The Digestivo: A Beginner’s Guide to Italian After Dinner Drinks

Frankbeverage, drink, reference56 Comments


This blog is mostly dedicated to food, but food and drink are inextricably linked. So, from time to time, we consider the wines and other beverages that typically accompany an Italian meal. We’ve taken a look at the apertivo, the before-dinner drinks intended to whet the appetite before dinner. Today let’s consider the other end of the meal, the digestivo. As the name suggests, these after-dinner drinks are meant to settle the stomach and help you digest your food. Not everyone agrees they actually work, but there’s no disputing that a digestivo is a delicious way to close a meal.

This is a vast subject, one too vast to do it real justice in a blog post. We can only really scratch the surface, but here’s a (highly personalized) introduction to the main categories of digestivo and some of my own favorite drinks.

Amari: Bitter Liqueurs

Amari are perhaps the most iconic type of digestivo. They are made by infusing alcohol with an often complex variety of herbs and spices, and sometimes other flavorings like dried orange peel. This is achieved through maceration in some cases, in others through distillation, or a combination of the two. Sometimes this infusion is mixed with sugar syrup to balance out the bitterness. The amaro is then often aged in wood casks. It is the mix of ingredients, as well as the times they are left to infuse and age, that give any particular amaro its unique flavor. Amari are an acquired taste. Many people find them too ‘medicinal’ tasting—I’ve heard them compared with cough syrup—but they are much loved by their fans (like me).

Some Popular Italian Bitters

These herbal liqueurs are reminiscent of some apertivi like sweet vermouth, but tend to be much drier—amaro means ‘bitter’ in Italian—higher in alcohol content and more strongly flavored, although amari have a considerable range. Averna, a Sicilian amaro, for example, is actually quite sweet. Montenegro—a Bolognese amaro and also one of my favorites—is rather light and well-balanced, and less alcoholic than most at only 23% ABV. (Fun fact: It is named after Queen Elena of Montenegro, wife of King Victor Emmanuel III.)

At the other end of the spectrum is perhaps the most famous of this class of liqueurs, Fernet Branca. It is also one of the strongest (at 39% ABV) and one of the driest. Containing 27 different herbs and spices taken from four continents, including aloe, gentian root, rhubarb, gum myrrh, red cinchona bark, galangal, camomile, cinnamon, saffron, iris, bitter orange, and white turmeric, the makers of Fernet have claimed it has almost miraculous medicinal qualities. A newspaper advertisement from 1865 claimed it to be “febrifuge, vermifuge, tonic, invigorating, warming and anti-choleric”,  as well as a cure for menstrual cramps. I’m not sure if it actually has all these benefits, but it does settle the stomach very nicely. I drink it when I’ve had a particularly heavy meal.

Some lesser known and unusual Italian herbal liqueurs include Zucca, made from rhubarb, and Cynar, made from artichokes. Both are quite delicious, too. Fairly sweet, perhaps best described as ‘bittersweet’, they can be enjoyed as an aperitivo before dinner, too.

Non-Italian Bitters

My amaro of choice is Unicum, a highly aromatic Hungarian bitter. Its origins going back to 1790, when a certain Dr. Zwack, court physician, offered a sip of his digestive to an ailing Josef II, Holy Roman Emperor. According to the company website, Unicum is made from over 40 herbs and spices, the majority of which come from the Carpathian basin. But ingredients are also imported from Morocco, China, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Nigeria, the Americas and Australia. Some special ingredients, which the company calls “the heart of Unicum”, are personally weighed out by a family member, currently Péter Zwack’s widow, Anne Marshall Zwack. Some of components of Unicom are macerated, others distilled, before aging in oak casks.

The German bitters Underberg and Jaegermeister are quite popular in Italy as well. I find Underberg has especially effective digestive qualities, but it is much lighter than Fernet Branca. One little oddity, however, about Underberg: it is sold exclusively in tiny, single shot 20ml bottles. I had heard a story that this is because Hubert Underberg-Albrecht, who invented the stuff in 1846, wanted to make sure that anyone could afford to buy his cure-all, but it turns out that the signature bottle was the idea of his grandson, Emil Underberg. According to the website, Emil “hoped to offer his customers the optimum quality each time as well as safeguarding the product’s originality. The [product’s] overwhelming success is proof that he was right.” In other words, a marketing ploy… that paid off big time.

The Digestivo: Sambuca

Sweet Liqueurs

Some after dinner digestivi are intensely sweet. These liqueurs are generally made by infusing alcohol with some flavoring ingredient like lemon zest or anise, then mixing the alcohol with simple sugar syrup. My personal favorites in this category are sambuca, made from anise seed, and the ever-popular limoncello (not pictured). While amari are, in my opinion at least, best consumed in the colder months, this class of digestivo is equally at home year round.

You need to be careful about the sambuca you purchase. There are a number of brands sold here in the US of pretty dubious qualitiy. To my mind, the best brand of sambuca is Molinari, the best-selling brand in Italy. It has a particular rich taste and silky mouthfeel that blows away any other I’ve tried, including Sambuca Romana, the most popular import here in the US. Anise is known to aid digestion, and I swear that a thimbleful will sooth a sore tummy.

Besides serving as an after dinner drink on its own, sambuca can be added to coffee as a sweetener—and fortifier. Italians call coffee with added sambuca (or grappa) caffè corretto, or “corrected” coffee.

Unlike other digestivi, limoncello is generally served ice-cold. To me, it is the summer digestivo par excellence, particularly refreshing after a fish dinner or a pizza. The beauty of limoncello—as well as its cousins made from the zest of oranges and other citrus fruits—is it is really easy to make at home. But if you don’t have the time or inclination to make your own, look in your liquor store for a limoncello made from lemons from Sorrento.

Other Sweet(ish) Liqueurs

The very popular Amaretto is made from almonds and, despite its name actually quite sweet. The unusual Strega from the province of Benevento in the south of Italy has a unique bright yellow color which comes from saffron, although the makers claim it contains over 7o different herbs and spices. (Strega means ‘witch’ in Italian. Apparently, Benevento was legendary back in the day as a global center for witches. Who knew?) Many people enjoy these liqueurs, although, in all honesty, they’re not personal favorites.

The Digestivo: Aqua Vitae

The Strong Stuff: Aqua Vitae

If you want a really stiff after dinner drink, this category of distillates is for you. Grappa, with up to 60% ABV, is the ne plus ultra of this category of digestivo. Grappa is made from ‘pomace’: the skins, seeds and stems of grapes leftover from wine production. There are many, many types of grappa—too many to do justice to here—that you can explore. Grappas can be young or aged in casks; some are infused with herbs or fruits or honey. Although the taste of much grappa, especially the young ones, can be quite harsh, like a fine whiskey it can have subtleties of flavor that you will only perceive after a fair amount of experience with them. (Not that we’re complaining… ) Like sambuca, you can add grappa to espresso coffee to “correct” it.

I occasionally enjoy aquae vitae from other parts of the world. Pisco, from the wine producing regions of Peru and Chile, bears a striking resemblance to grappa, usually at a fraction of the price. And thanks to my niece who until recently lived in The Netherlands, I’ve discovered genever, the juniper-flavored precursor to today’s gin. While most gin is too neutral to enjoy outside a cocktail, genever deserves to be sipped and savored. Slivovitz, the plum brandy made in many central European countries, packs a tasty and powerful punch. And a fine aged resposado tequila is also eminently sip-worthy, perhaps my personal favorite in this category of digestivi.

The Digestivo: Single Malt Scotch

Single Malt Scotch

Although obviously not Italian, single malt Scotch makes for a superb digestivo. Italy, in fact, was the very first country outside the UK to embrace single malts. This was due largely to the pioneering efforts of Milanese merchant Armando Giovanetti. Convinced that malt whisky would appeal to the Italian palate, he approached several distillers during the late 1950s and was turned down. But he hit pay dirt with Glen Grant in the early 1960s. By the 1970s Italy was the leading export market for single malts. (Source: Charles Maclean. “Whiskypedia.”) The Macallan has even dedicated one of their lines to him. It’s now a collector’s item.

To simplify a bit a complex process, Scotch is made from malted barley, which is dried and then processed with water into a “mash”. The mash is allowed to ferment, then distilled and finally left to age in wooden casks. The term “single malt” means the Scotch has been distilled in a single distillery. (By contrast, blended Scotch mixes single malts from different distilleries. A “blended whisky” also contains whiskies distilled from other grains like wheat, and is used mostly for making cocktails.)  Experts have written myriad books about single malts, but let me sketch out some basics and mention a few of my favorite single malts.

Scotches can be classed into regions (described below) but there is incredible diversity among single malts from each region. There are multiple distilleries in each region, each with its own style. And these individual distilleries produce several different “expressions” that can have very different qualities depending on a number of factors, including how long they’ve been aged, in what type of cask (often previously used for sherry or bourbon), whether the barley has “peated”, and the water used.

My personal favorites: Island Scotches

The single malts I like best come from the island of Islay, off the southwestern coast of Scotland. Islay single malts tend to be quite heavily “peated”, a processing step whereby the barley is dried by a peat-fueled fire. This gives these single malts a pleasant smokiness. The best known Islay single malts are Lagavulin, Laproig, Ardbeg and Caol Ila. Each one has its charms: Lagavulin 16 is perhaps the finest and most balanced. Laphroig 10 has a distinctive, almost medicinal taste. Caol Ila is remarkably smooth for an Islay whisky, while Ardbeg packs perhaps the peatiest punch of the bunch. Ardbeg’s “Supernova” expression is renowned as the peatiest whisky of all.

I am very partial to other island single malts, especially Talisker from the Isle of Skye off the northwestern coast of Scotland. It  shares a certain peatiness with its Islay neighbors, but to that it adds a subtle brininess. Off the northeast coast, on largest of the Orkney islands, is found Highland Park, the northernmost distillery in Scotland. It, too, has an intriguing maritime taste, without Talisker’s peatiness.

Other Single Malts

If you like a lighter whisky, you may well enjoy a Lowland single malt. Glenkinchie, distilled quite close to Scotland’s capital Edinburgh, is a good example of this style.

But the epicenter of single malt production is the valley of the river Spey, in northeast Scotland. I find that these single malts, called Speysides, tend to be rather smoother than in other regions. Speysides are often aged in sherry casks, which lends them a certain sweetness. The ‘big boys’ of the global single malt Scotch world, Glenfiddich, The Glenlivet and The Macallan, are made here. Personal favorites among the Speysides include Dalwhinney and The Balvenie, which makes a charming 12 year old “Doublewood” expression.

Finally, there’s the rest of Scotland, sometime referred to collectively as the Highlands.* It is hard to generalize about the diverse characteristics of Highland Scotches. Some very fine single malts like The Ardmore are found here, however, as well as the best selling single malt in Scotland itself, Glenmorangie.

*In some sources, the term “Highlands” includes Speyside and the Islands. The Highlands are then divided into various sub-regions. And Islay is often considered its own region, apart from other Island Scotches. 

Lately I’ve begun to branch out into other whiskeys—bourbons and ryes—and plan to explore Irish, Canadian and Japanese whiskey. But let me stop here before this post gets just too long…

A Final Word on the Digestivo

So there you have it, my beginner’s guide to the digestivo. If you haven’t yet had the chance to explore the diverse world, I’d invite you to try one or two digestivi from each category and see what you think. And if you already know about these drinks, let us know in the comments below about the digestivo you like best.



56 Comments on “The Digestivo: A Beginner’s Guide to Italian After Dinner Drinks”

  1. I’ve enjoyed an equal-parts blend of creme de menthe (clear) with creme de cacao and amaretto liqueur — sometimes with an extra part of amaretto.

  2. Hello Frank, love the site. Wanted to donate to it through PayPal but was getting errors. Saved your site and will be back. My first experience with bitters was Aperol while in Zurich on business. Great site and lots of info to “digest”.

    1. Welcome, Michael! And sorry for the problems with the PayPal widget, unfortunately you’re not the first. And I’m not sure how to fix it! But thanks for trying.

  3. Hi I was wondering if you still have the 27 herbs necessary for making Strega. I lost my list. The Strega was sublime. If you have it please send it to me.

  4. Thanks for this article about digestivo. On my first evening in Italy, Florence, the waiter brought me a taste of Vecchio Amaro de Capo. I loved it, and that oplned up a whole new category of drinks for me. I am taking my time and working my wah through several Amaro. I like them so much better than the more common Limoncello.

    1. Yes, I love amari, too, as you can probably tell from the article. Although a limoncello, especially in the summer, is rather nice after the seafood dinner.

  5. When I was a child, my parents would buy “straight “ alcohol from a local winery and make gallon jugs of a variety of Italian liquers. They would boil the alcohol, water and sugar in large pots to make a thin syrup amd then add flavorings that they purchased at an Italian market… golden strega, crystal clear anisette, emerald green creme de menthe, rich chocolate creme de cocoa and a brilliant pink rosorio. I was fascinated by the jewel-like colors. Guests were traditionally served their flavor of choice on a silver tray in a mini mug-like liquer glass along with homemade Italian cookies, a tradition that my parents brought with them from Puglia..
    In later years when the alcohol was no longer available, my dad would sometimes have a cordial that he called “la mosca” (the fly), made from store bought sambuca and a coffee bean.
    Of course, I was never allowed to sample any of these treasured liquids because I was not “of legal age.”

  6. While 50% Italian (50% Irish) I never knew the Italian side of the family. So have collected many recipes. Thanks to this wonderful site I have added 6 more goodies and now wonder Italian Liqueurs. TY

    1. That’s great, Jo. Fantastic to know you’re enjoying—and using—the site. Thanks so much for your readership. 🙂

  7. Lovely articlolo Franco!
    I read this with a thirsty pleasure both for assuaging a newborn thirst and for translation of many of this facts for an Italian conversation class in lavoratione artigiana.
    Wonderful, engaging and informativo. I’m on my way to the store for some Montenegro!

  8. Such an interesting post Frank. Personally I don’t care too much for Amari although I have to say I’ve had a few that restaurants in Italy have made themselves that we a gift from the kitchen at the end of a meal that I did like. Depending on the meal I’ve had if I’m in Italy, I usually would order a Sambuca, Limoncello or a very good Grappa.

    1. Offering a complimentary after diner drink is a common custom in Italian restaurants. One of those little details of life that I miss a lot about Italy!

  9. What a great post Frank! One of our favorites is the Amaretto, which we also often use in baking (in cookies etc.). The other favorite from your list is sambuca, and it couldn’t be otherwise, since -as you probably know- the popular ouzo that we have here tastes almost the same:)
    Great article, pinned!

  10. Wishing there was a good Italian restaurant near me with a well stocked bar where I could try the so many amari there are. I am sipping Ramazzotti amaro as I write this as it is one of the only amaro available locally. That said, I also always have some lemoncello in my freezer and some Campari and Aperol in my cabinet for spritz … Campari and vodka also makes a wonderful “martini”

    Good writing again Frank!

  11. I have never said no to a good digestivo , I like the bitter liqueurs and the sweet ones. I can’t believe that Underberg and Jägermaister are popular in Italy. Thank you for this informative post.

  12. Frank, this is a concise and thorough review on the topic of digestivo. I always take on after an especially long and heavy meal to aid in resolving any discomfort I had inflicted upon myself. Mio Marito prides himself on his collection, most of which you covered in your post. The after dinner ritual is an integral part of Italian food and wine.

  13. I have tried almost all of the amari you mention above , but when my son visited Italy a few years ago he brought back a bottle of Vecchio Amaro del Capo a delicious blend of herbs made in Calabria .For a few years we couldn’t get it here in Australia, now they sell it here too at four times the price than Italy!!!! It’s best kept in the freezer, absolutely delicious after a family dinner . Love your posts and thank you for sharing Angelina’s recipes with us

    1. I think I’ve seen Veccchio Amaro del Capo around here, too. Will have to try it soon. Thanks so much for your comment, Maria!

  14. Although I’m 100% Italian, maybe I picked up some Scottish tastebuds from being born in Scotland. I’m not into most Italian digestivi, especially the bitters. Cynar has scarred me (or my taste buds) for life! 😉 However, Scotch is a different story…

    Lovely and informative post, as usual!

  15. Really nice post Frank. These digestive are so varied – there is something for everyone, I’ve found. Fernet Branca is too bitter for me, but I love a glass of good anisette, limoncello or grappa. I’ve bought alkermes at the Santa Maria Novella farmacia in Florence, and posted about it – I don’t drink it straight, but used it in a recipe for zuppa inglese. I also made reference to a recipe for alkermes in Francine Segan’s “Dolci” cookbook. The digestivi I’ve found most satisfying are the ones I’ve had in Abruzzo that were made from the local plants – genzano, saffron and others. Those you have to buy there and bring back. I also love Punch Abruzzo, and from a different part of Italy – barolo chinato, made with herbs and spices infused into red wine with quinine added. The recipes are all family secrets and it too, is hard to find in the U.S., although not impossible in big cities like NYC. It’s one of the most expensive digestivi I’ve ever bought, but oh so worth it. A small glass after dinner is all you need to put the finishing touch on a good meal. PS – I’ve never been a scotch drinker – but I’m going to Scotland in the spring. I’m going to read your guide again and try a few.

    1. There seem to be quite a few fans of abruzzesi after dinner drinks… I guess I’m going to have to see if they’re sold around here!

  16. Great post! I don’t like strong drinks of any kind, so although I forced myself to taste grappa, I’ll probably never have it in my liquor cabinet! In Venice, a Sgroppino (SP?) was recommended after a meal, and I have since made them in the summer. Whether or not they act as a digestif? Doesn’t really matter!

  17. Digestivi we always have in the house: Sambuca (from Mark’s time in Rome), Cynar, limoncello, mandarincello, Laphroaig, and – oddly- Alkermes (both from Santa Maria Novella and one I make at home). We love a nice sip after a good meal! Loved learning about several digestivi that haven’t crossed my lips!

    1. Hi David: one question for you, If I may: I read u have tested Santa Maria Novella’s alkermes and that u have made it at home too: how do they compare? what recipe for Alchermes do u follow? thanks a lot – stefano

  18. Hi Frank — I brought home a wonderful apertivo/digestivo from Sicily called Vino alla Mandorla. It is the most delicious drink — on it’s own, or over ice on a hot day. Unfortunately I have never found it here (in Canada) and it may not be an exported product.

    I have made limoncello which is good, but the colour tends to be less than lemony. To anyone who plans to make their own, it is important to use organic lemons since it is the peel that you use.

      1. Hi Frank — to my taste, vino alla mandorla is not like amaretto — it’s clear like water and thicker than wine (although it is ‘vino’). I can’t even describe or compare the taste. If you manage to find it, please let me know if you like it. Ciao, Pegi

  19. Hi Frank,
    Thanks so much for this informative post. I do not drink a digestivo very often but if I have to choose I go for Limoncello and Mirto from Sardinia. I agree with Stefano about Mirto. You have to find a good one and drink it cold, like Limoncello. Have a nice weekend, Paola

    1. I’ll try Mirto again. I tried it once long ago and wasn’t “wowed” by it, but I may not have had a good example. Worth a second look, I’m sure. Any particular brand you’d recommend?

  20. Wonderful information, Frank. I’m saving this post as a reference. The only digestivo I knew about growing up was grappa. At the end of a meal, my mamma and papà drank caffè correctto. When we came to this country we ended up in a small Midwestern town with no Italians. I have tasted limoncello in Capri — delicious!! I’ve also tasted Sambuca and Amaretto. I don’t know whether they are the brands you recommend. I’m sure my readers would love to know more about this subject. You are always so thorough and your information is well researched. Grazie. Buon weekend.

  21. Thanks very much for this most informative article on before- and after-dinner drinks. I’ll be traveling to Italy on March 30 and definitely want to try some Molinari, which I haven’t seen here in Colorado. My absolute favorite limoncello comes from Sorrento and is made with the lemons grown in the Agruminato, which is located in the center of town. All other limoncellos have a “soapy” taste to me. The company that manages the Agruminato also makes a very delicious finocchietto. Thankfully, they will ship to the US, but I must caution that I had problems getting them to actually ship my order after I placed it online. No response to emails for weeks, but when I initiated a chargeback (which I hated to do) they suddenly two day air shipped the order from Sorrento to Colorado! Regardless of the difficulty in getting the product, everyone who tastes it says it is the very best. I haven’t tried the Liquirizia (licorice) yet, but plan to in April when I return to Sorrento. Here’s the link if anyone is interested:

  22. Nice article with a lot of surprises!

    I find that as I get older, bitter tastes appeal to me more. Campari was my introduction to amaro… first time I tried it, I didn’t like it but I’ve completely reversed direction. I crave it now. Fernet Branca is also a winner.

    Do you have any other suggestions for strong amari?

    1. Try Unicum. As mentioned in the post, it’s my personal favorite. And quite strong, both in taste and alcohol content.

  23. Frank,
    As always, I enjoy your weekly recipes – thank you for the time you take and for sharing.

    As the risk of sounding like a pedant, I must correct on your spelling of whisky. Whisky is for Scotch. Whereas Whiskey is used for Irish and American brands.

    Cheers and keep up the good work

  24. informative, well done!
    these are my proposals

    Anisetta Meletti instead of Sambuca Molinari: from Caffè Meletti in beautiful Ascoli Piceno (Marche region): more subtle than Sambuca Molinari: often served “con la mosca” , that is ” with a fly”= a single coffee bean to very, very lightly perfume it. it is distributed here in the UK and I would be surprised it is not available in the US

    Alchermes: the ruby red herbal, spicy l liqueur traditionally used in dessert. Very precious and very expensive, even in Italy: the only really good brand is Santa Maria Novella from Florence (the people who make the most sublime “acque di colonia”/eau de colonie:. Bugialli and others have the recipe to make it: I tried: not bad at all (generally used to make “zuppa inglese” dessert). Even in Italy rarely used these days (I mean the good stuff, not the nasty, cheap supermarket stuff)

    VOV from the Seventies: an egg and Marsala liqueur which is naff but good after a long day skying! to be honest I used to like it over ice-cream

    Mirto from Sardinia, made with myrtle: they range from awful to really good

    My favorite has to be Strega: I do not drink it, but I used it a lot in cake making: to me it is the unmissable taste used in many southern Italian cold cakes, generally sponge cakes filled with ricotta cream (+ chocolate and peels): like the divine cassata alla napoletana

    1. You know, my grandparents’ generation all drank anisetta, including the eponymous Angelina. It was their after dinner drink of choice. And your comment reminded me that I actually have a bottle of Meletti in my liquor cabinet. I had completely forgotten about it… should have mentioned it in the post. Nice, as you say more subtle flavor, although my own taste runs to the bolder flavors of sambuca. Alkermes is a drink that I actually have never tried. Coincidentally I first heard about it through Bugialli’s zuppa inglese recipes, actually, but I’ve never managed to locate it here in the US. (By the way, impressive that David makes his own!)

      I’ve tried Mirto and it was not my favorite. I may have not tried the right brand… any suggestions?

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