A few courses of heavy creams and foie gras and breads and the French stand right up after dinner and sashay down cobblestone streets, probably to go dancing. A whole paella and a kilo or so of patatas bravas and jamón and Spaniards get right up to fight some bulls. Or at least climb a few flights to their apartments. Their post-gorge vitality is all thanks to dinnertime silver bullet Americans are only just getting warmed up to: the handy dandy digestif. That is, any number of strong, sometimes sweet, liquors that both cleanse the palette and immediately alleviate the after effects of eating to one’s heart’s content. We figured the eat-nap-eat-nap cycle of Thanksgiving might have been too sacred to sacrifice, but a rough knowledge of the digestif should be a big leg-up for the remainder of the holiday season.
Most every liquor-consuming culture has one or more spirits that can work well as a digestif—from Tennessee whiskey to Turkic Arak. Our primer is by no means an exhaustive guide, but rather a pleasant toe dip into a fascinating and incredibly rich subset of booze.
Anise is a strong, polarizing flavor that seems nonetheless to be gaining a fair bit of culinary traction. There are several liquors with a primarily anise flavor, including anisette, Galliano, sambuca and for the pétanque set, Pernod and Ricard pastis. We recommend a good stiff Arak, probably from Turkey. Blended 1/1 with water and on the rocks (or not), it turns a mystical white and its strong anise flavor is spicier and more assertive than the mellow, nuanced tones of provençal pastis. Not for those who dislike licorice, but then, what’s life without licorice?
Bitters are also strong and polarizing, but thanks to the newly global popularity of the Negroni and the Aperol Spritz, from Milan and Venice, respectively, amari have become mainstays. Nobody does them nearly as well as the Italians. From well-known Campari and Aperol, to the still-slightly-under-the-radar Ramazotti, Montenegro and Strega there are dozens of types from all around the country. Most are used in signature cocktails, but almost all are drinkable on their own. Montenegro after dinner with a piece of dark chocolate is absolute perfection and mellow Strega — its name translates to “witch” — is a rarity in that it works well as both an aperitif and a digestif. We’ve had this bottle of Cynar, an amaro derived from artichoke, on our studio shelf since our Bitter Italians cocktail post a few months ago, but only recently discovered its perfection as a smooth, sippable digestif.
Underberg is a brilliant German anomaly, and purportedly one of the most effective digestifs. A fair bit stronger than most Italian bitters, it has a singular herbal taste. And if it can wash down holiday loads of knödel and wurst with ease, rest assured that it’ll work wonders on turkey and ham.
Angostura bitters, most definitely not to be drank on its own — it’s outrageously bitter and is over 40% ABV — is a botanical brew from Venezuela. Though we’re breaking our rule slightly here, the Chinotto-like bitterness it lends to many classic cocktails make them good digestifs.
Though most often not bitters, there are many very strong herbal liquors such as Scandinavianakavit — commonly made with dill or caraway — or any number of Latin American aguardientes (burning waters) that are great digestifs. In many Slavic countries, vodka is commonly used in a similar fashion. The Poles do it best, and we recommend no-nonsense Polish vodkas after any meal of kielbasa or borscht.
The Sweet Stuff
Instead of a slab of cake, most very sweet liqueurs do a good job of acting as digestifs. In researching a PB&J post from earlier this year, we were happy to find that Frangelico and Chambord together taste exactly like that stalwart sandwich. On their own, classics like Bailey’s or Grand Marnier do just fine. Skip the crème brulée and swig something sugary instead.
Sherry, Port & Co.
Old lady jokes aside, these fortified wines often relegated to cooking are some of the most effective digestifs around. In addition to the well-known Iberians sherry and port, both of which come in a staggering number of variants from sweet to achingly dry, there’s also madiera, commandaria, mistelle, marsala and others. Keep in mind that there is truth to the popular notion that many are undrinkable, but as with anything else usually a matter of not skimping. A good sherry can be heavenly — we recommend a good crisp, dry Manzanilla. Marsala, on the other hand, is cheap, earthy and sweet and makes a damn nice sauce for chicken, but can be downright terrible if not selected with care.
Vermouth, like Martini Rossi, counts here too as it’s also a fortified wine. Pro tip: it is excellent on the rocks with a slight squeeze of good citrus.