Do Aperitifs and Digestifs Really Work?


One of the most interesting things about living in the Mediterranean is the culture of the aperitif and digestif.

Every country seems to have its own version. And exploring them is part of the fun of the region’s “slow food” culture.

The traveler side of me loves the stories behind these drinks, and their unique pedigree. The fitness enthusiast side is curious about one simple question: do they work? Is there any scientific truth to the tradition?

Do aperitifs and digestifs really work?

First, let’s take a look at how they stack up…

An aperitif is served before a meal to stimulate the appetite. This category includes drinks like vermouth from France, fino from Spain, and an entire range of “bitters” such as Aperol, Averna and Campari from Italy, to name just a few.

Enjoy these aperitifs before dinner…

A digestif is served after a meal to aid digestion. In the digestif category, France rules the “prestige” market with cognac and armagnac. Other categories include pomace brandies (like Italian grappa and French vieux marc), fruit brandies, bitter herbal digestifs, fortified wines (port and madeira), and sweet liqueurs (such as Grand Marnier, Drambuie, and various irish creams).

Every Mediterranean country also has it’s own anise-based drink. The main difference being whether you sip it before a meal—pastis in France, arak in the Middle East, raki in Turkey—or after: sambuca in Italy and ouzo in Greece.

So what’s the scoop?

When it comes to firing up those taste buds, the bitter category of aperitifs wins hands-down. Bitter spirits were originally created for medicinal purposes, and were produced by doctors, apothecaries and monks to ease stomach complaints. Like any great medicine, the “cure” soon became a “preventative”, and that’s when they entered the wider beverage arena.

The low alcohol content of these concoctions is meant to relax the diner and stimulate the senses rather than deliver an unwanted knockout punch. And the bitter medicinal herbs they contain encourage the release of digestive juices.

The goal, after all, is to elevate the meal rather than blunt your senses to the range of wonderful foods you’re about to consume. It’s all about taking your time.

…and sample these digestifs after dinner.

Contrary to popular belief, cocktails and other strong mixed drinks are not especially suited to stimulating the appetite, and hence do not make the best aperitifs. Their typically high alcohol content and strong flavours tend to overpower and dominate rather than prepare your palate for the delicacies to come. Better save those for the occasional press reception or after work wind down.

And what of that other bookend to a Mediterranean meal, the noble digestif?

Taking a liqueur after a meal is thought to aid digestion due to it’s alcohol content, and there’s some truth to the tradition. Alcohol stimulates the stomach’s production of the enzyme pepsin and increases secretions of the pancreas and gall bladder. Herb based digestifs work best at this, and ingredients like caraway, fennel and savory are thought to be especially beneficial for the digestive system. So congratulations Jaegermeister, Chartreuse and Fernet Branca—you win.

And what of other categories of digestif? Much to my surprise, drinks like brandy and whiskey have an adverse effect on digestion. […cue the sad trombone…wah wah waaaahhhhh…] I guess I’ll have to reserve those glasses of armagnac for nightcaps with a book…

So there you have it. It seems there really is some factual basis behind this wonderful Mediterranean tradition.

I encourage you to get out there and give them a try. Even better—taste them “on location” while admiring the landscapes that brought us these excellent drinks.

Aperitifs and Digestifs—A Mediterranean Tradition
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About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of A Sunny Place for Shady People and Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Writer at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.


    • A lot of personal experimentation! LOL

      I do recall reading a couple studies at the time on bitter herbs stimulating the appetite, but I don’t remember where I saw them. I wrote the article 3 years ago so it’s been a while. I’m sure if you dig a bit on google you’ll find stuff. Good luck!

      • I am not sure if there are any studies done in regards to the effectiveness of digestif alcoholic drinks and their effectiveness. However, there are plenty of resources and studies done on bitter herbs and the effect on digestion. It has been found that there are bitter receptors, not just on the tongue but in the stomach as well. If I recall correctly, one of the benefits of bitter herbs on digestion is secretion of saliva and an increase in HCl production. Many people who suffer from heartburn and reflux have weak stomach acid, not too strong (even though it causes burning). In using degestifs the purpose would be to stimulate the digestive process. I believe some herbs, such as ginger (again if I am remembering correctly) also help to increase circulation with the digestive system and help with stomach emptying. Interesting article by the way. look forward to trying some out. lol

  • I can add that if/whenever I may have an after dinner stomach situation, a shot of Fernet Branca or Fernet Valleti(Mexico)does the trick – really! Works better than Pepcid.

    • Good to know, thank you. I wonder if including Fernet in a pre-meal cocktail would act as a preventative?

  • I had a bit too much to eat a few hours ago and my girlfriend suggested some digestif. Now my aftermeals go-to if there should be one is peaty single malt scotch… and I was finding it a bit hard to believe that would help my diggestion… after reading your article I got inspired to dig a bit more on google as you also suggested on another comment… and found out particularly herbal spirits ought to be really good for it. As luck would have it, we did have an assortment of little Riga Black Balsam flasks, had just a bit… and already feel better. Now it could all be just placebo effect… but I do feel better 😛 so it works one way… or the other. Thanks for sharing! Cheers!

    • Glad you enjoyed it, Pedro. Black Balsam is an excellent choice. That brings back memories of times spent in Riga, and a journey through the Baltic region. Are you traveling there now?

      Bitter flavours are the thing for stimulating digestion. Anise works well too. I’m in the Peloponnese at the moment, and followed a big meal of lamb with a very nice ouzo last night.

  • I’ve recently discovered Chartreuse (the green variety!). The stuff is amazing. Not only that, it’s a veritable godsend for when you’ve got the need to digest a big meal – or just have slow digestion in general. It’s very potent, and rather expensive, but fortunately you don’t need to drink much of it to get the digestive benefits.

    Other digestif liqueurs I like include Averna Amaro Siciliano, Galliano, Ouzo, and Jaegermeister. But so far, nothing comes close to Chartreuse for powerhouse digestion support. Team Chartreuse all the way.

    • I’m a fan of green Chartreuse as well. Now you’ve got me craving a bottle, been ages since I had it.

      I’ve only tried Galliano once. Bought a bottle when I lived in Malta, and it fell on the floor and shattered on the marble. The room smelled like vanilla for months afterwards.

      • Ha! Sad – though comical – story about the broken bottle!

        For the longest time I actually thought Galliano, due to its bright yellow color and bottle shape, must be some sort of banana liqueur. When I finally tried it for the first time, I was amazed and pleasantly surprised to find this was not the case. It is wonderful stuff. I like it straight, though I’ve found it mixes quite well with Ouzo, too

        • I assumed it was some sort of banana flavoured thing too. I was devastated to taste that delicious vanilla and then see it shatter on the floor after just one glass. I wouldn’t have thought to mix it with ouzo, that could be really nice.


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