Digestifs 101

Just as a checkered flag signals the end of a race, the appearance of a digestif (or digestivo, as they’re known in Italy) at the table is an indication the meal—and the evening—is coming to close. But beyond the symbolism of a flag, a digestif serves an important purpose: The post-meal drink is meant to aid digestion, as its name implies, and ease the discomfort of an indulgent meal.

A motley assortment of everything from port and amari to Cognac and scotch, the digestif category is about as diverse as it gets. Post-dinner drinks vary not only from country to country but from family to family. Some prefer a stiff pour of liquor, some a cream liqueur, still others a shot of chilly limoncello.

While some digestifs may be similar in style and aroma to aperitifs, there’s a clear difference in the after-dinner drink’s richer, sweeter and more potent flavors. The digestif is the post-dessert dessert, a rich treat that inspires droopy eyelids and eases bellies.

The History of Digestifs

Like aperitifs, the history of digestifs goes back for centuries. Originally used as cures for every ailment imaginable, digestifs eventually made their way from the pharmacy to the dinner table during the 18th century. The herbs, spices and other plants used to make many digestifs were thought to ease the stomach and help food digest. Many brands available today retain evidence of their medicinal origins with bitter, herbal flavor profiles that may remind some of childhood cold remedies.

How Are Digestifs Made?

Digestifs are an incredibly diverse category of drinks, including fortified wines like port, spirits—most notably Cognac—and liqueurs like bitter Italian amari. There’s no general digestif production method. The processes are as diverse as the styles and flavors of the category.

Where Are Digestifs Made?

Digestifs are a global affair. But like aperitifs, the after-dinner potables come predominantly from Italy and France, where they’ve been made commercially for about two centuries.

France deals heavily in the harder digestifs like brandy, especially the more specialized Armagnac and Cognac, which can only be produced in particular regions within the country. Some of the most famous and storied digestif liqueurs also come from France, including the well-known Chartreuse, made by Carthusian monks in Voiron since 1737.

Digestivi in Italy are perhaps more varied than digestifs made anywhere else in the world. There’s the pomace brandy grappa, dozens of brands of bitter amari like the artichoke-based Cynar and intensely bitter Fernet-Branca, as well as the sweeter limoncello, which is favored in the south.

Elsewhere in Europe, digestifs aren’t quite as varied, but are still just as effective—and delicious. Germany claims a class of intensely bittered liqueurs called Kräuterlikör, including the barely sippable, but super shootable Underberg Bitters, as well as the beacon of American college party culture, Jägermeister, among others.

In Spain and its westerly neighbor Portugal, fortified wines dominate. Spain claims nutty sherry, which is made in the Andalucia region, while rich and sweet port is produced in Portugal’s Douro Valley.

Digestif Styles

Fortified Wines:These wines are made by fortifying wine with a spirit (most often brandy) to impart a richer flavor and potency. Many are also aged after fortification. Here are some examples:

Port: A fortified wine made in Portugal’s Douro Valley, port comes in sweet, dry and semi-dry styles. Ruby ports are typically brighter, fruitier and younger, whereas Tawny ports are darker, richer, sweeter and velvety in texture. You can find bottles of port in liquor stores that are anywhere from 10 years old to 20 years old. Vintage Ports are generally bottles that have been set aside, and aged in glass for 20 years or more. Though it can be made with a white wine base, red wine is far more common in Ports.
Sweet Madeira: Often served with dessert, sweet Madeira has rich, complex flavors of nuts, dried fruits and chocolate. By law, it can only be produced in the Madeira Islands off the coast of Portugal.
Sherry: Made in the region of Andalusia, Spain, sherry comes in a variety of styles and flavors. The three most common styles served post-meal are rich, nutty and umami-packed amontillado, complex oloroso, which comes in dry and sweet styles, and unabashedly luscious and sweet Pedro Ximénez. Anything produced by Equipo Navaros—be it amontillado or an En rama sherry—is always exceptional. For Oloroso sherries, Bodegas Gutiérrez Colosia Sangre y Trabajadero is a one of our favorite bottlings. One of the best sweet, dessert sherries in the Pedro Ximénez style (it’s actually a blend of Oloroso and PX) is Lustau’s East India bottling.

Brandy and Other Distilled LiquorWhether straight, herb-free spirits aid in digestion the same way bitter liqueurs and fortified wines do is unclear, but a snifter of something strong and aged is always a fantastic way to prolong the evening. Here are some examples:

Brandy, Cognac, Armagnac: Brandy is wide-ranging category of spirits that can be made anywhere in the world from a variety of fruits. Most often, however, it is distilled from grapes. Two common varieties of brandy are made in the Cognac and Armagnac regions in France, which both produce eponymous spirits. For bottles of Cognac, we recommend buying are Hennessy Master Blender’s Select, Louis Royer Force 53, Gourry de Chadeville Overproof Cognac, or Delamain Grande Champagne Cognac XO.
Calvados: An apple-flavored brandy from the Normandy region of France, Calvados has an alluring fruity, spiced flavor and aroma. Do not be fooled. Calvados is not the same thing as apple brandy, its American counterpart, though they are technically made in the same way. If you’re just beginning with Calvados try bottles of Lemorton Selection Calvados Domfrontais (which is the brand’s younger expression and more appropriate for cocktails) and Christian Drouin Calvados XO (which is more dessert-y, complex and aged in both ex-sherry and Cognac casks). For an American apple brandy, try Laird’s Straight out of New Jersey, one of the oldest distilleries in America.
Grappa: Made by distilling all parts of the grape, grappa is a Greek or Italian brandy with a flavor that varies wildly depending on the quality and type of grape used. Traditionally made from grape must (the pressed grape scraps leftover after making wine or grape juice), Grappa is high proof, raw and incredibly complex.
Aquavit: Similar to gin, aquavit (or akvavit) is a Scandinavian spirit made by infusing neutral grain spirit with caraway seeds. There are both American and Scandinavian Aquavits on the market in the US, and both categories of the spirit are worth seeking out. One of the best American-made aquavits is House Spirit’s Krogstad Aquavit, which is made in Portland,Oregon. Another favorite aquavite of ours is Linie, which is made in Norway and has a more caraway and dill-heavy flavor. The Linie Aquavit is also aged in ex-Oloroso sherry casks which gives it a complex, tart nuttiness unlike others we’ve tried.

ScotchYou probably wouldn’t think it, but Scotch—the whisky spelled without an “e” from Scotland—is one of the only whiskies that is typically drunk after dinner, not with a meal or before it. Once you think about that for a second though, it makes total sense why you see Scotches at the back of a cocktail menu with other dessert liqueurs. Unlike bourbon or Irish whiskey, Scotches are best served at the end of the night.

A Scotch’s region it’s from will determine its flavor. The two reigning styles are blended Scotch whisky and single malt—made from 100 percent malted barley at a single distillery—which ranges in flavor from smoky to briney to earthy. If you want the notoriously smoky flavored Scotch, look to Islay, where bottles like Laphroaig are produced. If you want something less smoky, other notable bottles to try are Black Bottle Blended Whisky, Johnnie Walker Green Label, Great King Street Artist’s Blend, or Pig’s Nose Blended Scotch Whisky. Single Malts to try are The Balvenie 12-Year Doublewood, Glenmorangie (the original), Highland Park, or The Glenlivet.

Añejo tequila: Like Scotch, añejo tequilas are also typically served as a nitecap rather than pre-dinner sipper. Typically richer and heavier than any of the other tequilas on the market, añejo tequilas are meant to be served straight and sipped slow. To be labeled as an añejo tequila, this amber-hued spirit must be aged for at least one to three years in oak barrels, giving it a complex, caramelized flavor. Some of our favorite bottles include Tequila Tapatío Añejo, Casamigos Añejo Tequila and Código 1530 Añejo.

Bitters and Liqueurs: Prefer a liqueur to a fortified wine or spirit? Take your pick of hundreds of brands of bitter, herbal and sweet liqueurs. Here are a few examples:

  • Italian Amari: These tend to lean more to the bitter side of the spectrum, and are meant to help settle a full stomach. Notable Italian digestivos include artichoke-flavored Cynar, the intensely bitter and slightly methylated Fernet-Branca (a favorite of bartenders) and Averna Amaro, a  bitter Sicilian liqueur that was invented in 1868. But Italian liqueurs can also skew sweet, as with ultra-quaffable and much beloved limoncello, with its intense boozy and sweet lemon flavor.
  • French Liqueurs: More restrained than Italian amari, French digestifs tend towards the herbal. One of the most widely recognized brands is Chartreuse, which has been produced by Carthusian Monks since 1737 and comes in a more intensely herbaceous green variation and a more subtle yellow flavor. Bénédictine is another well-known herbal digestif, invented in the 19th century by Alexandre Le Grand, and Grand Marnier, a sweet, orange-flavored liqueur, which is a staple in cocktails bars around the world.
  • German Digestifs: Not all digestif bitters and liqueurs are Italian or French, however. Germany also produces its fair share of post-meal sippers, including Jägermeister, which is often seen as a frat party shooter, but is made with 56 herbs and spices that give it an intensity to rival many Italian digestivos. The country is also home to Underberg Bitters, which come in a small bottle meant to be downed after an indulgent meal and have a concentrated flavor of 43 different herbs—just be sure to drink it down quick.

How Do I Drink Digestifs Straight?

Most digestifs are imbibed without fuss. Pour a measure of your favorite chilled or room temperature elixir into a glass and go. Some digestifs like limoncello are taken as shots, whereas a nice Cognac or fortified wine is sipped.

Notable Digestif Cocktails

Old-Fashioned: Perhaps one of the simplest cocktails in existence, this centenarian stalwart continues to captivate drinkers. It’s the perfect combination of sweet, boozy and aromatized, with a quick blend of sugar, bitters, water and the spirit of your choosing.

Sazerac: This double-spirit sipper, which dates back to the early 1800s, is a potent way to end a good meal. It combines a base of Cognac and rye whiskey with sugar, an absinthe rinse, Peychaud’s and Angostura bitters.

Vieux Carré: Invented at New Orleans’ famed Carousel Bar in the 1930s, the Vieux Carré mixes rye whiskey with Cognac, sweet vermouth, Bénédictine, Peychaud’s and Angostura bitters. Yes, it’s as good as it sounds.

Digestifs In Culture

In the 2001 mob film Made, starring Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau, Vaughn’s character, Ricky, gets into an argument with a character named Ruiz (Sean Combs) over what qualifies as a digestif. After Ruiz orders four glasses of Fernet-Branca for the table, Ricky declines, saying, “No. I’ll take a Strega.” Ruiz responds: “You drinking ‘the witch’ after dinner?” to which Ricky replies, “Yeah, the Fernet tastes like tar, and besides Strega is also a digestif.” Ruiz’s response? “No class. It’s after midnight and this [expletive] is ordering an apéritif!” (In fact, both are digestifs. No harm, no foul, Ricky.)