Italian aperitivo and digestivo are distinct categories of spirits, with fairly specific uses and characteristics, from colors and flavors to alcoholic strength. Bear in mind that language is slippery and there can be drinks that are considered aperitivi and digestive that don’t necessarily fall into either category.
For instance, a Pilsner can serve as a pre-dinner drink, but that doesn’t make it an aperitivo liqueur. Similarly, Calvados and grappa are often consumed after meals as a supposed digestive aid, but they are not considered digestivo liqueurs.
What’s an Aperitivo?
Descending from the Latin verb aperire, meaning “to open,” aperitivo gets its name from its role in “opening” up the appetite. That means it’s not typically ordered after eating, at least not in Italy, explains Maurizio Maestrelli, a drinks journalist based in Milan, Italy.
“Aperitivo in Italy is something bitter that can prepare your stomach for a meal,” he says. “There are many shades of bitterness, but the color is typically orange or red.”
Those sunset hues are well suited to the after-work period when most aperitivi are consumed in Italy. Some, like Campari, were originally colored red with a dye sourced from cochineal beetles, though Campari switched to vegan coloring in 2006. All aperitivi are bitter and sweet to various degrees, often highlighting that tension with citrus and herbal notes.
At the Seattle specialty bar The Doctor’s Office, owner Matthew Powell, MD, says that a good aperitivo can play a few different roles at once.
“In addition to serving as a nice social bridge from the rest of your day to sitting down for a meal with people, you have herbal elements that are intended to stimulate the appetite,” he says. “Those herbal appetite stimulants start to send signals of ‘food to come,’ but without getting you too drunk to enjoy the meal in the first place.”
As such, an aperitivo is generally not too strong. Some, like Aperol, have as little as 11% alcohol by volume (abv), though most have 15–30%.
That said, the strength of what’s in the glass also varies. In general, aperitivo liqueurs are not consumed straight, at least not in Italy.
“Usually they are mixed in a spritz or in cocktails,” Maestrelli says. “For example, a Negroni, which is made with Campari traditionally.”
Negronis might be a global favorite, but the aperitivo’s apogee is probably the spritz, a versatile drink that originated in the Veneto region of Northern Italy. It’s made by combining an aperitivo liqueur with ingredients like Prosecco and soda water and garnishing it with an orange slice.
Aperol is the default setting for spritz in much of Italy, Maestrelli notes. “If you order a spritz in Milano, they will serve it with Aperol,” he says. With years of double-digit, spritz-fueled growth, Aperol’s status as the best-selling aperitivo only came after it seized the lead from Campari, its longtime competitor. Both are now owned by Gruppo Campari.
Mixing an aperitivo with tonic water, flavored or unflavored spring water, or a lemon-lime or orange soda are less complicated takes.
Other old-school aperitivo favorites include Meletti 1870, Contratto Bitter and Luxardo Aperitivo, among many others. Newcomers include Martini & Rossi Fiero, a vermouth-based aperitivo with enough bitter-orange flavor to rival Aperol, though with noticeably less sweetness.
Despite the aperitivo’s bitterness and herbal notes, it’s generally simple at heart, and not as complex as a digestive.
What’s a Digestivo?
If an aperitivo is bitter, red to orange, lightly herbal and relatively low in alcohol, a digestivo is another level up: much darker (often deep brown), much more bitter and flavorful, and usually stronger in terms of alcohol.
“Digestivo is mainly considered the amaro category,” Maestrelli says. Amaro “is something bitter again, but richer in complexity, usually with many different herbs or botanicals, and something that, in theory, should help you digest the meal.”
Digestivo is a world unto itself. According to Maestrelli, there are “hundreds, probably,” of different amaro brands in Italy. The brands range from international names to obscure spirits produced in small batches in secluded monasteries.
Internationally known brands include Montenegro, Lucano, Ramazzotti, Averna, Meletti, Fernet-Branca and many more. They can range from 15–40% abv or higher, but most hover around 30%.
Tad Carducci, director of outreach and engagement for Gruppo Montenegro, calls a digestivo and an aperitivo two twinned parts of Italy’s rich culinary culture, though at opposite ends of the meal.
“Aperitivo helps you get there, and if you overdid it a bit, digestivo helps you out of it,” he says.
They might play opposite parts, but they are similar in many ways. At The Doctor’s Office, Powell notes that aperitivi and digestivi often share the same ingredients and flavors.
“In terms of the typical flavors, there’s actually a lot of overlap,” he says. “Things like oranges, orange peel, rhubarb, gentian and anise are found in both. You’ll find those in Select or Campari, for example, as well as Ramazzotti or Fernet-Branca.”
One difference? Other than those made in the barrel-aged Fernet style, a digestivo is generally very sweet, far sweeter than an aperitivo, to balance its heavy bitterness.
Another variable is the amount of time it takes to drink them.
“I find aperitifs to be drinks that are stretched out over a longer amount of time,” Powell says. “As opposed to just after a meal, and getting that more densely concentrated amaro, and probably drinking that quicker overall.”
While an aperitivo is usually served as a mixed drink, a digestivo is often but not always sipped straight. At his bar, Powell serves a Negroni variation with an added portion of amaro to make it more of an after-dinner drink. And a few bottles, like the artichoke-based Cynar, are celebrated for being able to function as either an aperitivo or a digestivo—“a two-faced drink,” Maestrelli calls it.
Beyond those drinks that can do double duty, however, a digestivo is generally served after food, at least in its homeland. But, then again, it’s your call.
“In Italy, we don’t drink amaro before the meal,” Maestrelli says. “You can drink it. Of course, it’s up to you.”