To whet your appetite before a meal.
The word Aperitif comes from the French word for an alcoholic drink that stimulates the appetite. It is a Latin-based word, “aperire” which means to open, and it was originally a medical treatment based on a doctrine called “humourism”.
Humourism said that the body is composed of four basic substances (humours) and that if you are sick, it is because you have too much or too little of one of these substances. To get well again meant you had to restore the balance within your body. For example, if you had no appetite, then you needed to be stimulated with something bitter, to encourage the flow of bile and help the digestion.
The medicines used for this cure were liquors. These were flavoured with strong tasting herbs and spices. Over time, the bitterness was reduced and made tastier by adding more alcohol. Even people who were in great health discovered and then decided that drinking such medicine was a good idea to stimulate the appetite.
The strong herbal taste of the drinks was deliberate. You were not getting drunk; you were getting better. And so, a tradition was established around the world.
The Aperitif established itself as something to “whet your appetite”. To “whet” means to sharpen tools on a “whetstone”. To “whet your appetite” means to sharpen your appetite. It was first used in a play written by Thomas Shadwell, in 1688, “The Squire of Alsatia”
“Let’s whet; bring some wine. Come on; I love a Whett”.