Historically, digestifs were something you served after a big meal to help aid digestion. They tended to be bitter, herbal and culturally unique. Think of that mystery bottle your grandmother pulled from the back of the pantry to set out with the cookies.
But somewhere along the way the digestif became synonymous with sweetness. Instead of putting a final accent on a meal, these lush liqueurs and dessert-like cocktails (looking at you, White Russians or Grasshoppers), stifled it. Today, a growing number of distillers and winemakers are reviving the funky, strange, beautiful, what-the-hell-is-this postprandial sipper. These are 11 digestifs for those who don’t like it too sweet.
What exactly is rancio sec, you ask? Think a dry, nutty, even briney or umami wine, and you’re on the right track. A Catalan tradition from France, dry rancio wines are rustic, old-school and so full of funk you might taste mushrooms, dark chocolate, salted anchovies or the like when you sip a good one. Whether this intrigues or frightens you, it’s not a drink you’ll be bored by. Haus Alpenz offers a beautiful lineup of dry rancios that are very unique. Pryor is an oxidative, citrusy, earthy and smoky wine with mushroom undertones—a rich, bright finish to any night.
San Francisco–based and known for its lovely, dry cinnamon cordial (which is another not-too-sweet after-dinner sipper), Cannella Spirits has done it again with its latest release, Amaro Cannella. Similarly inspired by founder Joe Cannella’s travels through Sicily, this is a balanced bitter liqueur that takes on anise, coriander, citrus and more than 20 herbs and botanicals, including, yes, the namesake cinnamon—high-quality Ceylon cinnamon, to be precise—with delightful results.
One of the most revered sherry houses (bodegas) is Lustau, and while it has a range of great sherries in its regular lineup, some of the best treasures can be its almacenista sherries. To quickly explain: In Spain, larger sherry bodegas may produce their own sherries, but historically (and currently), many work with small maturation houses that age the wines and are run by almacenistas (warehouse keepers).
Lustau releases almacenistas’ bottles from these family-run bodegas—in this case, a house started by Cayetano del Pino Vázquez back in 1886, now run by his great-grandson, Gerardo del Pino. This palo cortado sherry is a blend that averages around 20 years old and is clean, nutty, velvety and pungent all at the same time.
Don Ciccio & Figli’s new release is all about the artichoke. In keeping with Amalfi Coast native Francesco Amodeo’s stellar amari and liqueurs produced in D.C. (and inspired from his distilling family’s historic recipes produced in Italy), this is an artichoke liqueur that will aid in digestion with its savory, bitter finish from three different kinds of artichokes, as well as cardoons (a cousin of the artichoke), grapefruit and 18 roots and herbs, mostly from its garden or local farmers’ markets. This one is for the amaro/fernet/bitters fanatics among you.
A new French liqueur, Escubac was distilled at Distillerie Combier from London’s small, artisanal Sweetdram, founded by Daniel Fisher and Andrew Macleod Smith and producing high-quality liqueurs that go light on the sugar. With its artful bottle design, Escubac is still only available in a few markets in the States, and this first release is a winner of caraway, cardamom, nutmeg, clove, bitter orange and lemon, all given a golden hue from saffron. With a touch of sweetness (from sugar and raisins), the citrus keeps this herbal-spiced spirit balanced, making it not only a lovely apéritif or digestif but a fun alternative to gin in cocktails.
OK, maybe it’s alright to go a little bit sweet, and this elegant port (from Portugal’s Porto) is one of the best routes for those seeking balance with a dessert sipper. Revered port house Sandeman produces a beauty of a 20-year-aged tawny Porto that takes on honey, vanilla and dried apricot notes balanced by a nutty spice. It’s a dessert dram that is neither cloying nor heavy but crisp and light, yet complex and a little sweet. It shines with cheeses.
The family distillery and winery of Charbay has been a Napa treasure since the 1980s and is still intimate and family-run with a warm welcome in its cozy tasting room. One of the winery’s special bottles (the distillery is now a bit north in Ukiah) is its robust-yet-refined Distiller’s Port, in its fourth release. Using its six-year-old brandy to make port, this release shows off late-harvest 2006 cabernet franc grapes resulting in a velvety delight of cherry and chocolate notes that’s blessed with a semi-dry finish.
In the dreamy village of Bassano del Grappa, Nardini is one of the region’s (and Italy’s) great grappa producers, going back to 1779. You’ll find balance and beauty in all of its spirits, but one of its most unique treasures is Mandorla. The pale spirit is a dry, silky beauty made from its grappa with almond oil and a natural cherry distillate. You get grappa’s robust elegance, nuts and cherry freshness, and all without the sweetness.
In Minneapolis, Tattersall Distilling was started by bartender Dan Oskey, entrepreneur Jon Kriedler and his wife, Michelle. They craft a slew of quality spirits, including a fresh-tart sour cherry liqueur and a savory aquavit. Tattersall’s fernet shows off its love of all things amaro, distilled with more than 30 botanicals, including whispers of eucalyptus, mint and an array of herbs, with a subtly bitter finish. This is fernet that’s balanced: bitter but not harsh, minty but not like toothpaste, herbal and dry—in other words, the perfect digestif.
No, we’re not talking rum. This is fresh cane juice the way Brazilians love it: in its cachaça. Though made from fermented, distilled sugar cane juice, cachaça is not sweet but rather grassy, fresh and sometimes with whispers of coconut water. In recent years, barrel-aged cachaças have started to trend, and Novo Fogo has released a whole series of its organic cachaças aged in American oak bourbon barrels. The result adds notes of banana bread, cinnamon and even coffee to cachaça’s peppery-green goodness. The aging transforms the normally clear, unaged spirit into a fine post-dinner dram.
From Portugal’s enchanting, tropical Madeira, the island’s namesake fortified wine ranges from dry to lush and nutty depending on which grape varietal you choose. Blandy’s Madeiras are affordably priced around $20 for the five-year-old (or $30 for the 10-year expression). Once you figure out your favorite Madeira style (try a few at a good bar), you can control the sweetness level. Sercial is the driest, with plenty of acid and nuttiness. Verdelho still runs dry but at a younger age can exhibit more fruity notes. Bual starts to get a little richer with raisin notes but just borders on sweet. Malmsey goes “sweetest,” but Madeira is all about the balance between acid and lushness so even the coffee-caramel notes you often find in Malmsey are often blessedly reined in.
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