Spirits
Digestifs 101

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Just as a checkered flag signals the end of a race, the appearance of a digestif (or digestivo, as they’re known in Italy) at the table is an indication the meal—and the evening—is coming to close. But beyond the symbolism of a flag, a digestif serves an important purpose: The post-meal drink is meant to aid digestion, as its name implies, and ease the discomfort of an indulgent meal.

A motley assortment of everything from port and amari to Cognac and scotch, the digestif category is about as diverse as it gets. Post-dinner drinks vary not only from country to country but from family to family. Some prefer a stiff pour of liquor, some a cream liqueur, still others a shot of chilly limoncello.

While some digestifs may be similar in style and aroma to aperitifs, there’s a clear difference in the after-dinner drink’s richer, sweeter and more potent flavors. The digestif is the post-dessert dessert, a rich treat that inspires droopy eyelids and eases bellies.

The History of Digestifs

Like aperitifs, the history of digestifs goes back for centuries. Originally used as cures for every ailment imaginable, digestifs eventually made their way from the pharmacy to the dinner table during the 18th century. The herbs, spices and other plants used to make many digestifs were thought to ease the stomach and help food digest. Many brands available today retain evidence of their medicinal origins with bitter, herbal flavor profiles that may remind some of childhood cold remedies.

How Are Digestifs Made?

Digestifs are an incredibly diverse category of drinks, including fortified wines like port, spirits—most notably Cognac—and liqueurs like bitter Italian amari. There’s no general digestif production method. The processes are as diverse as the styles and flavors of the category.

Where Are Digestifs Made?

Digestifs are a global affair. But like aperitifs, the after-dinner potables come predominantly from Italy and France, where they’ve been made commercially for about two centuries.

France deals heavily in the harder digestifs like brandy, especially the more specialized Armagnac and Cognac, which can only be produced in particular regions within the country. Some of the most famous and storied digestif liqueurs also come from France, including the well-known Chartreuse, made by Carthusian monks in Voiron since 1737.

Digestivi in Italy are perhaps more varied than digestifs made anywhere else in the world. There’s the pomace brandy grappa, dozens of brands of bitter amari like the artichoke-based Cynar and intensely bitter Fernet-Branca, as well as the sweeter limoncello, which is favored in the south.

Elsewhere in Europe, digestifs aren’t quite as varied, but are still just as effective—and delicious. Germany claims a class of intensely bittered liqueurs called Kräuterlikör, including the barely sippable, but super shootable Underberg Bitters, as well as the beacon of American college party culture, Jägermeister, among others.

In Spain and its westerly neighbor Portugal, fortified wines dominate. Spain claims nutty sherry, which is made in the Andalucia region, while rich and sweet port is produced in Portugal’s Douro Valley.

Digestif Styles

Fortified Wines: These wines are made by fortifying wine with a spirit (most often brandy) to impart a richer flavor and potency. Many are also aged after fortification. Examples: Port, sweet Madeira, amontillado, oloroso and pedro ximenez sherry.

Brandy and Other Distilled Liquor: Whether straight, herb-free spirits aid in digestion the same way bitter liqueurs and fortified wines do is unclear, but a snifter of something strong and aged is always a fantastic way to prolong the evening. Examples: Brandy, Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados, grappa, scotch, aquavit, añejo tequila.

Bitters and Liqueurs: Prefer a liqueur to a fortified wine or spirit? Take your pick of hundreds of brands of bitter, herbal and sweet liqueurs. Italian amari tend to lean more to the bitter side of the spectrum, while French digestif liqueurs are more restrained on the bitter flavors and tend towards the herbal. Prefer your post-meal quaffing to be sweet? Go for a chilled limoncello or the orange-flavored Grand Marnier. Examples: Chartreuse, Bénédictine, Grand Marnier, Cynar, Fernet-Branca, Averna Amaro, Jägermeister, Underberg Bitters, limoncello.

How Do I Drink Digestifs Straight?

Most digestifs are imbibed without fuss. Pour a measure of your favorite chilled or room temperature elixir into a glass and go. Some digestifs like limoncello are taken as shots, whereas a nice Cognac or fortified wine is sipped.

Notable Digestif Cocktails

Old-Fashioned: Perhaps one of the simplest cocktails in existence, this centenarian stalwart continues to captivate drinkers. It’s the perfect combination of sweet, boozy and aromatized, with a quick blend of sugar, bitters, water and the spirit of your choosing.

Sazerac: This double-spirit sipper, which dates back to the early 1800s, is a potent way to end a good meal. It combines a base of Cognac and rye whiskey with sugar, an absinthe rinse, Peychaud’s and Angostura bitters.

Vieux Carré: Invented at New Orleans’ famed Carousel Bar in the 1930s, the Vieux Carré mixes rye whiskey with Cognac, sweet vermouth, Bénédictine, Peychaud’s and Angostura bitters. Yes, it’s as good as it sounds.

Digestifs In Culture

In the 2001 mob film Made, starring Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau, Vaughn’s character, Ricky, gets into an argument with a character named Ruiz (Sean Combs) over what qualifies as a digestif. After Ruiz orders four glasses of Fernet-Branca for the table, Ricky declines, saying, “No. I’ll take a Strega.” Ruiz responds: “You drinking ‘the witch’ after dinner?” to which Ricky replies, “Yeah, the Fernet tastes like tar, and besides Strega is also a digestif.” Ruiz’s response? “No class. It’s after midnight and this [expletive] is ordering an apéritif!” (In fact, both are digestifs. No harm, no foul, Ricky.)

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