The Bitter & the Sweet: Aperitifs & Digestifs

We can learn a lot from old Italian men, like remembering to relax, not take life too seriously, and to enjoy grappa after a meal.

Grappa is a type of digestif, an alcoholic drink that is served at the conclusion of a meal to aid digestion. Not to be confused with an aperitif, also an alcoholic drink, but served before the meal to stimulate the appetite. Traditionally served in France, Spain, and Italy, aperitifs and digestifs are now popular throughout the world. With labels that look like they should be on the side of a vintage fruit crate, or with intricate filigree that you could play trace-the-line on for hours. Oftentimes the filigree as ample as the number of botanicals imbued into the liqueurs.

In the 1800s quinine (a compound from cinchona bark) was given to French soldiers in North Africa to fight malaria. By diluting the ingredients in wine, aperitifs became less bitter and more palatable. In Italy by the 19th century, aperitifs were widespread, served in cafes throughout Milan, Turin, Rome, Genoa, and Venice. Aperitifs were also common in the United States, Spain, and Latin America.

Aperitif is a French word that comes from the Latin, aperire, which means “to open”, referring to opening the palette. Typically dry (as sugar limits the appetite), aperitifs are light, modestly alcoholic and can be wine- or spirit-based. Digestifs tend to be sweet rather than bitter to round off the meal just consumed. Typically, aperitifs are created by a maceration (extraction into a solvent) of herbs, spices, citrus peels, barks, roots and sometimes flowers in wine or neutral spirit. The filtrate from the maceration is then combined with a sweetener (usually a sugar syrup), kegged or bottled and allowed to age.

The alcohol content of a digestif is usually higher than that of an aperitif, not with the purpose of forgetting how much duck liver you’ve consumed, it's to warm the stomach and increase blood flow to the digestive region. Digestifs are typically packed full of botanicals as they were originally intended purely for use as digestive tonics and weren’t geared for palatability.

Tips for serving aperitifs:

Serve aperitifs early so they can be consumed without rushing. Also, serve aperitifs at the appropriate temperature, usually chilled or over ice. Finally, don’t let aperitifs overflow into the meal, too much consumption of an aperitif will have the opposite effect of whetting the appetite, and might just leave you face-down in your soupe à l'oignon.

Tips for serving digestifs:

Serving a digestif depends on the type. For example, Amaro Nonio is usually served over ice, or in a cocktail, whereas Brandy is served at room temperature from a wine glass or snifter, and is often gently warmed. Vermouth is usually restricted to cocktails or lining another liqueur and Cynar is often combined with orange juice.




Flavour profile: bitter, orange, herbaceous, cherry, cinnamon

Colour: bright, orange-red

Country of Origin: Italy


Campari is arguably the most famous aperitif, with its distinctive orange-red hue and packs a powerful bitter punch. It is an essential ingredient in the Negroni cocktail (1 part gin, 1 part vermouth, 1 part Campari), but is also often served simply on the rocks with soda. Gaspare Campari created the aperitif in 1860 by mixing ingredients like chinotto, cascarilla, herbs, roots and barks. To this day the recipe is a closely guarded secret.

Ricard Pastis

Flavour profile: anise, bittersweet, liquorice, fennel, grassy

Colour: transparent, light caramel

Country of Origin: France

Pastis is an anise-flavoured aperitif and is associated with Marseille in the south of France. It is normally diluted with water and mixed with a little sugar before it is consumed. Pernod and Ricard are the most popular brands of Pastis liqueur. Adding water makes the beverage turn milky and brings out the liquorice flavours. Due to this, Ricard is often known as the ‘milk of Marseille’.

Lillet Blanc

Flavour profile: bitter, orange, citrus, honey, herbaceous, zesty, peach, apricot

Colour: transparent, pale straw yellow

Country of Origin: France

Lillet is a wine-based aperitif, which originates from the Bordeaux region in southern France. There are also rose and rouge varieties of lillet. The blanc, rose or rouge distinctions are primarily dependent on the grapes used. Classically served with soda and/or over ice with a slice of orange.



Flavour profile: spicy, fruity, port, raisin, bittersweet, chocolate, coffee

Colour: deep burgundy

Country of Origin: France

Originally from France, Dubonnet is mostly produced and served in the United States. It’s a fortified wine made with herbs and spices. Dubonnet is the main ingredient in many cocktails that have its stamp including the Apple Dubonnet, Dubonnet Delight, Dubonnet Kiss and the Dubonnet Highball. It comes in Rouge (the most popular), Blanc, Gold and Blonde varieties.




Picon Amer

Flavour profile: bitter, orange, grapefruit, candied, root-like

Colour: dark red-brown

Country of Origin: France

Picon Amer is difficult to purchase outside of Europe. A common substitute is Torani Amer. With just a small dash it is known to transform a glass of lager into something quite special, sometimes termed ‘French shandy’ or Picon Bière. Dark red-brown in colour and with a slight hint of Cola in the nose. Originally made at 78 proof, the product on the shelves now is about half the alcohol strength.

Salers Gentiane

Flavour profile: anise, bittersweet, citrus, root-like, vegetal, cocoa

Colour: transparent yellow with a slight green hue

Country of Origin: France

Unlike many other aperitifs in the repertoire, the bitterness in Salers is primarily due to gentian root rather than quinone. Salers comes in 3 ‘cap’ varieties: the ‘green cap’ is less bitter than its yellow and red cap partners, all with differing alcohol levels.


Flavour profile: bitter, earthy, citrus, honey

Colour: transparent, golden yellow

Country of Origin: France (the original recipe may have been from Switzerland)

Just like Salers, the bitterness in Suze is primarily due to gentian root rather than quinone. Suze was arguably the first gentian based aperitif to emerge. Created by the Moureaux distillery, now manufactured by Pernod.


Flavour profile: coffee, orange, earthy, floral, mildly bitter, port

Colour: deep dark crimson

Country of Origin: France

Another quinone-based aperitif, however mild in flavour and based on red wine. Unfermented grape juice is used to create Byrrh, retaining the natural sugars, thereby not relying on additional sweeteners to be added. Less bitter than Salers but just like Salers and Suze, Byrrh is nice either on ice or integrated into a cocktail. Another aperitif now distributed under the Pernod brand.

Meletti 1870

Flavour profile: sweet, bitter, coriander, cinnamon, clove

Colour: transparent, sepia red-light brown

Country of Origin: Italy

Many of the Meletti family’s herbs and spices within the formula, including star anise, are sourced locally. Meletti 1870 can be blended with Vermouth and soda to create a classic Americano cocktail. Through classic distillation, the Amaro variety of Meletti features violet and saffron amongst the herb, floral and spice blend, the violet detectable on the palate.


Flavour profile: various varietals

Country of Origin: Spain

Sherry is a type of fortified wine produced in Andalucia, Spain from harvested white grapes. There are two main types of sherry: dry sherry, which has a low sugar content, and sweet sherry, which is not an aperitif but a digestif. Varietals of sherry include Fino, Oloroso, Palo Cortado, Manzanilla, Cream (a blend of different sherries), Amontillado, and Moscatel and Pedro Ximénez.


Flavour profile: depends on the quality, the herbs and spices used and whether it is sweet or dry

Country of Origin: Italy (sweet), France (dry)

Vermouth was originally developed as a way to make bad wine drinkable by converting the wine to a fortified alternative. Evenso, vermouth is usually blended into cocktails as vermouth can be a challenge to stomach neat. There are two types of vermouth, Italian (Sweet) Vermouth, and French (Dry) Vermouth. Italian vermouth was developed in Turin in the 18th century and is the oldest and sweetest of the aperitif wines. Cinzano, Noilly Prat, and Martini are the prominent brands of sweet vermouth. French or dry vermouth was developed in the 18th century in southern France. It is more herbal, pale, and less sweet than Italian vermouth. In recent years, new styles of vermouth, such as Antica, have been developed and introduced as stand-alone aperitifs. Vermouth has a short shelf life, once opened it is similar to wine and will spoil.

Try out the below aperitif cocktail care of Sam the bartender who hails from Antique bar:


Muddled lime wedge

Half kiwi fruit

10ml Absinthe

15ml Agwa

Shake all ingredients together in a cocktail shaker

Double strain into a champagne glass or saucer

Top up with champagne

 Pouring the green hornet components into a champagne glass

Pouring the green hornet components into a champagne glass

 Topping up with champagne

Topping up with champagne

 Agwa and Absinthe are the key components of the Green Hornet

Agwa and Absinthe are the key components of the Green Hornet

 Agwa: A Cocoa Leaf Liqueur   Absinthe: A Wormwood Liqueur

Agwa: A Cocoa Leaf Liqueur

Absinthe: A Wormwood Liqueur

 The Green Hornet

The Green Hornet



Amaro Averna

Flavour profile: bittersweet, orange and liquorice, balanced with notes of myrtle, juniper berries, rosemary, sage

Colour: deep caramel

Country of Origin: Sicily

Averna is a classic sweet Italian digestif made with herbs, roots, citrus rind, and caramel. A spirit-based rich brown liquid blended by monks with a subtle bitterness.


Flavour profile: bitter, orange, rhubarb

Colour: transparent, bright orange-red

Country of Origin: Italy

Aperol is summer and glamour. Now owned by Gruppo Campari, all their marketing is focused around these two pulls. Although a less bitter amaro, Aperol is distinctly bitter for the untrained palate. The ‘Aperol Spritz’ became a go-to drink in the 1950s.


Flavour profile: bittersweet, balsamic, nutty, sweet fruit

Colour: dark brown

Country of Origin: Italy

Made from a combination of botanicals, its most notable the artichoke. Cynar falls under the amaro umbrella but can be classified as a digestif or aperitif. Throughout Europe it is commonly consumed with orange juice.

Fernet Branca

Flavour profile: chicory, forest, chocolate, slight mint, woody

Colour: dark brown with a hint of yellow iridescence

Country of Origin: Italy

Also an amaro, made from 27 herbs, spices and roots including chamomile and aloe and more unusual inclusions such as saffron myrrh and zedoary. Branca Distillery also added peppermint essential oil to create Branca Menta, that has a distinct menthol like note. Fernet liqueurs have long been popular in Argentina.

Anisetta Meletti

Flavour profile: anise, sweet

Colour: transparent and clear

Country of Origin: Italy

A clear concoction that celebrates aniseed. Unlike many other herbal liqueurs whose process relies on maceration, Anisetta Meletti is produced through distillation. The distillate is then sweetened and aged.

Ramazzotti Amaro

Flavour profile: liquorice, bitter, orange, rhubarb, star anise, cardamom

Colour: transparent, rich brown

Country of Origin: Italy

A feature drink concocted with 33 botanicals introduced by a cafe owner in Milan. Also an amaro, similar to Averna, but the main flavour is liquorice.

Zwack Unicum

Flavour profile: sarsparilla, coffee, bitter, herbal, semi-sweet

Colour: dark amber-brown

Country of Origin: Hungary

Classified as an aperitif and digestif. The Zwack distillery combine over 40 botanicals, half macerated in corn spirit, half distilled to create Unicum. A plum variation (Unicum Plum), and a less bitter, more citrus variety (Unicum Next) are also offered.

Amaro Abano

Flavour profile: spice, bitter, herbal, earthy, orange

Colour: opaque, dark brown-black

Country of Origin: Italy

In the middle of the bitterness spectrum, Amaro Abano contains classic spices such as cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg along with the more unusual such as condurango. Luxardo offers a range of other herbal liqueurs and distillates.


Flavour profile: juniper, anise, mint, honey

Colour: transparent, yellow

Country of Origin: Italy

‘Strega’ is Italian for witch, the name linking to the tale of a wine merchant and his father, a spice merchant, encountering a witch in their hunt for botanicals to include in their wine-based liqueur that came to then be known as Strega. Interestingly, the birthplace, Benevento, was known as the ‘city of witches’. Packing in a whopping 70 botanicals to create the distillate, it can apparently be used beyond a tipple in milk-based drinks and over desserts.


Flavour profile: etherial, sweet, heady, fruity, oak, raisin, vanilla, woody, varnish

Country of Origin: France

This is one of the most prevalent digestifs in the world. It contains 30-60% alcohol and may be aged or coloured with caramel. Types of brandy include Cognac, a varietal named after the town of Cognac, France, and Armagnac Brandy from the Armagnac region in France.



Other liqueurs that can be classified as digestifs include Chartreuse, Absinthe, Grand Marnier and Becherovka.

An Old Fashioned is a classic digestif cocktail:

Here’s a twist on the classic Old Fashioned, care of Sam the bartender who hails from Antique Bar:


2 shakes bitters

30ml Amaro Montenegro

30ml Woodford Reserve whisky

Orange twist

Combine all components

Garnish with orange twist

 A spin on the classic Old Fashioned cocktail

A spin on the classic Old Fashioned cocktail

 A twist of orange peel adds some zing to the whisky and Montenegro

A twist of orange peel adds some zing to the whisky and Montenegro

 Old Fashioned with a twist

Old Fashioned with a twist

We’ve compiled some of our favourite aperitif and digestif cocktail recipes on Pinterest.


Today there are a myriad of bittering agents available. Below are a few on offer. As over-whelming as bitter flavours can be, blending different proportions at differing concentrations in various liqueur bases can create vastly different aroma and flavour profiles.


 Cinchona succirubra Pav. ( Cinchona pubescens  Vahl), Quinine

Cinchona succirubra Pav. (Cinchona pubescens Vahl), Quinine

The classic bitter note in tonic water is due to quinine. Quinine is an alkaloid compound extracted from the bark of the Cinchona calisaya tree native to South America. There are many species of the Cinchona genus (approximately 40), a handful of which are used to economically extract quinine. Quinine has been used in the past to treat Malaria, but due to the accompanying side-effects has been superseded by alternatives. Simon Cotton in Every Molecule Tells a Story explains that it was first extracted in 1820 from Cinchona bark but it was only over the next few years the structure was effectively isolated and positively identified as quinine.





 Gentiana lutea L.,  Gentiana lutea , Yellow Gentian

Gentiana lutea L., Gentiana lutea, Yellow Gentian

Gentian Root

An intense bittering agent. When an aqueous-alcoholic extraction is made (readily soluble in alcohol, partially soluble in water) it often imparts an orangey-pink colour to the liquid. Gentian appears in one of the oldest surviving medical texts,  Ebers Papayrus (C. 1500BC), an Egyptian text that contains profiles on 700 medicinal herbs. Indigenous to Europe, like Cinchona, gentian has also been used for a myriad of medicinal purposes. The gentian root extract constituents include the alkaloid gentianine and the glycoside gentiopicrin, and the yellow pigment is primarily from the flavonoid gentisin. The blue gentian (flowers) is known to make an inferior bittering agent to the yellow.




 Quassia amara L.,  Quassia amara , Quassia wood

Quassia amara L., Quassia amara, Quassia wood

Quassia Bark

Also known as Bitter Ash, like Cinchona and Gentian, Quassia is also used historically for medicinal applications. Native to Africa and many times more bitter than quinine in fact it is believed to be the most bitter agent currently used in beverage flavourings. The bitter compound extracted from quassia bark is known as quassin.









Another Medicinal Aromatic Plant (MAP) and also known as Wormwood or Mugwort. Unlike cinchona, gentian and quassia, it is usually the flowering tops used, rather than the bark or root. The sensory profile has hints of anise and spice. A classic component of absinthe and also used in Vermouths. The extract commonly contains thujone which is now classified as a toxin by the FDA, but is still present in traditional absinthe and is purported to be the substance that leads to the mind-altering effects synonymous with absinthe.

 Acorus Calamus L., Sweet flag, calamus

Acorus Calamus L., Sweet flag, calamus

Calamus Root

Also known as Sweet Flag, once used as a flavouring agent-now prohibited. The root was used in ancient Indian and Chinese medicine.








Burdock Root

Also a prominent medicinal raw material, a more mild bittering agent with orange and black tea flavour and aroma notes. Burdock root extract can also be used to compliment a stronger bittering agent such as those listed above. Burdock was used prior to hops becoming customary as the mild bittering agent within beer.

Catechu Black

Derived from wild Acacia varieties, there are numerous species from which extracts are termed Catechu. That used for bitters should not be confused with the betel nut variety. The Black variety of Acacia is indigenous to India, some parts of Africa and Burma. Catechu Black is also used as a dye in tannin applications. Another extract, termed Pale Catechu, is made from a different plant (not an acacia) also used for dyeing purposes. Black Catechu is used as a widespread flavouring agent such as in gums and lozenges and it is the primary colouring and flavouring agent in Blavod vodka.

Artichoke Leaves

A member of the thistle family, the extract of select leaves from the artichoke plant produce a flavouring agent that is also used for medicinal purposes. Regarding its taste profile, it exhibits sweet and bitter characteristics. The health benefits of artichoke and its extracts are still being investigated. Artichokes are native to Northern Africa and saw widespread cultivation and consumption in Mediterranean regions.


Note: Many Medicinal Aromatic Plants (MAPs) can be toxic at higher doses. Make sure you research properly before making your own extractions or tinctures and ensure you are using the correct botanical species for its application. There are many resources online for making your own bitters such as the DIY offered by Cuisinivity or The Kitchn.



Lo Fi Aperitifs

Bitters Old Men

DRAM Apothecary

Only Bitters

The Hudson Standard

Hella Cocktail Co.

Maidenii Vermouth

The Bitter Truth

Cinzano 1757 Vermouths



The Bitter Truth

Elixir Inc

Greenbar Distillery



DIY Bitters Kit:

Dash Bitters



Bitters by Brad Thomas Parsons

The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart

Bitterman’s Field Guide to Bitters & Amari by Mark Bitterman

Vermouth by Adam Ford

The Mixellany by Jared McDaniel Brown & Anistatia Renard Miller


Some European bars that serve aperitifs and digestifs:

h club>diana

Viale Piave, 42 Milan, Italy

Stravinsky Bar

Via del Babuino, 9, 00187 Roma, Italy

Bar L’Incontro

Via Edouard Aubert 6, 11100, Aosta, Italy

L’Enoteca Antica

Via della Croce 76B 76b - 00187, 00187 Rome, Italy

Le Bar des Amis

Place de la Fontaine, 84400 Villars en Luberon, Apt, France

Freni e Frizioni

Trastevere, Rome


A massive thank you to Antique Bar for allowing us to take photographs in the venue (and for the free cocktails!..ah props). Sam makes an amazing alcoholic beverage, so if you reside in Melbourne head to Elsternwick if you get a chance and drop in. You can check them out on facebook or instagram.