From Fortified Wines To Flavoured Brandies: A Definitive Guide To Digestifs
As lovers of a long lunch or dinner will attest, a meal doesn’t have to end with espresso and dessert. When leaving the table feels a little premature, a cheeky digestif can’t be overlooked, the boozy post-meal tipple that’ll firmly and classily bookend any great meal.
If an aperitif opens up your palette and stimulates the appetite for the meal ahead, the digestif is there to wind the show down. Implied in the name, a digestif is not only an excuse to knock back another round of delicious booze at the end of a night, it’s also said to aid digestion, especially important if you’ve just gorged yourself on three or more courses of hefty fare.
But which digestif should you order? In this diverse category of beverage, there’s an endless choice of flavours, styles and moods to opt for – we’ll guide you through with a bittersweet rundown on some of the most common and loved, and a few tasting notes on the drink’s origins.
A brief history
Like all alcoholic drinks, the digestif’s history goes way back. Intrinsically linked with medicinal elixirs throughout the ages, many digestifs these days are still created with a similar bouquet of time-tested herbs, spices and plants that, to varying degree, are thought to be good for what ails you.
The Ancient Greeks were likely the first in the digestif game, known to knock back caraway water after meals to aid digestion. A few millennia later, this humble post-meal bevvy comes in an array of tones and flavour profiles, all usually served neat, from bitter to sweet, rich to light, complex to pure, cocktail form and beyond.
One of the more sought after digestif categories is brandy: a liquor distilled from wine or fermented fruit. It comes in heaps of styles and flavours, typically dependent on where exactly you are in the world. The French, to cite one example, are revered for their delicious cognacs and armagnacs.
You’ll find a tasty equivalent in most countries and regions you come across. Eau De Vie (aka ‘ Water of Life’) also falls under the brandy category: a fruit-distilled elixir that varies from turf to turf (think schnapps in Germany, raki in Turkey, palenka and palinka in Czechia and Hungary respectively, and rakia in the Balkans).
Robust and usually rather boozy, grappa (Italy), pisco (Peru and Chile) and ‘flavoured’ brandies like ouzo (Greece) and calvados (France) are other unique branches on the brandy family tree.
Fortified wine is what you get when a spirit (often brandy) is added to a particular variety of wine during the distillation process. We’re talking rich, sweet beverages here: think port (Portugal), sherry (Spain), madeira (Madeira islands), and commandaria (Cyprus).
There’s also the widely popular vermouth, which falls under the fortified subcategory of ‘aromatised wine’ – Italy and Spain are known for their idiosyncratic blends, which usually come very dry or very sweet. Vermouth is also a key ingredient in countless classic cocktails (Martinis, Negronis, et al.) though it stands up just as well as a solo operator.
Liqueurs come in a diverse variety of bitter and sweet blends, and are typically created with distilled spirits flavoured with sugar, fruits and other herbs and spices.
One of the most commonly supped liqueurs in the bitter camp is the Italian amaro: a world within a world in the digestivo game, with Averna, Ramazotti and Montenegro some of the most popular brands. With its 27 herbs and spices, Fernet Branca is another bitingly bitter and complex amaro, while the alluring, ruby red cocktail go-to Campari remains an enduring gem. Outside Italy, look for Becherovka (Czechia), Jägermeister (Germany), and Unicum (Hungary), all herby and spicy in their own way, and all deserving of a late night dram.
Amaro aside, options abound, from the notoriously potent Chartreuse, the orange-tinged Grand Marnier, the citric powerhouse Limoncello, the sumptuous, crowd favourite Irish cream Baileys, and the anise-y vibes of Sambucca, and milky louche anise of French Pernod and Ricard.
There’s no real definition of what counts as a digestif, flavour- or distillation-wise – if it soothes the stomach post-meal, or simply the soul, then it gets a fair run in our book.
While they may not have quite the same ‘herby’ medicinal properties as some of the aforementioned, distilled liquors like whiskey (both scotch and bourbon), rum, and even tequila or mezcal, can make for a neat after dinner delight.
The digestif cocktail
For the gourmands at the table, a common digestif may be a little too light, in which case a post-meal cocktail might suffice.
Popular choices here include the Manhattan (whiskey, vermouth and bitters), the Old Fashioned (whiskey, bitters, orange), Sazerac (whiskey or cognac, absinthe, peychaud bitters), and the New Orleans legend, Vieux Carre (benedictine, cognac, vermouth). Negroni also falls under this category (Campari, gin, vermouth), though it tends to go just as well prior to the meal (or during … or anytime, really).
Ultimately, the one thing that matters when it comes to digestifs is when you drink it – and the spirit you find yourself in.
(Lead image: Pixabay)
Published 13 November, 2019