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Simply put, a digestif is an alcoholic beverage one drinks after dinner to aid digestion. Beyond that, though, some of us could use a little guidance.
Digestifs aren’t exactly popular in the United States, mainly because we’re not eating multi-course meals and we typically eat earlier than our friends in Europe. So while most of us don’t need one after having a salad or a burger around 7 in the evening, a digestif is just the ticket for Thanksgiving’s marathon eating.
Digestifs commonly get confused with aperitifs, which are served before a meal. They’re actually the opposite of — but a perfect teammate to — aperitifs, drinks meant to awaken the digestive system before a meal. Aperitifs tend to be drier and lower in alcohol, while digestifs are sweeter and higher in alcohol.
Digestifs include liqueurs of the herbal, bitter and sweet varieties, aged liquors and fortified wines. Before deciding which one sounds most appealing for closing out your meal, it helps to understand how digestifs, as a whole, actually work.
Here’s how digestifs work.
Ask a pro about digestifs and the conversation will most likely center around amari, plural for amaro, the Italian word for bitter. An amaro is an herbal liqueur with a bittersweet flavor ― think Campari or Fernet-Branca. Much of digestifs’ reputation for assisting digestion comes from these herbal amaris.
“Historically, a lot of the medicines you took to settle your stomach were both alcoholic and had various herbs and botanicals that gave them quite the bitter taste,” spirits expert Philip Duff told HuffPost. “So there’s this association between amaro and literally being able to digest something better.”
Herbalist Heidi Lyndaker explains that different digestifs can contain different herbs, and while digestifs are definitely not a cure for digestive issues, these herbs can aid in symptom relief for different afflictions. Digestifs, Lyndaker told HuffPost, can contain carminative herbs, which work specifically to target bloating and gas, or demulcent herbs, which can soothe inflammation and help with acid reflux.
“The specific properties that work for herbs that help with digestion, they work in a number of ways,” Lyndaker said. “With holiday meals, we all typically walk away from the table having eaten too much and feeling this bloated effect. The carminative herbs in a lot of digestifs will help reduce some of that bloating and calm the nervous system around the stomach and help reduce some of those yucky symptoms we have.” Herbs in this category include fennel, ginger and cardamom.
Herbs also create a bitter flavor that works its own biological magic, beverage director of Amor Y Amargo Sother Teague points out. “The basic understanding is that we only perceive five flavors: sweet, sour, salty, umami and then of course my favorite, which is bitter,” Teague explains. “Of those five, only one — bitter — is an acquired taste. When you first taste bitter, your mind tells you that this is a potential problem for you as a person and even for your species at large. Bitter is potentially poison.” Essentially, upon tasting that bitterness, our brains receive the signal that we’ve got to get this possible danger out. Our systems kick into gear to start clearing our stomachs.
Lawrence Brandt, emeritus chief of the division of gastroenterology at Montefiore Medical Center, stresses that there are insufficient studies to prove that the alcohol component of digestifs can help improve digestion. It’s only thought that alcohol can boost the body’s digestive activity.
“Food, when ingested, stimulates intestinal blood flow and also stimulates blood flow to the liver, which is responsible for a large measure of cleaning the substances that are absorbed from the intestinal tract,” Brandt told HuffPost. “First the blood supply to the intestine is increased, then the venous drainage from the intestine, which goes to the liver, allows the liver to detoxify the food that you’ve eaten and start its metabolism so it can be utilized by the body. That is all increased by alcohol.” Basically, a digestif theoretically could help catalyze digestion by increasing the blood flow to the liver. But it hasn’t been proven.
Speaking of alcohol, digestifs typically have a higher ABV than aperitifs. Our systems can handle absorbing that alcohol better on a full stomach than on an empty one. In addition to bitterness and booze, digestifs typically have a sweetness factor. According to Brandt, our brains process this as dessert, AKA the end of the meal.
While we lack the scientific evidence that digestifs are any kind of cure, there’s nothing to lose by trying one. It might aid your digestion, and more reliably, it can taste great. “If you’re going to have an after-dinner drink, why not have it be medicinal?” Lyndaker said.
Liqueurs To Try
The “liqueurs” digestif category includes bitter, sweet and herbal varieties. Herbal amaris — like Fernet-Branca — live here, as do Scandinavian caraway-heavy aquavit, French Chartreuse and Benedictine and Italian artichoke-dominant Cynar. Another herbal amari that one might be surprised to find alongside some of these sophisticated options? It’s German, but an American college kid’s favorite: Jägermeister.
“When you take Jägermeister on its own at room temperature, it is a remarkable amaro,” Duff said. “Once everyone recovers from giggling about it and they taste it again, it really is incredible stuff.”
Less cloyingly sweet than one might expect, maraschino is also a digestif, as is strong and sweet limoncello. Sambuca is another Italian choice. In Spain, you’d find pacharan. Also made from sloe berries, the originally British sloe gin is a more commonly accessible equivalent.
While many of these are centuries old, digestifs are still being introduced today. San Diego’s Cutwater Spirits entered the digestif game with Opah, an herbal liqueur. “Opah’s herbaceous notes of licorice, cinnamon and vanilla along with its silky finish offer a delicious way end to a big meal,” Cutwater founder Yuseff Cherney told HuffPost.
Drink an herbal liqueur or amari in a small glass, neat.
Aged Liquors To Try
Aged liquors are another digestif category, and include perhaps one of the best known after-dinner tipples: brandy. Brandy is a distilled wine with other subcategories under its umbrella: Cognac, which can only be produced in the Cognac region of France with certain grape varietals; Armagnac, which can only be produced in the Armagnac region of France, also with certain grape varietals as well as types of oak for aging; pisco, made in South America, primarily Peru and Chile; ouzo, Greece’s licorice-leaning iteration; and Italy’s strong grappa.
Añejo tequila, a sipping tequila aged for one to three years in oak, is also an aged-liquor-type of digestif, as is Scotch whisky, which is produced in Scotland and aged in oak barrels for at least three years. “[Scotch whisky’s] taste and aromatic flavors of wild herbs, heather, honey and orchard fruits give a sense of complexity that together create an ideal nightcap at the end of a meal,” said Pernod Ricard’s whiskey portfolio director of brand engagement, Shefali Murdia of Chivas Regal.
Brandies and añejo tequilas are best at room temperature, in a snifter. You can drink a Scotch whisky neat, with ice, or with a few drops of water, in an old-fashioned glass.
Fortified Wines To Try
Finally, we have fortified wines. These are wines made stronger by the addition of a distilled spirit. Examples include sherry, from Spain; port, made in the Duoro Valley of Portugal with regional grapes, with substyles ranging from ruby to rose to white to tawny or aged; and Madeira, from Portugal’s Madeira Islands.
Fortified wines with added herbs and/or spices are called aromatized wines. A popular example is vermouth, typically made in Italy or France. Vermouth can be dry or sweet; dry for an aperitif and sweet for a digestif.
Sherries and vermouth should be served chilled; ports should be just a bit below room temperature. All can be served in small glasses, or as small servings in regular wine glasses to open up their aromas.
While all of these digestifs can be mixed into cocktails, they’re all intended to be enjoyed alone. “They’re all meant to be drank as they are, they wouldn’t have been created otherwise,” Teague said. A small, straight serving helps deliver both a digestif’s flavor profile and potential digestion-aiding characteristics, while also helping you decide if you actually like that digestif or would prefer to try something else.