An aperitif is an alcoholic drink served before a meal, sometimes as an appetizer, or accompanied with an appetizer. The drink is usually somewhat bitter, sweet or light, and serves as a warm-up or opener to a meal. The term comes from the Latin aperire a verb meaning “to open.” In France, one might receive the drink before a meal, usually dinner, and sometimes lunch. In Italy, one would be offered an aperitivo. The former term is more commonly used in the US and in other English speaking countries.
Ina Garten, known for her cooking show on the Food Network, The Barefoot Contessa, frequently plans elaborate meals that include an aperitif, and she is quite creative. Instead of martinis, she might serve appletinis, cosmopolitans, or other inspired drinks, frequently combining fruit juices with various alcohols. She also usually includes a non-alcoholic version for younger guests, or those who do not drink.
The origins of serving a drink before dinner are difficult to specifically identify. There is some speculation that serving one may have been common in Ancient Egypt, but little corroborating evidence exists to give this theory backing. More likely, the invention of vermouth in Italy was cause to begin the tradition in the late 18th century. By the late 19th century, the practice of serving cocktails prior to dinner was both a European and American custom. Drinks like the martini, sherry, or even dry white wine or champagne sufficed as a palate warmer.
Most countries have popular aperitifs. For example, martinis before dinner are quite common in meals of several courses in the US. The French tend to drink anise-based liquors, like Pastis and Pernod. Kir, a mixture of white wine and cassis, is also popular, and for those who wish to be fancy, Kir Royale, a mix of champagne and cassis might be substituted.
The Greeks may also serve drinks before dinner, and one most common to them is ouzo, another liquor with an anise flavor. The Italians may favor cinzano or campari, which are both bitter. Vermouth might also be served.
In company with the aperitif is the digestif, a drink served after the meal that is said to aid in digestion. Digestifs tend to be a little heavier, and may include drinks like port or cognac. Serving an after dinner drink may be frowned upon however, particularly if the diner plans to drive home.