The Long Good-bye
Even before I could pronounce the word digestif—and I am still not certain I can—I liked to linger at tables. Growing up in the 1970s, I asked my mother to cut my TV dinners into "courses," the better to extend the meal. Absurd? Yes, but I savor the memory of my mother taking scissors to the foil plate. (And what a pleasure it was to get my very own triangle of spinach.) Still, at the end of the meal, there was a chasm. I wondered, Is that all there is? Isn't there some final something to carry you into the evening? (There was: TV.)
Eventually I grew up and learned about digestifs. And now that I drink them regularly, I feel as if I've found the secret to gentle landings: How do you move from dinner to the rest of reality? Well, you have a little something.
Although they have been around for centuries, it's only in the past few years that digestifs have shown any signs of life. Today some of the country's trendiest restaurants—from Mario Batali's seafood house, Esca, in New York, to Grace in Chicago and Delfina in San Francisco's Mission District—feature a large selection of great digestifs.
But before going much further, we must deal with the term digestif, for it is embarrassingly French and a little silly. In fact, I will argue that we need a new word for these drinks. While many people say they have heard of digestifs, or even claim to have drunk them, hardly anyone knows what one is. The good news is it appears we can blame the French.
The word digestif is probably one of the least charming words in the French language—hard to say, unpleasant to contemplate. After all, do we really need to consider our digestion over a glass of Armagnac?
Digestifs, in the original sense, were potions, herbal concoctions to heal the ailing and to aid with problems of digestion. French monks, those mad geniuses of the Middle Ages, realized that a spoonful of fruit essences made the medicine go down, and pretty soon they were mixing up some pretty inspired "medicines": liqueurs made from herbs and fruits, like Benedictine and Chartreuse.
Which brings us to the question of what constitutes a digestif today. Even bartenders and restaurateurs aren't certain, some defining it extremely narrowly to mean a small group of mostly bitter, mostly Italian after-dinner drinks, such as Fernet Branca and Branca Menta (both are made from roots, flowers and fruits macerated in a neutral spirit). Others use the term loosely, along with words like cordials and liqueurs, to mean everything from Grand Marnier to Cognac to grappa to even Taam Pree's Banana Kosher. Today the word digestif can even refer to wholly impotable brews such as Jägermeister, or garish drinks with glitter suspended in them, such as Goldschläger—these are the kind of drinks that will aid in no one's digestion.
I prefer to use the term after-dinner drink, and all I demand is that the beverage have as much character as the meal that preceded it. I tend toward the sweet rather than the bitter, because I think sweet is usually a more natural transition from the fruitiness of wine, and so flows more gracefully from the meal. That doesn't mean I won't have an amaro, a fine Italian bitter digestivo, but I will do so sparingly, a thimble lasting as long as a tumbler of Bas-Armagnac. A few after-dinner drinks still strike me as being too medicinal or too syrupy, or—in the unique case of Yugoslavia's Robitussin-like Kruskovac—both. I avoid drinks like these, but welcome all others.
Depending on the night, the meal and the energy of the evening, I also make distinctions as to the drink best suited to the occasion. Do I want a bracing nightcap for a lively crowd? If so, I might go for an aquavit, which can have a bold, herbal flavor and a kick that settles nicely. (Look for Herrgårds, a sweet, sherry-casked aquavit, as well as the spicier O.P. Anderson.) But if my group is a mellower kind, I'd choose Calvados and end on a sweet applejack note, or perhaps, if I wanted the evening to last a little longer, I'd serve Pampero, an aged sipping rum from Venezuela.
Or maybe I'd settle on the diplomatic solution and go for grappa, the drink that hovers somewhere between wine and digestif—potent but civilized. For years I didn't like grappa—the "wrath of grapes," I called it—because I found it harsh and because I figured, wrongly, that it was made from stems and spiders. (It's actually a brandy made from grape pips and skins.) I have long since gotten over that, but lately things have improved even more. I've found some producers—American producers—are doing a novel thing: letting the fruit come out. For example, Germain-Robin, in Mendocino, California, makes grappas from unexpected grapes like Viognier that actually allow you to taste the connection between the grape they began as and the grappa they wound up as.
But if it's true harmony with food and wine that I'm after, I'll usually go with fortified wines: ports, Madeiras and sherries. Sherries, in particular—or the Pedro Ximénezesand moscatels coming out of Spain that resemble them—can have a wonderfully layered pruniness with a light syrup quality that isn't cloying. And, it's worth noting, they are usually much cheaper than most ports or dessert wines.
But I think the digestif I'm currently fondest of is the one that breaks the most rules. It's a tequila, believe it or not—but a Cognac maker's interpretation of how to age the drink of the agave. It's called Paradiso, and it's a brilliant collaboration between El Tesoro's master tequila maker, Don Felipe, and Alain Royer, the famed Cognac blender. No one I have ever served it to has properly identified it. Nor have they been able to put it down.
Oh, no. They have stayed up with me, long past the turkey or the roast beef or the halibut, and sipped that glass clean.
Jim Nelson, the assistant managing editor of GQ, wrote about his love of California Sauvignon Blanc in the August issue of F&W.