What Is a Digestif, Anyway?
Digestifs are sort of mystery to Americans -- these spirits have weird labels, names we can’t really pronounce, and are typically relegated to a dusty shelf at the back of the bar. And yet, according to Anthony Caporale, director of beverage studies at the Institute of Culinary Education, skipping a digestif after a big dinner in Europe “would be like skipping dessert at Thanksgiving.” (And who does something like that?)
Because digestifs are hard to define, we enlisted Caporale, and Frederick Twomey of NYC’s Bar Veloce, to give us the rundown on these elusive drinks, and tell us why you should be sipping one after your next indulgent dinner.
First, the basics
Defining what exactly makes a digestif a digestif (or a digestivo, if you’re Italian) can be complicated. Simply put, a digestif is a type of alcohol served after a filling meal. Some are sweet, like a port wine or dessert liqueur, while others are more herbal, and some, like an Italianamaro, are bitter. Most of them claim to be digestive aids, too (hence the name).
A digestif normally has higher alcohol content than its pre-dinner counterpart, the aperitif, because you actually want to remember that nice meal you’re about to eat. It’s usually served straight, at room temperature, and sipped slowly. (It’s a dinner party, not a frat party. ) But that’s not the only distinction between the two, Caporale notes. “The difference between an aperitif and a digestif is, what we call in the industry, an ‘occasional difference.’ And that has to do with when you drink it. So it’s not as much a difference in the product or what you’re drinking, it’s how and why you’re drinking it.”
Digestifs are popular all over the world and there are countless regional takes and “secret” recipes. In France, they like their Cognacs and other brandies. In Italy, it’s bitter, herbal amari, like fernet, one of the very few digestifs that’s low in sugar, and sweet grappas. Spain likes fortified wines, while Germany has their own bitter variety, too.
They supposedly settle your stomach
So if you start drinking digestifs after every meal, will you never have to buy over-the-counter antacids again? Probably not. But digestifs are said to have some medicinal value. Most of these spirits began as “elixirs,” in the 18th century, as they were thought to ease an uneasy stomach and help you digest your food. Some recipes go back even further, like those distilled by medieval monks from infused herbs, flowers, and roots. Later on, 19th-century tavern keepers started doing the same thing: infusing alcohol with botanicals and herbs to soften the blow from a potent drink. Italian amari are made with carminative herbs, like ginger, cardamom, or cinnamon, which are supposed to aid in digestion as well.
And they do, Caporale says. Ingredients like those listed above have known medicinal values and make great digestive aids, but what it really comes down to is the alcohol. Regardless of the ingredients of the digestif, we know that alcohol stimulates the appetite,” he says. “And when you’re full and you drink, you will feel less full; your stomach will start to crave food again.”
Why you’ve never heard of them
Unless you’ve been blessed with a nonna who cooks five-course meals for Sunday dinners, your experience with digestifs is probably minimal. That’s because historically for Americans, with all our values about hard work, meals were rarely luxurious affairs. “There isn’t that long, drawn-out evening dining [in American culture]. You’re not supposed to fawn over food,” Twomey says. The Italians believe the opposite. “For them the pleasure of life is eating and having a big dinner and spending time with your family.”
In Mediterranean cultures, dinner was typically later in the evening, too -- so you would need something to help settle that full stomach before heading off to bed, which is where digestifs came in. In the United States though, “supper” was usually held at sundown, as early in the evening as 5 p.m., and that’s not exactly the time for a nightcap. Also, there isn’t the same culture around alcohol in the U.S. that our friends have in Europe: “We diminish the value of alcohol in our culture,” Caporale says.
How to drink ’em today
Though they’ve fallen out of custom a bit, digestifs are a good fit for life in 2016. Looking to cut sugar? Caporale says grab a digestif instead of dessert. There’s gonna be sugar in it for sure, but nowhere near as much as you’re going to find in a slice of cake. And you don’t have to worry about gluten,” he notes, “because gluten doesn’t survive the distillation process!”
Twomey makes a clever switch to incorporate digestifs at his bar. “A Manhattan is a classic cocktail: whiskey, vermouth, and a touch of bitters -- Angostura bitters. Well, bitters and amari are basically the same thing,” he says. Whenever he wants to use bitters, he can reach for an amaro instead.
If you’re hosting, Caporale says, working digestifs into post-dinner drinks, like hot toddies, tea, or coffee cocktails, is an easy way to impress. “It’s no more complicated than adding one ounce -- and this is whether it’s bitter, sweet, herbal, it doesn’t matter -- in an espresso, an Americano, or your favorite tea. It adds a whole different level.”
Set up a little buffet with three different bottles and a nice pot of tea, he suggests, and let your guests make their own toddies after the meal. “It sweetens it, it flavors it, and you’re the coolest kid on the block.”