Why You Should Be Drinking Port as a Digestif
Until fairly recently, digestifs were the types of beverages drunk by old Italian men alongside a cup of espresso. In bars from Milan to Naples, or outside delis in Brooklyn or London, you would see dapper, gray-haired men sipping from tiny glasses, arguing about soccer ("football") or baseball and eyeing up the young ladies. But lately, these strongly flavored, highly alcoholic drinks—consumed after a meal to aid digestion (allegedly)—have been making a serious comeback. What was once considered a fusty beverage choice has become the drink of preference for the bright young things of London and New York.
Amaro in particular has had a recent resurgence. According to Liam Cotter, project manager of the drinks company Heads, Hearts & Tails, old brands like Fernet-Branca and Cynar have been reinventing themselves, putting out products that appeal to a whole new generation of drinker. Angostura launched an amaro last autumn based on its legendary bitters. New brands are popping up, too, and "boutique" amari are being made on both sides of the Atlantic. In Britain, Asterley Bros. started producing the Dispense small-batch amaro, and Stellacello has its London amaro. Then there is broVo in Seattle and Bittermens in New Orleans, both of which produce distinctly American takes on the drink. These handmade liqueurs are made from high-quality ingredients, and the results can be as complex as a good wine.
Amaro means bitter in Italian, and Italians have a thing about bitterness. In addition to all the amaro variants (there's amaretto, a liqueur made from apricot stones, which means little bitter one; and the grape negroamaro, which means black and bitter), Italians drink a powerful wine called Amarone della Valpolicella. Made from raisined grapes, it has a remarkable dried fruit and bitter flavor. In Italy, wines that function as digestifs are known as vino da meditazione. These are wines so complex and strongly flavored that they are best drunk on their own, in quiet contemplation.
My proposition for 2016 is that we should treat port in just this way. I think most people have a preconceived notion about when we should drink port: Once a year, we dig out a dusty bottle from the bottom of the cupboard to drink at the end of Christmas lunch, with cheese. The traditional partner is Stilton, and while I find a good tawny goes with most mature hard cheeses, the pairing options are otherwise a bit limited. I don’t know how port ended up in this pigeonhole. Historically, people treated it more as a digestif than as a wine for pairing. I think we should return to that tradition. (The French drink it before a meal, but they’re a bit mad in this respect.)
There’s something about the combination of complexity and alcoholic fire in port that loosens tongues and warms hearts. It was the drink of Georgian England. William Pitt the Younger, prime minister from 1783 to 1801, would drink a bottle of port before giving a speech before the House of Commons. Samuel Johnson, the creator of the first English dictionary, was an enormous port enthusiast: “I have drunk three bottles of port without being the worse for it. University College has witnessed this."
Port lasts a long time. I was lucky enough to try a wood-aged 1863 released by Taylor’s last year. It was one of the most intense wines I’ve ever had, thick and black like balsamic vinegar with a taste of molasses and bitter chocolate, with layers and layers of nuts. So powerful was it that you could only drink it on its own. Obviously this was very expensive, about $4,500 a bottle, but old port can be relatively affordable. Without too much searching I found a bottle of Sandeman from the legendary 1963 vintage for about $195 a bottle. Compare that with the equivalent from Bordeaux—say, Palmer 1961—and you’re looking at up to ten times that price. And as port is more robust it’s more likely to be drinkable.
Though I don’t think it’ll ever be as popular as it was in the 18th century, interest in port is on the rise. Thanks to an especially stellar 2011 vintage—hailed as the finest in the past few decades—the drink gained a slew of new converts. Now, to accommodate the newcomers and fuel interest among others, port producers are releasing rare bottlings at not-outrageous prices. Later this year Graham’s will launch a 1972 Colheita—a wood-aged port from a single vintage, as opposed to a vintage port that is aged in a bottle—for around $300 a bottle.
With so much excellent port around, you shouldn’t limit your consumption of it to a once-a-year, cheese-fueled binge. Instead, think of it as a digestif. Make sure you’ve always got a bottle of tawny port in the house (an open bottle in the fridge lasts for weeks). Offer your guests a glass and they won’t want to leave. In fact, all digestifs—amari, port and other fortified wines—are really just good excuses to linger and have another drink. They’re hospitality in a glass. If your guests try to refuse, tell them the drink will help settle their stomachs. After all, they're not called digestifs for nothing.
Here are a few affordable and readily available vinos da meditazione to start with—plus a few great digestifs to try while you’re at it:
Masi Amarone - One of the biggest quality producers, which makes a range of Amarones from about $50 a bottle.
Taylor’s Ten Year Old Tawny Port - One the most widely available quality ports also happens to be one of the best. Around $20
Picon Amer - From Provence, this has a sort of burnt marmalade tang and is often drunk in France mixed with beer. Widely available in France for about 7 euros a bottle, it tends to be much more expensive when exported.
Green Chartreuse: The Daddy of digestifs. Made by monks in France since 1737 and weighing in at 55% alcohol, it packs a mighty punch. It’s something of a cult drink, and has cropped up in works by Evelyn Waugh and Hunter S. Thompson. It even features in a song by Tom Waits, When the Money Runs Out.