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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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
For those who crave an after-dinner drink that tastes like Coca-Cola for grown-ups, 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.
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).
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.
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.
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