Appreciation for quality food and drink is more pervasive than ever. Nostalgia for
an era in which gentlemen had taste and bartenders were alchemists rather than mere
purveyors of cocktails is at an all-time high. As a result, sophistication is front
and centre. The aperitif and digestif have entered into the realm of cool again.
The names seem to denote what they are, but confusion abounds when it comes to the
two. An aperitif, from the Latin aperire, or "to open," enhances the appetite before
a meal. A digestif stimulates digestion once the meal is done. Apéritifs are commonly
served with something small to eat, such as crackers, cheese, pate, olives and various
kinds of finger food.
While there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to inebriants, personal taste
usually dictating what we drink, aperitifs and digestifs are what they are for some
very sound reasons.
Because an aperitif is a stimulant for the appetite and the palate, an excess of
alcohol dulls the taste buds and causes other unwelcome results on an empty stomach.
Thus, brandy and Scotch whisky do not fit the mould of an aperitif. With few exceptions,
the best aperitifs are between 16% and 24% alcohol (32 to 48 proof). They are often
wine derivatives that producers fortify and flavour, although some, like the popular
Campari, are more akin to spirits than they are to wine.
How sweet it is
The singular difference between aperitifs and digestifs is sweetness. It makes perfect
sense, really. A syrupy or sweet drink that cloys the palate tends not to stimulate
hunger. It can make for an ideal drink on a full stomach, however, although the best
digestif cocktails -- as opposed to a pure digestif, such as a liqueur -- temper
the level of sweetness and offer a nice balance.
Aperitifs are clean, crisp drinks that are best served cold, but without ice. North
American penchant for ice in cocktails and drinks has an unfortunate cloudy effect
on many fine aperitifs and contributes nothing to the overall flavour. Instead, chill
an aperitif, as well as its glass.
Can you feel that?
Taste and texture are important in both aperitifs and digestifs. Because of the conditions
under which one consumes the former, a light, almost astringent character is ideal.
Vermouth is the standard in this case.
Digestifs and nightcaps, however, can afford a heavier composition in both departments
and alcohol content in line with the tolerance level of a full stomach. Think of
cognac or herbal liqueurs such as sambuca or Chartreuse, and you're in the ballpark.
Before you start drinking
There are some additional tips to be aware of when preparing a cocktail, either pre-
or post-meal. The first tip has to do with ingredients. Stock your home bar with
only the best, and use natural ingredients and colorants. The extra expense is worth
it. For example, avoid sugar and fruit juice as sweeteners unless a recipe strictly
calls for it. While the use of both is custom with mixed drinks such as a simple
Screwdriver, cordials (maraschino) and liqueurs (Triple Sec) offer a more genuine
taste and honesty to cocktails.
Good bitters (Angostura) and herbal liqueurs (Anisette) also accent cocktails like
no other substitute. When appropriate, chill the cocktail and again, avoid ice unless
the recipe calls for it. Use good glassware, as it does enhance the experience from
the standpoints of both presentation and taste.