Digestifs are after-dinner drinks with purpose. These somewhat magical sippers — equipped with flavors fluctuating from familiar to funky — aid in digestion after a large meal, making them the ideal counterpart to the appetite-stimulating beverages known as aperitifs. Initially whipped up by the ancient Greeks, digestifs were chiefly considered medical cure-alls until the 18th century, when Europeans began serving them to cap massive multi-course feasts. It has taken a while for the category to click stateside, as Americans don’t usually do big blowout dinners on non-holidays, but a growing interest from curious imbibers raised their profile in recent years.
That’s because a good digestif can be delicious as all get out, and the category’s robust, intense flavor profile fuels its reputation for being the bartender’s friend — either on its own or in a cocktail. But digestifs can also be mystifying, and not just because they can help ease the consequences of gluttony in the flick of a wrist. But as any bartender or amaro geek will tell you, it’s a mystery well worth solving. When you decide to take the plunge into digestifs, here are a few things you should know.
A Broad Category
Digestifs carry two main characteristics: intense herbal or spicy qualities and a varying degree of bitterness. This allows the term to encompass a broad spectrum of libations. Some make up separate spirit categories on their own, such as Cognac, brandy, aquavit, and vermouth. Other spirits that fit under digestifs’ wide umbrella are herbaceous liqueurs known by brand name, like Chartreuse, Benedictine, and the potable of frat parties everywhere, Jägermeister.
Digestifs formerly carried a third quality: A decade ago, they were almost always European in origin. Not anymore. A growing number of American distilleries produce digestifs these days, and they’ve expanded the category even further by experimenting with locally sourced botanicals like California poppy. “We don’t want to re-do the traditional digestifs. They’re great and you need to respect them,” explains Dan Oskey, co-founder of Tattersall Distilling, a Minneapolis-based producer cranking out a wide range of digestifs. “However, we do want to build on tradition and add to the categorical experience.”
If the category feels overwhelming, don’t fret. It can be simplified by focusing on the king of digestifs, amaro. The low-proof, botanical-driven Italian liqueur is such a popular source of liquid enrapture for aficionados, the word amaro is sometimes used to represent the whole digestif category. It’s also a favorite among bar professionals.“A beautiful glass of amaro is sexy,” says Stephanie Andrews, general manager of Billy Sunday and Spindle Bar in Charlotte, N.C. “Amaro sometimes has this reputation for being a bitter blowout, but that’s not true. A good amaro will have a lot of layers, nuance, and delicate beauty going on.”
Here Comes the Science
Consuming digestifs is as safe as imbibing any other spirit, but the human body perceives them as a potential threat.
There’s a reason for this. Our physiological design naturally equates digestifs’ bitter taste with poison. This causes an internal freak-out that kicks the digestive system into high gear in the hope that whatever’s been ingested gets expunged pronto. This process continues even as we grow accustomed to enjoying amari and other digestifs. “We’re naturally trained to avoid bitter things,” explains Tad Carducci, director of outreach and engagement at Amaro Montenegro. “Even if given in small doses like you get with a digestif, the body will still prepare to flush it out of the digestive system quickly just in case.”
When this urgent reaction occurs, any food stuck in your stomach inadvertently breaks down with greater efficiency, a bonus that lightens your digestive burden and can restore your interest in eating again someday. It’s a cool case of science in action, but it’s also one spread strictly by word of mouth; touting digestive assistance on a bottle of alcohol is a big legal no-no.
How to Enjoy Them
It’s entirely possible to be simultaneously curious and intimidated by digestifs. If you’re in this conundrum, consider ordering a cocktail so you can gently familiarize yourself with their complex properties. Some drinks like the Vieux Carré land into the digestif category by themselves. Others riff on familiar cocktails; the Black Manhattan and Toronot are amari-infused spins on the Manhattan and the Old Fashioned, respectively.
For those looking to try digestifs on their own, a gentle introduction to the category is vital.“It’s important to gently coax guests along if they’re not familiar with digestifs,” says Sother Teague, beverage director at Amor Y Amargo in NYC. “Rushing people through this discovery does a big disservice to them as well as the category.”
Slightly bittersweet amari such as Amaro Montenegro or Cynar make tremendous entry points to digestifs, since their bitter qualities land slightly softer on the palate. Digestifs packing sharp, intense flavors like Chartreuse or Fernet-Branca are best explored after gaining experience. This journey from beginner to advanced should be taken at a strictly individualized pace. “There are times when two people come to my bar, and one’s excited to be here and the other’s tagging along,” Teague says. “If I see the excited one trying to convince the novice they have to try this advanced brand, I’ll gently remind them that they probably didn’t start their appreciation of the spirit at that level.”
Once you get into digestifs, prepare to spend the rest of your drinking days discovering new flavors and expressions. A seemingly infinite combination of herbs, spices, and botanicals can come together to form a liquid supergroup poised to entice your senses and put your belly at ease. You’ll be compelled to keep exploring — even on an empty stomach.