A digestif is an alcoholic drink served after a meal. There are many styles of digestifs, from amaros and fortified wines to brandies and herbal liqueurs. Some cocktails can also be digestifs. The one thing that all of these have in common is that they're intended to aid in the digestion of food.
You may have had a digestif without knowing it, too. If you've sipped a glass of scotch or a snifter of brandy after dinner, you have enjoyed a digestif.
Defining the Digestif
It is not entirely easy to define a digestif because so many different beverages can fall into this category. A digestif is both what you drink and when you drink it.
Traditionally, a digestif is considered any alcoholic beverage that you would enjoy after a large dinner. It is not a dessert drink, however. You can enjoy it during, after, or instead of dessert, but a digestif tends to be far less sweet and higher in alcohol than the typical dessert drink. Also, it's rare to find a digestif with cream, chocolate, or any other decadent ingredients.
A digestif is quite the opposite of an aperitif, a drink enjoyed before a meal to prepare the stomach for digestion. Aperitifs, such as Campari, gin, and dry vermouth, tend to be bitter or designed in a way to wake up the palate and digestive system. In contrast, digestifs often have a higher alcohol content while offering a more relaxing flavor profile that is often richer.
Americans are not very familiar with digestifs because there is less emphasis on elaborate dinners. In the U.S., dinner (or supper, if you prefer) is generally served in the early evening with far less formality than in European culture. There's no need for a nightcap at 6 p.m., after all. Americans also tend to group the meal into a single course and save the multi-course meals for holidays and special occasions.
In contrast, people in many European countries enjoy eating a grand meal later at night. It can be three or four courses and leave diners rather full. This is the perfect excuse for an after-dinner drink before dozing off to sleep.
Each region and country has their own preferences as well:
- In France, the digestif of choice is often a brandy, such as Cognac or Armagnac.
- Called a digestivo in Italy, bitter amaros and sweet grappas or liqueurs like limoncello and nocino are enjoyed.
- Spain has a preference for fortified wines like sherry, Madiera, and ports as well as pacharán, a sloe gin-like liqueur made from sloe berries.
- In Germany, you'll find some of the most flavorful digestifs, including Underberg bitters and the famous Jägermeister.
Types of Digestifs
Many distilled spirits that are labeled as digestifs began as medicinal liqueurs centuries ago. The herbs, spices, and other flavoring ingredients in these elixirs really were designed to calm the stomach or have some other medicinal benefit. It was somewhere around the 18th century that these were brought to the formal dining table.
Generally, you'll find good digestifs in one of four categories:
- Fortified Wines: Among the most popular digestifs, you cannot go wrong with fortified wines like port wines and sherry. While dry vermouth is an aperitif, sweet vermouth is a nice digestif.
- Aged Liquor: Almost any aged liquor makes a great digestif, though brandies are the most traditional. This includes eau de vie, calvados, grappa, and other brandies as well as the distinguished Cognac and Armagnac. Whiskeys, particularly scotch, are also quite popular, and añejo tequilas are excellent as well.
- Herbal Liqueurs: Many of those medicinal elixirs of old are today's herbal liqueurs and they're popular digestifs. These include names like aquavit, Becherovka, Benedictine, Chartreuse, Cynar, Fernet-Branca, sambuca, Strega, and Zwack.
- Bitter Liqueurs: In the same way that bitters are enjoyed as aperitifs, some are better-suited as digestifs. The ingredients that give them a bitter profile aid in digestion, though the digestif variety tends to be richer and slightly sweeter. Amaros, such as Averna and Amaro Meletti, are among the many Italian bitters to look for.
- Sweet Liqueurs: Sweeter fruit liqueurs like maraschino and limoncello are also nice after-dinner sippers. Even a high-proof, brandy-based orange liqueur like Grand Marnier can be enjoyed on its own.
With any of these digestifs, it's traditional to enjoy them straight and at room temperature. Small glasses and a pour of just one or two ounces is adequate.
If you're hosting a dinner party, consider placing a few digestif options on the table along with glasses and let your guests pour whatever they prefer. It's a great excuse to share any homemade liqueurs you've been working on, too.
You can also enjoy a cocktail that features any digestif. Spiked coffee drinks like the Italian coffee with Strega or French connection with Cognac and amaretto are great options. Or, you can sip coffee sambuca in which the "coffee" is simply three symbolic beans.
The Manhattan is a classic digestif drink and other whiskey cocktails like the old-fashioned, Vieux Carre, and Sazerac are fabulous choices as well. For something a little different, try the Marriage of Figaro with Cardamaro, the emperor with Unicum, or the twentieth century with Amaro Meletti.