cocktails. Classic apéritifs to begin a meal include dry sherries and vermouths, anise-flavored spirits, and sparkling or dry white wines. Often, soda or tonic water are added to lower the ABV and lengthen the drink.

What Is a Digestif?

As the name suggests, a digestif is served after the meal to aid with digestion and help settle the stomach. These beverages are generally higher in alcohol than apéritifs and tend to have an herbaceous and/or bitter profile, though some have a sweeter, fruitier flavor.

Common options include Cognac, Armagnac, sweet sherries, dessert wines, port, and amari. Whiskey and bourbon-based cocktails such as the ​​Manhattan, Old Fashioned, and Sazerac are also popular selections within the digestif category.

Digestifs have longstanding popularity around the world and certain types are preferred depending on the region. In France, Cognacs, brandies, and other kinds of eaux de vie are most popular, while amari and grappas are preferred in Italy, and fortified wines in Spain.

How to Serve Apéritifs and Digestifs

Apéritifs should be consumed 30 to 60 minutes before a meal with light, snack-sized portions of savory food, such as crackers, cheeses, and tapenade. Digestifs, on the other hand, should be served after the full meal — including desserts and cheese courses — has concluded.

Coffee and coffee-based cocktails such as the Irish Coffee are other popular after-dinner drinks that can be considered digestifs (and consumed after the meal) as the caffeine can help speed up the digesting process.