All About the Digestif, a Charming After-Dinner Tradition

This libation is spirited and sippable, and serving one is a guaranteed way to end the evening on a high note.

Manhattan Cocktail
Photo: Bryan Gardner

Incredible food. Great company. Memorable drinks. Have you ever wanted a dinner party to last until dawn? Well, there is a way to milk every magical moment. That's where the digestif comes in. The counterpart to the aperitif, a low-alcohol drink that opens your palate and launches the evening, a digestif is typically boozier and, as its name implies, intended to help you digest those delicious morsels. Sipping after-dinner digestifs neat or in the form of a cocktail is a relaxing way to extend the evening.

Defining the Digestif

So, what exactly is a digestif? "A true digestif is determined by the roots, herbs, and other botanicals that have been used for thousands of years in cultures across the globe to either calm or stimulate the gastrointestinal system," explains Stephen Fromhart, owner of Amaro Spirits & Wine in Brooklyn, New York. Rhubarb, gentian, wormwood, angelica, myrrh, cardamom, and anise, for example, are mixed with tonics for the stomach, he says. "It was only a natural progression that they would be added to alcohol, first in fermented drinks (for example, wine) and later in distillate, when distillation technology became diffuse."

From Bitter to Sweet

Digestifs can be fortified wines, such as sweet vermouth, port, and sherry; aged spirits, such as brandies and whiskeys; or sweet dessert liqueurs, such as Amaretto, limoncello, and Sambuca. But the most definitive digestifs (or digestivo) are European herbal and bitter liqueurs, like aquavit, Bénédictine, and Chartreuse, plus brandy-based amari (the plural for amaro) including classic Fernet, that target the digestive system. (Amaro, a specialty of Fromhart's shop, means bitter in Italian.)

"The basic recipe [for Fernet] has supposedly been in existence since the 18th century (by a Swedish Doctor Fernet or Vernet, but who really knows), and as such is one of the few amari in which the concoction is not a closely guarded secret," he says. Fernet-Branca is among the most well-known of the commercial versions. Preparations vary by producer, but the basic bitter, aromatic taste profile is the same: "You won't not recognize a Fernet," he says.

Cocktail, Then Bed

Digestif cocktails—such as a Manhattan, an Old-Fashioned, the Sazerac, or the Argentinean combination of Fernet and Coke—are meant to help you say a long goodbye to the evening, but digestifs play a bigger role as nightcaps, spanning from Grand Marnier, eau de vie, and grappa to amari like Amaro Lucano, Amaro Ciociaro, Amaro Meletti, and Jägermeister (yes, that Jägermeister), sipped straight.

Whether from Italy, Bavaria, Czech Republic, or the Balkans, amari are "wildly varied and nuanced," and, like most digestifs, Fromhart hints, have special nocturnal powers. "All I know is that I love them, their complexity, their history, their purpose, and most importantly what they represent: Keeping people around the table enjoying each other's company."

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