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.
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.
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 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.
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
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.