We Get Letters v. 36: Apertifs vs. Digestifs

Dennis writes in:

Hi Kate. Exactly what is the difference between an aperitif such as Campari and an digestive Amaro such as Florio? Thanks.

Dennis. Thanks for your e-mail. I have a special place in my heart for Italian liqueurs, for reasons far to wide and varied to get into here. It would be sufficient enough to say, however, that there are as many diverse flavors and flavor combinations in these liqueurs as one can get in these kinds of drinks. Additionally, a great majority of these drinks have character, due in large part to their complexity. When I look at Italian liqueurs and then at our American selection of flavored vodkas, I laugh.

I will not…er….rather, I cannot tell you the distinct difference between brands of Italian liqueurs, for one simple fact. It would be impossible. Many of these drinks have dozens, if not hundreds (in some cases), of ingredients, and listing those differences would be both time consuming, and in many cases, incomplete, as these companies are not all that forth coming in their ingredient lists. So there can be no distinction from me, or any one else, on the explicit differences between Campari and Florio.

What I can do is offer the differences between the idea of apertifs and digestifs. That’s far more workable, at least from my position. For those who are keen on definitions, let’s state that Apertifs are drinks meant to be consumed before a meal, Digestifs (or digestives) after a meal. Are we good? Great. Now let’s backtrack about 150 years or so.

The Italian liquors that you and I know today either were unavailable, or were packaged as medicinal syrups. In fact, much of the Italian liquor industry can trace their roots back to the apothecaries of the middle ages and earlier. These drinks, as we know of them today, were nothing more than cure-alls and preventative medicines, often based in little or no science at all. They drank them because they produced a response which either was pleasant, or inhibited displeasure. The “intent” of these drinks wasn’t to intoxicate. It was to improve digestion of a meal. Some drinks were suggested to consume before a meal. Others, afterwards. As to what decided which drink to consume when, it likely broke down between the ingredients within the drink, the meal to be consumed, and the handy-dandy medical guide of the Galenic Humorism – which we’ve discussed here before.

Today we know that humorism is scientific nonsense. But we still see aspects of that philosophy pop up in current day in several ways. Apertifs and digestifs are but one aspect of that.

So when you ask for the difference between Apertifs and Digestifs, there is but one answer I can give you that satisfies me – tradition. There is nothing, and should be nothing, to prevent you from having an Amaro of some sort before dinner, or a Campari, Soda, and Orange Juice (my favorite) afterwards.