What is a Digestif?
Technically speaking, a digestif is an alcoholic beverage that is taken after a meal to help with digestion. When a digestif is taken after a coffee course, it is called a pousse-café. Digestifs are more of a European tradition; however, in the past few years, European restaurateurs in the United States have been introducing the digestif concept to North America, where more and more people are enjoying the idea of more leisurely meals.
Digestifs have been around in Europe for a long time. Originally thought of as an aid to digestion after eating a heavy, rich meal, a digestif is a bit different than wine in that the flavors can be a bit bitter due to herbs that are used in the digestif concoctions to settle the stomach. While some digestifs can be sweet, they can also be a bit more neutral as far as sweetness is concerned; because a digestif is served after a dessert, many people don’t want to get a sugar overload but do want to enjoy a drink that won’t clash with the food that has just been ingested. For example, having a glass of Malbec wine after a eating a pudding probably won’t be so nice. However, a couple of ounces of something with a faint bitter, herbal taste and a touch of sugar will most likely be delightful. Basically, what it comes down to is personal preference. While an apéritif should not be sweet in order to whet the appetite, a digestif can be as sweet or as dry as a person likes.
Digestifs are usually very high in alcohol content, and drinks that are 35-50 % alcohol by volume are the norm. The reason why these are served at the end of the meal is two-fold: first, as mentioned above, it’s to help a diner’s digestion; second, if a highly alcoholic beverage is served before a person eats, on an empty stomach, a person can become highly inebriated. Only small amounts of a digestif are served; the hypothesis is that a small amount will aid the digestion, but too much will hinder it.
While in North America there is the habit of rushing through a meal and restaurants don’t like patrons who linger over after-dinner drinks, some finer establishments are re-introducing the idea of the coffee course and digestif for their clientele who like to make an evening of dining out. Other people are starting to serve the digestif in their homes during dinner parties in order to keep a good after-dinner conversation going. Serving a digestif adds another layer of sophistication and fun when entertaining in-house.
So where does one start when it comes to serving a digestif? Well, a very basic rule of thumb is that clear liquors work best as apéritifs, and dark liquors such as dark rum, scotch, and brandy work best as digestifs. But one must keep in mind that these are not the only things that are served as after-dinner drinks. Here is a look at some typical digestifs from European countries.
In France, after a meal, a variety of liqueurs may be served, and along with the liqueurs, an eau-de-vie may be offered. Eau-de-vie (or eaux-de-vie if there is more than one) is a clear, colorless fruit brandy that is made by the process of fermentation and double-distillation. The flavor of the fruit is very light, and the alcohol content can be up to 60%. Pronounced “oh-da-VEE” (the plural form is pronounced the same way), this brandy can be home-made, but many good brands are available. The French also will drink Armagnac, Calvados and Cognac, which are all well-known, highest quality brandies. French people will also say that the longer these brandies have aged, the tastier and subtler they will be.
People in the UK and in Europe will also have Sherry, Madeira and Port wines as a digestif; in fact, this is where the idea of “a Port and a cigar” after dinner comes from. However, some “purists” will consider these three fortified wines to be more “dessert wines” than technical digestifs.
In Italy, a common digestif is Amaro, which is Italian for “bitter.” The alcohol content can range from 16% to 35%, and the bittersweet liquid is usually served neat, or without ice, after a meal. Grappa is also an iconic digestif: the crystal-clear digestif is produced from the remains of grapes after they are pressed for making wine. Limoncello, a spirit that is flavored with lemon peels, is also a wonderful digestif.
But what are the best digestifs?
If cognac, brandy and whisky aren’t how you would like to end a meal, don’t worry; when it comes to digestifs, personal preference rules the day. Your digestif can be as sweet or as dry as you like. Here are a few suggestions to end your dinner party on a high note.
Sweet: Try Amaretto, an Italian almond liqueur, or Frangelico, a hazelnut liqueur with herbal notes. Bailey’s Irish Cream and Kahlúa are also popular liqueurs that are nice after eating.
Bitter and herbal but still sweet: Benedictine or Chartreuse. These two digestifs are sweet and herbal flavored, with Chartreuse being more pungent and spicy.
Sweet but not syrupy: Sweeter versions of Sherry, Port wine or Madeira.
Strong and flavorful: Eaux de vie, añejo (aged) tequila, dark rum, spiced rum.
Cocktails: The Old Fashioned. Put a teaspoon of granulated sugar in a glass, and add a teaspoon of water, and a few drops of Angostura Bitters. Muddle everything together, then add two ounces of bourbon whiskey and some ice. Add an orange slice and a maraschino cherry.
A leisurely meal at the end of the day is a beautiful thing. Take a bit of time, have some friends over, and enjoy great after-dinner conversation while trying something new. You’ll find that adding a digestif takes everything to the next level.
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