A Brief History on Aperitifs

Aperitifs are just a little bit mysterious. Not quite a wine, not quite a spirit, but some mixture of the two flavored with exotic botanicals. Sound complicated? Here’s the Lo-Fi version:

Wines flavored with herbs and fortified with spirits have been used as medicine all the way back to the 5th century, everywhere from China to Greece. They may or may not have been effective, but somewhere along the line people realized that they were pretty tasty, and started drinking them as aperitifs.

The word aperitif comes from the Latin word aperire, meaning “to open”. Aperitifs have a bittersweet flavor that “opens up” the appetite, preparing your taste buds for a delicious meal. It’s no surprise, then, that you can trace the history of aperitifs back to two countries who know a thing or two about a great meal: Italy and France.

In Turin, Italy, in 1796, Antonio Carpano created the first recipe for vermouth — probably the most commonly known aperitif. It was a sweet (or rosso) vermouth, the style that later became associated with Italy. In spite of its name, sweet vermouth is still mildly bitter, with a deep red color.

A few years later, the first pale, dry vermouth was produced in France by Joseph Noilly. Like the Italian before it, this dry style became associated with France, and known as French vermouth. It has a pale color, is quite dry and lighter-bodied, and much more bitter than the rosso style due to the addition of nutmeg and/or bitter orange.

As the nineteenth century rolled on, aperitifs of all kinds (including vermouth) became wildly popular, and soon landed on American shores. The advent of the cocktail in America was where vermouth really took off: bartenders found that it was perfect in simple cocktails, such as the Manhattan and the Martini. The proportions for these cocktails often included almost twice as much vermouth as whiskey or gin — something that waned in popularity as the years went by. 

Traditional aperitif making was a small-scale operation, which relied on local winemaking and access to regional botanicals. As the focus on local ingredients and craft cocktails continues, there’s potential for new and exciting styles, as well as fresh takes on classic styles — like Lo-Fi’s Sweet and Dry Vermouths, made with Napa, CA wine.