by Peter MullerContinuing with this week’s theme on digestion (or indigestion, depending on where you’re from), we’ll be looking at libations of all sorts designed to aid the process of digestion. These types of drinks are known as “Digestifs”, which literally translates to “Digestives” in French. Digestifs are not as popular today as they once were, their popularity decreasing after the end of prohibition and declining together with the once great cocktail culture of the United States.
The basic idea behind Digestifs is that after a very filling meal, it’s best to warm the stomach by sipping on something either hot in temperature or high in alcohol content. This sensation of warmth in the stomach increases blood circulation in the region, helping to ease digestion. This, combined with the herbal and high alcohol content of many traditional Digestifs, tends to have the same effect as drinking hot tea for an upset stomach, a more common practice all over the world.
Brandy and Cognac
The most common Digestifs still seen today are the standard snifter liquors, brandy and cognac, both produced by distilling wine and aging the product for long periods of time. They are the natural progression in a meal, especially a meal with wine since traditional meals began with a light Apertif (appetite building cocktail or liqueur), moved to wine during dinner, then ended with a strong Digestif finish, building intensity throughout the meal. Although Brandy and Cognac have seen a recent rise in pop culture and trend in being mixed with colas and juices, there is no better way to enjoy these fine spirits than slowly sipped from a warmed snifter after a filling meal. Another very popular Digestif in the brandy family is Calvados, which is produced from fermented and distilled apple cider. Some of our favorites in the high, medium, and low price ranges are:
Germain-Robin Shareholders’ Reserve
“Rich, fragrant, lots of fruit, ever so smooth… there’s a substantial admix of pinot noir for a long complex finish. Superior to XO cognacs. Search for and enjoy,” – F. Paul Pacult, The Spirit Journal
“96/100. Wonderful display of dark fruits, big and rich – the finish is very long and very satisfying.” – Gary Regan, Wine Enthusiast, November 2005
Paul Masson Grande Amber VSOP
“By blending (presumably) cheap French cognac with American brandy, Paul Masson has somehow come up with something that more or less smells nutty and spicy, like real, pricier cognac, and goes down far more smoothly than anything from France in this price range could even aspire to. Tasty stuff. Go figure.” – David Wondrich, Esquire, January 30, 2009
The other side of forgotten Digestifs belongs to the liqueurs. Most liqueurs have been largely forgotten outside of cocktail enthusiast circles and those that remain either gather dust at the back of bars or have been wrongly re-purposed as trendy shot or bomb-style cocktails (e.g. Jägermeister). In reality, there are quite a few very tasty and very potent liqueurs out there worth trying. The flavors you’ll find among this crowd are unlike anything else available and, most likely, unlike anything you’re used to. Some are slightly sweet and some are very herbaceous and/or bitter. We recommend trying these few that are still available at most good liquor stores and bars. And remember, don’t shoot them, smell, sip and savor the flavor!
A French cognac based liqueur with an intense orange flavor. It doesn’t burn, but you can feel it warm you up from head to toe as you sip it. Grand Marnier is one of the last great original Triple Sec liqueurs left on the market.
Made with 27 herbs and spices, Benedictine is sweet, but not in a sticky sugary kind of way. It’s primary flavors come from cardamom, cloves, nutmeg, and vanilla. This one won’t blow your socks off, instead you’ll sip it and have the sensation of sitting near a fireplace in a cold room.
One of my absolute favorites. A artichoke-based liqueur made with 12 other herbs, Cynar is slightly sweet and super bitter. Most people who try it and don’t expect the flavor tend to wrinkle their nose in reaction to the taste, but they usually go back and taste it again, and again. This one is on the lighter side of Digestifs, relying more on the herbal than the alcohol content to soothe your stomach.
Pricey, but well worth it. Chartreuse is still, and has always been, made by a group of monastery dwelling monks in the eastern mountains of France since the 1600s. The recipe is a closely guarded secret comprised of 130 different ingredients. The taste has been compared to everything from rust to cough syrup to flower bouquets. You’ll never know what it tastes like to you until you try it yourself. Any good, respectable bar should have a bottle sitting around.
Forget everything you’ve ever heard about absinthe. It’s all bullshit. Try it, but don’t drink it straight; dilute it with a lot of ice water and add some sugar first. There is a lot to taste in absinthe, but most people have trouble getting past the strong anise (licorice) flavor.
Though not very traditional, today’s popular after dinner drinks are hot teas and coffees, hence their typical offering with desserts at many restaurants. Although these achieve a soothing effect post-feast, their lack of alcohol content limits this effect and excludes them from the Digestif category.
For those with bigger stomach problems, let me recommend another favorite:
Neon pink and chalky. Need I say more?
Straight liquor/liqueurs are not for everyone. If you’re the type that likes to mix your booze for an after dinner cocktail, we have you covered too. A key ingredient in any post dinner cocktails are bitters. Once widely available in great quantities, bitters almost disappeared in recent years but are making a steady climb back into the mainstream market. The oldest and most recognized cocktail bitter is Angostura Brand. You can find a small bottle in the back of just about any liquor store for under $10. For more advanced recipes, Fee’s Brothers makes a line of flavored bitter available in many better liquor stores. They’re especially known for their West Indian Orange Bitters.
Bitters bottles are small because you’ll only need about 2 dashes per cocktail; this stuff is potent! Try it in these cocktails for an after dinner taste bud party.
In a short glass, add:
– 1 tsp. ultra fine sugar + 1 warm water
– 2 tsp. simple syrup
– 2 dashes Angostura Bitters
Stir, dissolving the sugar, then add:
– 2 oz. Bourbon Whiskey
Add ice and stir for about 30 seconds. Squeeze and drop a lemon peel into the drink and sip away.
*Experiment with this one: try replacing the Bourbon with you favorite liquor and trying different sweeteners. The only requirements are liquor, sweetener, bitters, and a touch of water and ice.
In a tall glass, add:
– 1 pinch of mint leaves
– .5 oz. Lillet Blanc
– .5 oz. Cynar
– Juice of 1/2 a lime.
– 3 dashes Orange Bitters
Fill the glass to the top with ice, then add:
– 1 oz. London Dry Gin
– 3.5 oz. Tonic Water
Stir a few times to get it nice and cold, garnish with a lime wedge. Cheers.
So the next time you’re finishing up a big dinner (and not driving home), instead of just compounding the problem of an achy stomach with sweets, caffeine, beer, wine, or shots; try a true Don Draper-approved Digestif to help ease your evening without putting you to sleep. Unless you’ve had too much sushi and you’re not Japanese. In that case, you’re S.O.L.