Digestif

When You Can't Eat Any More, Drink a Digestif

From Cynar to Aquavit, we'll find something that'll settle your stomach (or pair with dessert!)

November  6, 2020

You’ve been sitting for the last four hours, gleefully tucking into the parade of heavy, gravy-bathed foods crowding the table. Festive spirit and general mirth abound, but your stomach, well, it’s starting to cry uncle. The last thing in the world you want at such a moment is to pour one more thing into your strained digestive system.

But, consider taking a page from the playbook of merrymakers through the ages, and instead of giving up, reaching for a digestif.

Photo by Bobbi Lin

A digestif is a drink traditionally taken at the end of a meal to stimulate your digestion, “cut the fat” (as my Norwegian family says), and restore your confidence that you will someday wish to eat again. They are a balm for an aching stomach, a pair of stretchy pants in liquid form. Digestifs are usually taken in a small amount, just an ounce or two.

Photo by James Ransom
Photo by Alpha Smoot

And, while people sometimes refer to any drink at the end of a meal as a digestif, this winds up lumping drinks that are really dessert drinks like Irish Cream or Kahlua into the category. Real digestifs, however—the drinks that are true digestive aids—are only a little sweet, often assertively bitter, and packed with spices and herbs that ease indigestion, like fennel, caraway, lemon verbena, or artichoke.

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Put a digestif or two out on the table with a bunch of small glasses and end your holiday party on a high note instead of a fizzle.

Keep these digestifs at the table so you can continue the conversation instead of collapsing on the couch:

Photo by Emily Vikre

Aquavit

In my family, this Scandinavian spirit is the go-to for “cutting the fat” of holiday meals. The dominant spice in aquavit is caraway, giving it a flavor that may remind you of rye bread. Aquavit frequently contains spices like fennel and cardamom in addition to caraway, all of which are good for your digestive system.

Photo by Emily Vikre

Chartreuse

You can choose Green or Yellow Chartreuse, but I recommend Green because it's less sweet and more intense—just the thing to shake you back awake after an indulgent supper. Both varieties of Chartreuse are made by French monks and are deeply spicy and herbal. Green Chartreuse has well over 100 types of herbs in it, so I think it’s safe to bet that at least some of them aid digestion.

Photo by Emily Vikre

Strega

Strega is an Italian herbal liqueur that could be considered a delicate Roman cousin of Chartreuse. While complexly herbal, it's less intense than Chartreuse. Strega is brilliantly yellow from saffron, but it also tastes of fennel, mint, anise, cloves, and nutmeg. In short, all sorts of spices that are good for your stomach.

Photo by Emily Vikre

Cynar

This is a type of Italian Amaro, which is a group of bitter, herbal Italian liqueurs ranging from caramel-y sweet (like Averna Amaro) to viciously bitter and menthol-y (like Fernet Branca).

Cynar is on the intense side, but not insurmountably so. It has a lightness from herbal flavors and notes of dark roast coffee on the finish. Artichokes are among the flavoring agents (Cynar does not, however, taste a thing like artichokes), and artichokes (along with some other types of thistles that are used in liqueurs) have long been prized as an ingredient in digestive tonics, as they stimulate bile production and even protect the liver (glory be!).

Additional Recommendations From Food52 Editors:

Averna

For those who crave an after-dinner drink that tastes like Coca-Cola for grownups, look no further than sweet, citrusy Averna. An ideal “starter” amaro, Averna isn’t as herbal as Cynar, nor as bitter other varieties, like Fernet—it’s perfect for whetting your digestif-appetite. The Sicilian amaro is delightful on the rocks, or with a splash of seltzer and an olive.

Fernet

If ending a meal with something sweet doesn’t appeal to you, allow me to direct you to Fernet. Unlike other amari like Cynar and Averna, which have bitter notes, Fernet is bitter, full stop. Though it’s smooth on the palate, the flavor isn’t sweet at all. With a high ABV and distinctly medicinal, slightly menthol-y flavor, it’s a serious drink, classically served straight up or on the rocks with lemon peel. Some prefer Fernet mixed with other liqueurs or beverages to cut its bitterness: Fernet and Campari or sweet Vermouth over ice is wonderful on a fall evening; in Argentina, Fernet and cola is a classic highball (and hangover cure).

Port

Technically a brandy-fortified wine, port is a sweet drink that’s delightful with cheese. Whether you’re looking for a bright white, fruiter Ruby, or nutty Tawny port, the drink works best as a digestif sipped simply from a glass.

Sherry

Another fortified wine (this time, from a neutral grape spirit!). Sherry, like most of these digestifs, has in the past decades been deemed old-fashioned, but in the last few years, made a delightful resurgence in bars frequented not only by septuagenarian men from Europe. Back to sherry: the Spanish beverage, which can be found in both sweet and drier vintages, is made exclusively from white grapes. It’s best drunk straight up, chilled, alongside dessert or cheese.

What do you drink after a big meal? Share with us in the comments!

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Gordon
    Gordon
  • LadyR
    LadyR
  • Ellen Gray
    Ellen Gray
  • Bevi
    Bevi
  • ingefaer
    ingefaer
I like to say I'm a lazy iron chef (I just cook with what I have around), renegade nutritionist, food policy wonk, and inveterate butter and cream enthusiast! My husband and I own a craft distillery in Northern Minnesota called Vikre Distillery (www.vikredistillery.com), where I claimed the title, "arbiter of taste." I also have a doctorate in food policy, for which I studied the changes in diet and health of new immigrants after they come to the United States. I myself am a Norwegian-American dual citizen. So I have a lot of Scandinavian pride, which especially shines through in my cooking on special holidays. Beyond loving all facets of food, I'm a Renaissance woman (translation: bad at focusing), dabbling in a variety of artistic and scientific endeavors.

6 Comments

Gordon November 14, 2020
I laughed when I read about Fernet Branca, which is a favorite of mine. You need to work your way up to it, as it packs a powerful taste! I have seen people spit it out! After I got them to try it. Fernet Menthe one is even more powerful! I do not notice the bitterness anymore, but then I also like Suze. And the gentian in it packs a punch. A friend described Suze as tasting like dirt!! Yes these are acquired tastes. I also love green Chartreuse. This is a very strong liquor but has a wondeful taste, better than yellow.
 
LadyR November 8, 2020

In 1972 I was introduced by the importer to Berlin monk bitters Mampe Halb and Halb. It hasn't been available here in many years and I was recently told it can only be sold in Berlin, Germany.

I used Mampe Halb and Halb for years in my newspaper weekly Gourmet Cooking columns recipes and my twice weekly hobby teaching gourmet way back in 1976. I still refer to the bitters in my recipes because my readers travel the world, so might be able to find it overseas to bring home.

I was so blessed by a business colleague last year when he appeared at my door with a hand-delivered especially packed Mampe Halb and Halb via his in Berlin old school friend since they were together in Grade Five and still stay in touch.

For me an incredible treasured
gift. I had told him how badly I missed being able to buy it for my recipes, in particular I flambeed crepes the way you would make crepe suzette. Made with various of my butter coin reserves and flambeed with the bitters, there's nothing like it. The bitters have citrus undertones, orange in particular.

For me it was a gift of a lifetime. Truly a treasure from another life... another time and another place. I give such thanks. A shot glass is a miracle digestif. I'm not a drinker per se but I cook with spirits nearly every day. And I always keep green Chartreuse in my supply. It is getting more difficult to find.

Another digestif I was introduced to about the same time by a European was a shot of white creme de menthe served in plain fresh brewed black coffee.

I have a cookbook manuscript in the works to be available next year called:

© Spirits in My Kitchen: Lady Ralston - Canadian Cooking with Bouquets and Aromas - Good Food Made Better Adding Spirits
 
LadyR November 10, 2020
I forgot to say I put a tablespoon of my kumquat marmalade in the crepes. When I made the marmalade every year between Christmas and New Year and when sealing each jar I added a teaspoon of the digestif. An amazing combination I first made back in the mid 1970s.
 
Ellen G. November 7, 2020
Following a big meal, my father liked to offer small tipples of the digestif Ramazzotti, an Amaro imported from Italy. Served in slender glasses the color of crayons, (glasses that he kept tucked away in his mahogany bar) it was his way of saying the party wasn’t yet over.
 
Bevi November 13, 2015
Since the early 90's, once in a while, we have been drinking Becherovka, a Czech digestif made in Karlovy Vary. It has a mildly spicy flavor with a hint of peach. In the Czechlands, a shot of Becherovka might be the first thing imbibed in the morning after a hard night of drinking. For more robust occasions we drink Slivovitz, a plum brandy.
 
ingefaer November 12, 2015
I like to drink Gammel Dansk ( translated Old Danish ). It's a bitter containing "30 different herbs and fruits" and it has a wonderful ability to settle my stomach