The History of the Aperitif – From Hippocrates to the Current Day

Many of us enjoy an aperitif before a big meal. Even those who aren’t aware of what an aperitif is may find themselves engaging in this ancient ritual before they tuck into their food.

What is an aperitif?

Simply put, an aperitif is a drink, usually some form of Italian wine, that you enjoy before a meal. This drink has social connotations as it gives diners a chance to relax and talk while waiting for food to be served. However, aperitifs also have an important function that dates back to ancient times:

They open the stomach so you’re more able to eat your meal.

In that way, we can think of aperitifs as being similar to starting courses you may enjoy at a restaurant. The purpose isn’t to fill you up. Instead, the small drink of wine you enjoy before your meal stimulates your appetites and prepares your stomach for what you’re about to eat.

The idea of the Italian aperitif was first solidified only a couple of centuries ago. But the philosophy and concept date back far further than many would imagine. In this article, we dig into the history of the aperitif.

It Began with Hippocrates

Born in 460 BC, Hippocrates is one of the most renowned physicians of the ancient age. His work was so important that his name is attached to the Hippocratic Oath that all doctors take today. That oath requires doctors to swear upon a number of crucial medical ethics, the most important of which is to do no harm to their patients.

Simply put, Hippocrates is one of the most important figures in medicine. He was so important that many classify him as the father of modern medicine.

Now, we know what you’re thinking…

“That’s all very interesting. But what does Hippocrates have to do with the concept of an aperitif?”

As it turns out, Hippocrates was likely the man who invented the very concept of an aperitif. He created a medical remedy called vinum hippocraticum, which he prescribed to patients who struggled with a lack of appetite. The concoction was intended to open the stomach, thus stimulating the appetite to the point where the patient felt ready to eat.

Does that sound familiar?

This appetite stimulation is exactly what an Italian aperitif aims to achieve. And the similarities don’t end there. Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed the word “vinum” in Hippocrates’ remedy. That’s because vinum hippocraticum was actually a sweet white wine made using several ingredients, including rue, burning bush, and wormwood.

So, Hippocrates both came up with the idea of serving a drink to stimulate the appetite and identified that wine was most suited to these purposes. His remedy was so influential that it was later adopted by the Ancient Romans, who called it gvinum absinthiatum and added rosemary to the drink to improve its taste.

Aperitifs in the Middle Ages

Sadly, Hippocrates’ aperitif potion seemed to disappear once humanity reached the Middle Ages. During these times, wine became less commercially available and was often only made by monks for use in religious services.

But even though wine was no longer served as an aperitif, the philosophy behind the concept endured.

The idea of using herbal remedies to cure the loss of appetite persisted throughout the Middle Ages. This was particularly the case in monasteries, where monks experimented with using various substances to stimulate hunger. It was during this time that pharmacologists found that using bitter substances lead to the production of mucus and saliva enzymes, creating the desire to eat in those who consumed the bitter substance.

The Rise of Vermouth

Though the discovery of the effects of bitter substances was an important one, it wasn’t until the late 18th century that this pharmacological advancement was once again married to alcohol.

In 1786, an Italian distiller named Antonio Benedetto Carpano began experimenting with a new type of fortified wine. He used grapes to create a strong and sweet wine, which he infused with various herbs and spices to give the drink a slightly bitter taste.

The drink became the foundation for what we now know as Vermouth. And though initially marketed as an alternative to traditional Italian red wine that could be served to the women of Turin, the drink soon took on a life of its own.

Vermouth’s popularity in Italy grew enormously during the 19th century. It soon found its way into popular cafes in cities like Turin, Florence, Milan, and Rome, where it was served as an appetiser before larger meals.

The modern concept of the aperitif was born.

Italian Aperitifs Today

The rise of Vermouth eventually led to the formation of the Italian concept of an aperitif. Today, aperitifs aren’t limited to specific fortified wines or bitter concoctions. Instead, the idea has branched out to incorporate many Italian wines that can be enjoyed as a pre-meal refreshment. A perfect modern example is Prosecco, which is often consumed before meals because of its lightness and the slight bitterness that comes with its dry nature.

Aperitifs have become a staple of European culture, particularly in Italy and France. In Italy, we even have the aperitivo hour, which is typically between 6pm and 9pm. Patrons enjoy light food and beverages during these times before they consume their evening meals. The concept has also spread to other areas of the world, including the United States and the United Kingdom, though it is perhaps lesser known as a tradition in those areas.

Find Your Perfect Aperitif

Whether you want to stimulate your appetite before a big meal or simply want to enjoy a light drink with friends before eating, an aperitif is the answer. This light beverage has a history dating back thousands of years and is the perfect way to kickstart an evening shared with friends and family.

All you need to do is find the perfect wine to act as your aperitif.

At Xtrawine, we offer a large collection of light wines and fortified wines that are perfect for aperitivo hour. Browse our collection today and we’re sure you’ll find something to suit your needs.


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