We may be past the holidays, but winter is still a time of big meals that stick to your ribs and aren't always particularly easy on the gastrointestinal tract.
And while modern medicine would have you reaching for Tums, or prepping for the feast with a cocktail of heartburn control drugs, it may be wiser to down a cocktail of another sort – a digestif.
The digestif was the antacid of our forefathers. Ranging from bitter to sweet, these liqueurs and spirits are potent liquids that not only would be ill-advised to drink on an empty stomach, but also are reputed to aid digestion of a tasty meal via the strong herbs, flavors, and of course the rather high concentration of alcohol.
Rarely mixed, digestifs are small doses of straight spirits sipped after a rich meal aimed at easing digestion and “relaxing” the stomach. Cognac, sherry, Chartreuse and port are some of the more well-known examples of the breed, but there are literally hundreds of options to choose from to ease the ache of a well-stuffed belly.
The practice seems to have originated in the late 1800s as more nuanced and powerful spirits came into vogue. Though with so many countries featuring their own take on the tradition, it's altogether likely the roots go back far longer.
And while the tradition is similar across the globe, each country has its own preferences for the type of spirits they prescribe for blissful digestion.
In Italy, they prefer their bitters – a class of spirits called Amaro. These are spirits flavored with a wide variety of herbs, roots and various botanical products. And though most of these bottles are bracingly bitter, with all the green flavors of the plants that went into them, Sicily favors Averna – a sweet version of Amaro that has enough sugary sweet punch to satisfy even the most die-hard dessert eater while maintaining the herbal backbone Italian digestifs are known for.
They're a polarizing class of booze, but the medicinal flavors really seem to make a difference in processing a hearty meal, or at least numbing the drinker enough to forget about having to wear their stretchy pants.
France is where the term digestif originates from, so it's no surprise there's a long list of preferred spirits. Cognac and its full-flavored cousin Armagnac are two post-dinner sippers favored in the land of cheese, cassoulets and the 35 hour work week.
The grape and raisin tinged warmth of the spirits caps off a night in a way few other types of liquor can. Various eaux-de-vie, which is a type of colorless fruit brandy, are popular as well, distilling fermented fruit to create a powerful essence that captures the fullest expression of whatever the ingredient may be – whether oranges, lemons or another local specialty.
The sweeter side isn't ignored either, with several crème liqueurs gracing glasses once the table is cleared. These are flavored with anything from fruits like raspberries to almonds and even chocolate as in crème de cacao or crème de cassis. They're soothing, and not nearly as medicinal as many digestifs.
Germany has its own digestif tradition that mirrors the Italians in its reliance on herbs and botanicals for when beer just won't cut it. And while these occasions may be rare, they have given rise to one of the most recognizable spirits on college campuses – Jagermeister.
In the U.S., the bottle is all too often served icy cold in shot glasses, but one of its original uses was as an after dinner drink. Served at room temperature to allow the 56 herbs, fruits and roots to have their fullest flavor, this powerful anise-scented draught does have a tendency to kickstart digestion and signal an end to a meal. With this sort of boozy assistance, it's no wonder Germans seem to have an endless appetite for a variety of cased meats and fermented cabbage.
Here in the good old USA, the approach to after dinner drinks tends toward the decidedly sweet. Coffee and cream-based liqueurs play a starring role in our post-meal libations, like Baileys Irish Cream. These are often added to a mug of hot coffee and topped off with whipped cream, making them more of a dessert than a stomach settling dram.
Whiskey, especially aged whiskey with the spicy warmth and smoky oak imparted to it by time in the barrel, has taken up a starring role in the limited state-side digestif tradition, doing far more to calm a rumbling belly than a slice of chocolate cake ever could.
Port is a less common choice, but the raisin-like sweetness coupled with the spirited heat of fortified wine is a beautiful choice commonly used for a nip after supper, settling stomachs and imparting a feeling of continental comfort and wellness. Or at least a nice buzz in a glass of tasty wine that also pairs well with chocolate.