The aperitif is a drink of exceptional beginnings. Enjoyed during a brief window in the late afternoon – following the indignities of the workday, and ideally preceding a generous evening feast – aperitifs are palate-whetters and appetite stimulants by design. Few traditions are so deliciously reviving.
Though aperitifs are always quaffed during this transitional time of day, that’s the only real rule to keep in mind. Otherwise, the aperitif is more a category than individual drink, and serves have historically ranged from herbal vermouths, piquant amari, and quinine-laced quinquinas to sparkling wines. Broadly, aperitifs tend to be moderately alcoholic, crisp, brightly bitter and herbaceous. Think: flavoursome, refreshing and easy-sipping drinks ideal for arousing your hunger without fogging your head.
For many, the aperitif comes with continental associations (just imagine enjoying the late afternoon sun in an Italian piazza with a brilliant-red Campari and soda in hand), and it’s true that modern aperitif culture first blossomed in Italy in the 18th century. But the origins of this style of drink actually go back millennia further to ancient China, India, Greece, Rome, and Egypt. Back then, though, these drinks weren’t pre-prandial: instead, bittersweet, herbal drinks were prescribed as medicine.
Wormwood – a key ingredient in a number of classic aperitifs, and the source of absinthe’s wooziness – has long been consumed for its health benefits, though its bitter flavour certainly isn’t palatable on its own. Instead, preparations that mingled wormwood with an array of herbs and other flavouring agents have been found on Chinese pottery dating to 1250 BC, and were noted in Ayurvedic texts dating as far back as 1500 BC. More recently, wormwood-infused fortified wines were consumed in parts of Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries.
While these sorts of drinks began as palliatives, they eventually transformed into the stuff of purely pleasurable sipping – and credit for modern aperitif culture can be given to the Italians. Beginning in the 1700s, just as buzzing café scenes were transforming social life in cities like Turin, the world’s first vermouths were being invented: Cinzano (introduced in 1757) and Carpano, created by herbalist Antonio Benedetto Carpano in 1786, were some of the very first of their kind. Both featured dozens of botanicals and were rich, sweet, and bold in flavour – the precedent for the Italian rosso vermouths that are still savoured today.
From there, a taste for aromatic, bitter, wine-based concoctions quickly spread in Italy and elsewhere on the continent. In France, producers like Noilly Prat and Dolin crafted a new style of aperitif-ready vermouths, which were drier and lighter in style; Lillet and its aromatised wines were a smash when they debuted in the late 1800s. And, while much European aperitif culture is associated with vermouths, other styles of drinks – like bitter Italian amari and quinine-infused quinquinas – were also enjoyed as afternoon tipples.
Today, then, we give toast to both Italy and France for pioneering a rather dreamy tradition of aperitifs (and for placing importance on the tradition of pre-dinner relaxation). Now, the aperitif is continuing to evolve, with new styles of serves emerging all over the world. Just like Kamm & Sons: bittersweet, botanical, and thoroughly British. Long live the aperitif!