From apéritif to digestif – a beginner’s guide to drinking in France

Although drinking alcohol isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, France is well known for its marriage of food and drink. There are 67 million people living in France, and for many of them, the thirst is real.

France has a very strong tradition and culture of alcohol production (to say nothing of consumption), inextricably linked to food. Perhaps a gastronomical tour will help motivate your learning process – after all what better way to practice your French (especially if you’re a beginner learner of French) with a carafe of your favorite rouge?

Whether you’re dining at a Michelin-starred restaurant, feasting at a wedding or patronizing your local Bistrot, here’s a starter’s guide on how to eat and drink successfully on your next trip to France.

The apéro

First thing’s first: the apéro is sacred. A pre-dinner drink and snack period which has become a cultural institution, the apéro often begins with a verre de blanc: Sancerre, Chardonnay or Chablis. If you happen to be traveling to Marseille, why not try a verre de Pastis? It’s an aniseed-flavored spirit diluted with water (don’t forget the glaçons). Note: this spirit was invented after Absinthe was made illegal, which should indicate its alcohol percentage.

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Not a fan of the strong stuff? Order a pinte de blonde, i.e.a pint of blonde, or whatever else is good en pression (on tap, on draft). If you’re the fancy type, you already know that un verre de champagne goes with everything. Don’t neglect the most affordable option on the menu, a kir vin blanc, which consists of table wine topped with crème de cassis (blackcurrant juice). Your wallet will thank you later, if you haven’t misplaced it in a kir-fueled rage afterwards.

Note: beware of the apéro dinatoire which refers to a pre-dinner drink, with no dinner to follow. This is also a French tradition – just grab a bowl of cherry tomatoes and hold on for dear life – it may not come around for a second round.

What are we having?

With the formalities of the apéro out of the way, it’s time to passer à table (sit down to have dinner). This act may be accompanied by a bouteille de rouge to keep things flowing. If you’re dining out, a visit from the sommelier may elicit a debate: would you like to order a bouteille (75 cl), a pichet, or just un verre? Bouteille it is.

Following large, multi-course dinners, there may be a break taken after the first or second course – enter the classic French ritual known as le trou normand, consisting of a hefty shot of Calvados meant to cleanse your palate and make room for further courses.

Dessert provides another opportunity for booze, this time paired with a sweet dish. You may even combine the two: a crêpe Suzette is a moist pancake flambéed with Grand Marnier, an orange-flavored cognac, while cannelés are small pastries flavored with rum and vanilla.

After the eating is finally over, it may be time to move on to the strong stuff, in order to facilitate digestion of course. Common digestifs include Cognac, a type of brandy from the Southwest of France and Armagnac, Gascony’s answer to Cognac.

The French are traditionally very particular about which drink pairs with a particular meal, at what time of day and under what weather it should be enjoyed. With enough practice, you will learn it too, you little soûlard, you.

For more drinking-related content, don’t forget to check out our survival guide on navigating through a French bar.

Please eat and drink responsibly! Oh, and don’t forget to try our online French course Frantastique for free for 7 days. You’ll have fun and you’ll learn all about French language and culture.

Drinking glossary:

  • Bistrot: casual neighborhood restaurant that offers typical French cuisine
  • Digestif: alcoholic drink enjoyed after a large dinner. Some say it facilitates digestion
  • Apéritif aka. apéro: pre-dinner drink and snack period
  • Pastis: aniseed-flavored spirit diluted with water originally made in Marseilles
  • Kir vin blanc: table wine topped with blackcurrant juice
  • Apéro dinatoire:  pre-dinner drink with finger food, which lasts much longer than a regular apéro
  • Trou Normand: shot of Calvados meant to cleanse your palate from the previous course, and make more room for the rest of the meal. This is usually served between courses of a large meal.
  • Calvados: apple brandy produced in Normandy
  • Crêpe Suzette: decadent dessert consisting of moist pancake flambé with Grand Marnier, an orange-flavored cognac
  • Cannelés: small French pastry flavored with rum and vanilla originally from the Bordeaux region
  • Cognac and Armagnac: brandies from the Southwest of France

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