The category of aperitifs is a sometimes overlooked one that has a great deal to offer in terms of flavor and variety. In general, aperitifs include liqueur, vermouth, bitters, and spirits that are low ABV but rich in diversity. Most are flavored with herbs, spices, fruit, and flowers that are native to the region in which they are produced, typically in European countries.
There’s a new wave of domestically produced aperitifs as well that showcase more familiar flavor profiles that are closer to home. Traditionally, aperitifs are drunk before a meal and are meant to stimulate your appetite. You can sip them on their own, perhaps over a few ice cubes, combine with soda or tonic for a refreshing Spritz, or use them in a more complex cocktail.
To help guide you through the range of aperitifs that are available, we asked some bar industry experts to select their favorites in different categories, from country of origin to flavor to use in specific drinks, and have come up with a few picks of our own. Here are the best aperitifs to get right now.
Region: Italy | ABV: 17.5% | Tasting Notes: Herb, Spice, Bitter
This Venetian aperitif is a bit lesser known than some other Italian brands like Campari and Aperol, but it’s one of the best out there. It was created in the 1920s and remains a classic today with botanicals like rhubarb and juniper that lead the intriguingly complex palate. It’s also a really refreshing way to start off an evening before your meal. Just combine with prosecco and soda water and garnish with a large green olive. This final step might seem counterintuitive, but the briny flavor of the olive somehow brings together the floral and bitter notes of this complex spirit.
Carpano Antica Formula Vermouth
Region: Italy | ABV: 16.5% | Tasting Notes: Spice, Vanilla, Dried Fruit
“Carpano Antica is a delicious liqueur that can be enjoyed on the rocks or mixed into a cocktail,” says Thandi Walton, lead bartender at Bar Margot inside the Four Seasons Hotel in Atlanta. “When served alone, it opens the palate with its sweet notes of vanilla, almond, orange, raisins, and cherry.”
This is an elevated vermouth with a rich array of flavors that will definitely bring a cocktail like a Manhattan or Negroni to the next level.
Lo-Fi Aperitifs Gentian Amaro
Region: California | ABV: 17.5% | Tasting Notes: Hibiscus, Ginger, Citrus
Lo-Fi has been making vermouth and amaro in the Napa region of California for a few years now, leading the way in the American aperitif field. This Gentian Amaro is a nice way to kick off a meal and pairs well with pretty much anything you can think of, from beer to whiskey to sparkling wine.
The base of Lo-Fi’s spirits is California wine, which is flavored with botanicals. In the case of this amaro, citrus, ginger, and cinchona bark are some of the most prominent flavors. Try this in a Spritz, or pour a shot directly into a beer to enjoy.
"I'm obsessed with all of Lo-Fi's aperitifs but the Gentian Amaro may be my favorite. I love it in a Spritz but it's truly magical paired with mezcal." — Prairie Rose, Editor
Best With Tonic
Region: France | ABV: 17% | Tasting Notes: Honey, Citrus, Bitter
People have been enjoying Lillet Blanc since 1872 when this Bordeaux aperitif made from grapes and orange peels was created. The Blanc in particular, but also the Rouge and Rose, are crisp and refreshing when served chilled or over some ice. But Lillet & Tonic is a bright, vibrant cocktail to enjoy in the early evening.
Combine in a large wine glass and garnish with whatever you’d like, although cucumber, mint, and strawberry are ideal to bring out the fruit and spice flavors of this French aperitif.
Related: The Best Tonic Waters
Noilly Prat Extra Dry Vermouth
Region: France | ABV: 18% | Tasting Notes: Nutmeg, Orange, Chamomile
There’s dry vermouth, and then there’s this extra dry version from French brand Noilly Prat. This vermouth, like all of the ones made there, starts with dry white wine that is macerated with 14 different herbs and spices that come from around the world, including coriander from Morocco, bitter orange from Tunisia, and Italian orris root.
Definitely try sipping on its own, or mix up a pre-dinner 50:/50 Martini using equal parts sweet and dry vermouth.
Italicus Rosolio di Bergamotto Liqueur
Region: Italy | ABV: 20% | Tasting Notes: Rose, Chamomile, Citrus
This is a relatively new Italian aperitif that is supposedly based on a recipe that dates back to the 1850s. The palate is sweet but not overpoweringly so, with a melange of botanicals that define the palate ranging from bergamot orange to lavender, rose, and chamomile. Italicus has become a favorite of bartenders in recent years, and there are many ways to enjoy it.
Use it in a simple Spritz, combine with grapefruit juice, or even make a Negroni Bianco with dry gin and dry vermouth to counter the sweetness. This definitely deserves a spot in your home bar.
Byrrh Grand Quinquina
Region: France | ABV: 18% | Tasting Notes: Coffee, Bitter Orange, Cocoa
“The French have gained a mastery of producing quinine-infused aperitif wines called quinquinas, and one of my favorites is Byrrh,” says Frederic Yarm of The Smoke Shop in Somerville, MA. “Byrrh is infused with coffee, bitter orange peels, and cocoa, and is sweetened with muscat grape must such that it comes across a little like port. But a less sweet port with a delightful quinine bitter complexity to it that makes it intriguing to drink on its own over ice or mixed with mezcal, funky rums, or American whiskey in cocktails.”
Related: The Best Proseccos
Martini Riserva Speciale Ambrato Vermouth
Region: Italy | ABV: 18% | Tasting Notes: Sandalwood, Chamomile, Eucalyptus
“I’ve been on an ambrato vermouth kick lately when it comes to aperitifs, namely the Martini and Rossi Riserva Speciale or Mancino Bianco,” says Cory Mendonca of Main St. Provisions in Las Vegas. “The style seems to have a more muted citrus tone and some woodsy, almost chewy mouthfeel components that lend great depth, especially as modifiers in cocktails. But they’re great on ice with just a splash of mineral water also.”
A newer style of Vermouth di Torino, Martini Riserva Speciale Ambrato is named after its rich amber color—ambrato is Italian for amber. Made from a variety of Italian wines, including Moscato d'Asti, as well as three different types of wormwood– Absinthium, Pontica and Vulgaris—the result is a bitter woodsy perfume of flavors.
Don Ciccio & Figli Ambrosia Aperitivo
Region: Washington, D.C. | ABV: 15% | Tasting Notes: Turmeric, Carrot, Orange
“Don Ciccio and Figli's Ambrosia, which is appropriately named the nectar of the gods, is an absolute game-changer,” says Deke Dunne, bar supervisor at Allegory at the Eaton Hotel in D.C.
“Anytime anyone orders an Aperol Spritz, I immediately ask them if they want to try Don Ciccio and Figli's Ambrosia. 99 out of 100, they are leaving a convert. Ambrosia is much more juicy and full-bodied than Aperol, plus I get the luxury of touting a locally produced aperitif. The blood orange, cantaloupe, and turmeric will have you begging for an endless summer or a trip to Italy.”
Lejay Creme de Cassis
Region: France | ABV: 20% | Tasting Notes: Currant, Blackberry, Plum
Cassis is a French liqueur made from blackcurrants, and John deBary, author and founder of Proteau Zero-Proof Drinks, thinks that Lejay has one of the best available.
“One of my all-time favorite things to drink is LeJay Creme de Cassis de Dijon,” he says, “which has a freshness and vibrancy that no other cassis I’ve had so far has been able to match. They steep the liqueur in two kinds of dried cassis flowers, so not only is it fruity, it has a great nice floral dimension as well.”
Best for Spritz
Region: Italy | ABV: 11% | Tasting Notes: Orange, Bitter, Spice
“Now that summer is officially here, my favorite aperitif to drink has got to be an Aperol Spritz,” says Manuel Gonzalez, beverage manager at the AC Hotel Sawgrass Mills. “The smell of zesty orange complementing complex herbal scents makes for smooth sipping all summer long.”
Aperol is indeed a classic aperitif to use in this Spritz, which is popular both in its home country of Italy and all around the US. Just combine Aperol with prosecco, add a splash of soda, and garnish with a slice of orange.
There are many aperitifs to choose from, but the best option is the underrated Select Aperitivo (view at Drizly). This Venetian bitter liqueur is affordable, easy to find, and can be used in many different ways before your meal to stimulate your hunger. Try it in a Spritz, sip some over ice, or play around with it in a Negroni. Whatever you choose, you won’t be disappointed.
What to Look For
There is a wide range of flavors to explore in these low-ABV spirits, which mostly come from European countries. There’s a new school of aperitifs and liqueurs being made domestically as well, using locally sourced botanicals and herbs as flavoring components. Overall, you can choose sweet, bitter, herbal, or even spicy depending on your palate. And don’t be afraid to try these on their own, either neat or over some ice, as well as with soda water, tonic, or as part of a more complex cocktail.
What makes a drink an aperitif?
Aperitifs are typically low-ABV liqueurs and spirits that are meant to be drunk before a meal. Within that broad category, you can find vermouth, pastis, sherry, amaro, or even Champagne. Traditionally, an aperitif is meant to stimulate your appetite before eating.
Are digestifs and aperitifs interchangeable - what's the difference?
While aperitifs are usually served before a meal, a digestif is drunk after eating to aid with digestion. The two can be interchangeable but classic digestifs include fernet, sambuca, Chartreuse, and limoncello.
What's the average alcohol content?
These are low-ABV spirits, with a range typically falling somewhere between 15 to 20 percent.
Why Trust Liquor.com?
Jonah Flicker is an experienced writer who has been covering spirits and traveling the world visiting distilleries for many years. His work has appeared in many different national outlets covering trends, new releases, and the stories and innovators behind the spirits. His first love remains whiskey, but he is partial to tequila, rum, gin, cognac and all things distilled.
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