Now that it is nice and chilly in the evenings, I've found myself craving a little something after a good meal. I think it might be a digestif...but I don't really know that much about them. So I'm wondering, what advice can you folks give me before I go blow a bunch of money at the liquor store. Are there different after dinner drinks to follow different cuisines, other than the obvious ethnic matches (e.g. grappa=Italian food)? Are amaretto and frangelico considered digestifs? I like those, and I like port and moscato when paired with dessert, but I'm looking more for post-dessert drinks. Thanks!
Commonly, brown, small, alcoholic drinks are served as digestifs. White, less alcoholic drinks are served as apertifs. For me, drink what you like when you like. Still if you really want a digestif. Find something you can drink neat, and in a small amount. Common things drunk as digestifs are cognacs, armagnacs, brandies, grappas, whiskies and herbs flavored liqueurs, and some wines (usually fortified) — for instance, port, sherry, or madeira. Have you had any of these? If so, what did you like? If not, head to a good bar and try some out after dinner. If none of these are going to work, go buy a non-vintage port.
I really love bitters as a digestif: the Italians call them amari (look for "amaro", literally "bitter", on the label).
My absolute favorite, the most effective digestif I've ever tried, is Fernet Branca, from Milan. It's on the fierce side, however: very, very bitter. I've come to love its flavor, but it was tough going when I started on it 15 years ago. (I don't care for its mint-flavored sibling, Branca Menta.)
I now always have a dozen kinds of bitters on my bar. A few that are in my rotation: Amaro Nonino (sometimes referred to as "Quintessentia", Friuli), Averna (Sicily), Amaro Mio (Asti), Meletti (Sardinia), Fernet Vallet (Mexico), Fernet Stock (much milder than the Branca product), Ramazzotti (Milan), Becherovka (Czech Republic), Underberg (very clove-y, Germany), Montenegro (Bologna), Amer Picon (France), and Unicum (Hungary).
Despite its fratty image, which you can blame on its American marketers, Jagermeister (Germany) is a terrific digestif: it's just embarrassing to order in a bar.
Certain amari are generally more appropriate as aperitifs, like Campari. I love the stuff as an aperitif (wit soda and lime), in highballs (like the Americano, with seltzer and sweet vermouth) and cocktails (especially the Negroni, with gin and sweet vermouth). Cynar, based on artichokes and actually delicious, is another before-dinner favorite of mine. I am not a fan of Aperol, another in this class of amari.
Non-potable bitters like Angostura also make a nice digestif: shake liberally into a tall glass of seltzer on ice.
Other interesting after-dinner drinks that I like with, though they have less pronounced digestive properties:
* Pacharan -- a Basque pastis-like (i.e., anise-flavored) liqueur infused with sloe berries. Very hard to find in the States. My favorite is Basarana; I currently have a bottle of Zoco, which is good, but not as deeply-colored or -flavored.
* Xtabentun ("shtah-ben-TOON"), a Mayan liqueur produced in the Yucatan, which adds a complex herbal flavor to a pastis-like base. The tastiest of several I've tried is made by D'Aristi.
* Chartreuse -- could probably qualify as bitters, as it's also an infusion of hundreds of botanicals, made by Carthusian monks in the French Alps. The yellow version is a bit milder and sweeter than the more intense green version.
Depending on my mood, I also like the following after dinner (any digestive effect may be purely psychosomatic):
* Well-aged (often in oak barrels), artisanal distilled liquors, including bourbon, American rye, añejo tequila, rhum agricole, Calvados, and once in a great while, Cognac or Armagnac.
* Fortified wines, including sherry (esp. oloroso and Pedro Ximenez), port (esp. LBV and vintage), and occasionally Madeira. Pedro Ximenez sherry is also very nice drizzled over vanilla ice cream.
* Dessert wines, notably Sauternes, Trockenbeerenauslese, and North American ice wines.
* Absinthe -- I've smuggled some pretty bad brands back from Spain, but it's legal again in the US. I have both the Lucid and Kubler brands, and recommend both.
I don't care for most of the sweeter liqueurs, and for me, most don't have the desired digestive effect.
Unicum's on my list (and on my bar). I find it's one of the more challenging ones for my new-to-bitters friends. A good application of Becherovka is the Beton, French for "concrete" and also a convenient mnemonic for its two key ingredients: Becherovka and tonic water over ice. I like to garnish mine with lemon; it's very refreshing in hot weather, and popular in Prague.
I'll have to add that dessert wine to my list. I wonder if my favorite Hungarian place in Boston has it on its wine list?
Grappa is okay, and in fact my favorite amaro is grappa-based (Fernet Branca). But I can't escape the sneaking suspicion that it's a triumph of marketing, specifically of elaborate packaging, over substance. This stuff is made from pomace, after all, the waste by-product of the wine-making process. It will do in a pinch if my preferred digestivi aren't available, but I don't have any of those very pretty, very expensive bottles on my own bar.