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Historically, digestifs were what you served after a meal to help aid digestion. They tended to be bitter, herbal and culturally specific. 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 stifled it (looking at you, White Russians and Grasshoppers). Today, a growing number of distillers and winemakers are reviving the funky, strange, beautiful, what-the-hell-is-this postprandial drink. Here are our top selections for digestifs to help close out a meal.
Region: San Francisco, CA | ABV: 33% | Tasting Notes: Citrus, Anise, Coriander, Cinnamon
San Francisco-based Cannella Spirits is best known for its lovely, dry cinnamon cordial (which is another not-too-sweet after-dinner digestif), but the company struck gold again with Cannella Amaro. 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.
Blandy’s 5 Year Sercial Madeira
Region: Madeira, Portugal | ABV: 19% | Tasting Notes: Nuts, Dried fruit, Oak, Toffee
From Portugal’s enchanting, tropical Madeira, the island’s namesake fortified wine ranges from dry to lush and nutty depending on which grape varietal is used. Blandy’s Madeiras are affordably priced, at around $25 for the five-year-old and $30 for the 10-year-old 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 blessedly reined in.
Don Ciccio & Figli C3 Carciofo Liqueur
Region: Washington, DC | ABV: 23% | Tasting Notes: Sarsaparilla, Roasted artichoke, Citrus
This Don Ciccio & Figli release is all about the artichoke. Amalfi Coast native Francesco Amodeo’s stellar amari and liqueurs are produced in D.C. and inspired by his family’s historic recipes. Many, including this artichoke liqueur, will supposedly aid digestion. This bottling has a 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 pulled from the distillery’s garden or local farmer's markets. Anyone can enjoy C3 Carciofo, but it’s a bottle geared toward the amaro/fernet/bitters fanatics.
Lustau Palo Cortado de Jerez Almacenista 'Cayetano del Pino y Cía' Sherry
Region: Jerez, Spain | ABV: 21% | Tasting Notes: Lemon curd, Spice, Grapefruit
One of the most revered sherry houses, aka bodegas, is Lustau, and while the company has a range of great bottles in its regular lineup, some of its finest treasures are almacenista sherries. To 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 once.
Sweetdram Escubac Liqueur
Region: Loire, France | ABV: 34% | Tasting Notes: Caraway, black pepper, anise, vanilla
Escubac is a French liqueur produced at Distillerie Combier by London’s small, artisanal Sweetdram, founded by Daniel Fisher and Andrew Macleod Smith. They make high-quality liqueurs that go light on the sugar. With its artful bottle design, this 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 courtesy of sugar and raisins, the citrus keeps this herbal-spiced spirit balanced. Escubac is still only available in a few markets in the States. It’s not only a lovely aperitif or digestif but a fun alternative to gin in cocktails.
Nardini Grappa Mandorla
Region: Veneto, Italy | ABV: 50% | Tasting Notes: Almond, Cherry, Pepper spice
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 products is Mandorla. The pale spirit is a dry, silky beauty made from its grappa that has been touched with almond oil and a natural cherry distillate. You get grappa’s robust elegance, nuts and cherry freshness—all without the sweetness.
Cappelletti Sfumato Rabarbaro Amaro
Region: Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy | ABV: 20% | Tasting Notes: Smoke, Woodsy, Earthy, Fruit
Antica Erboristeria Cappelletti has produced this liqueur with rabarbaro, a Chinese rhubarb that grows in Trentino Alto Adige and Veneto in Italy, for nearly a century. Named after the Renaissance painting term for "smoky," Sfumato amaro possesses a combination of smokiness and earthy notes.
Sother Teague, amaro expert and renowned bartender of Amor y Amargo, cautions, "This is not the same stuff Grandma makes you a strawberry pie with each summer. When dried, the Chinese rhubarb takes on a very smoky aroma. And aroma dictates 90% of flavor so the resulting elixir has a smoky flavor. It’s also packed with mountain herbs giving it a woodsy forest floor flavor."
Eda Rhyne Amaro Flora
Region: Asheville, North Carolina | ABV: 36% | Tasting Notes: Wildflowers, Forest floor, Botanical
Even though Eda Rhyne Distillery, which opened in 2018, is located in the Appalachian Mountains, its specialty is Italian-style liqueurs, not moonshine. The distillery takes its ingredients from the Blue Ridge terroir and inspiration from traditional family recipes, crafting distinctive liqueurs with purported medicinal qualities. "They produce a Fernet and a nocino that are both worth your attention but the absolute standout is Amaro Flora," says Teague. The complex amaro features "deep forest floor flavors. Bitter barks and roots are lifted by wild flower aromas."
L’Encantada XO Bas Armagnac
Region: Bas Armagnac, France | ABV: 44.9% | Tasting Notes: Sarsaparilla, cocoa, baking spice
This small-batch armagnac, the result of a passion project between liquor distributor PM Spirits and armagnac caskhunter L'Encantada, has bourbon geeks asking, "Pappy who?" Part of a series that blends single vintage expressions, its third installment features five previously untouched full-proof casks from 1983-1999 vintages. "It’s more bourbon-esque than most brandies, and they are pulling from multiple vintages from outstanding producers often not imported to the US," says Lickliter. He recommends capping off an evening by sipping a dram alongside cheese or espresso.
What to Look for in a Digestif
Unlike aperitifs, digestifs can be high in alcohol content since they're enjoyed at the end of a meal when you don't have to worry about blowing out your palate. But, depending on your mood or tolerance, you can keep things light with a low-proof Madeira or sherry, or go big with a grappa or armagnac.
There's no hard scientific evidence that an herbal or bitter digestif can help quiet an upset belly post-feast. But the Italians invented amaro in the 1800s as a post-meal digestif, and Germans have been swearing by Underberg bitters for 175 years. The paper-wrapped 20ml herbaceous shot, which has become a go-to hangover cure for bartenders, is even marketed as an "herb bitters taken for digestion," even though it is 44% ABV.
Just as they range in alcohol content, digestifs can run the gamut in price, from pocket change for an Underberg mini or several hundred dollars for a fine bottle of cognac. How much you spend depends on not only your budget but what you're looking for: instant gratification for your tummy or a luxurious nightcap to enjoy with friends.
What makes for a good digestif?
There are many ways to end a meal, from dessert cocktails, such as the Brandy Alexander, to an espresso. But a good digestif soothes a full belly. The digestif category is broad, made up of aged spirits; bitter, herbal, and sweet liqueurs; and fortified wines. They're usually served neat after a meal. Brandy is traditional, but amaro, such as Fernet Branca, is gaining in popularity as an after-dinner sipper.
Does it really help with digestion?
Although there's no scientific evidence that proves digestifs help with digestion, the combination of bitterness, sweet and herbaceousness is a comforting way to end a meal. And bartenders have long recommended a shot of Underberg or Fernet over cranberries during Thanksgiving dinner.
How much alcohol is usually in a digestif?
You can go big or take it easy, depending on the digestif. They range in ABV, from low-proof amaro, such as 16.5% ABV Cynar, to a potent 72% ABV cognac.
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This roundup was updated by cocktail writer Caroline Pardilla, whose favorite way to finish dinner at a restaurant is to have the bartender create an amaro flight to pair with a scoop of sorbet.