By Duggan McDonnell
Sip on these after-dinner libations.
I ADMIT IT: I LIKE AN AFTER-DINNER DRINK; AFTER A BIG MEAL, I’LL ADJOURN TO THE BAR WITH FAMILY AND FRIENDS, OR EVEN ALONE WHILE DOING the dishes at home, I often long to extend an evening’s celebration just a few moments more. And there’s nothing more fitting, perhaps healthier for you, too, than to have a delicious digestif with your dessert, your coffee, before the taxi arrives and everyone travels home.
There are four categories of digestifs to enjoy: fortified wines, grape-based spirits, cordials and amari. Each is distinct, yet related in its purpose: to tantalize the tongue while settling the stomach. The most popular fortified wines that we Americans enjoy after dinner are sherry and port, with the occasional Madeira or vermouth thrown in to please the eccentric connoisseur. Port originated in Portugal and is most often a sweeter, fruit-forward experience on the palate, ranging in styles from ruby to tawny to late bottled vintages, largely produced from Portugal’s classic varietal: Touriga Nacional. Pair it best with chocolate. Sherry, on the other hand, can only be produced in the Iberian Peninsula of Spain and except for the popular “cream” style; Sherry is in fact a very dry drink to behold. Produced mostly from the Palomino Fino grape, sherry smacks of almonds and lemon oil, young green olives with hints of cacao and raisins. Sherries are best paired with creme brulee, cakes and marzipan.
The base of all fortified wines is a spirit, and the grape spirit most often poured after dinner is cognac. To be sure, cognac is an extremely popular spirit in the United States due to the success of Hennessy, Remy Martin, Martell and Courvoisier, amongst other brands. However, on the rise throughout the world are the grape-based cousins to cognac: pisco, grappa and Armagnac. Pisco is the unaged eau de vie of the South American Tropics, Grappa is the historic Italian vineyard owner’s prandial produced from the remains of the grape harvest, while Armagnac is the lesser-known but older grape spirit of France. All accomplish the same thing: they possess a wonderful mouth-feel, and are amazing with a cigar, or when paired with desserts baked with chocolate and Middle Eastern spices.
Amaro is the Italian translation for bitter, and it is a broad category of liqueurs which spans in flavor profile from the herbal Jagermeister to the lean and citric Campari. Amari have classically been enjoyed exclusively as a postprandial delight, as a digestif to counteract the weight and fat of a big meal, a pick-me-up to aid one’s digestion and enjoy the rest of the evening. And only recently has this “medicinal” practice of bitter imbibing become fashionable here in the United States.
Travel to New York and you’ll find an exclusive Amaro Bar at Osteria Mozza; Liberty Bar in Seattle now stocks eight different types of amari; and at Chicago’s Balena, one of Bon Appetit’s 50 Best Restaurants of 2012, you can’t order a house cocktail off its menu without having a heavy pour of an amaro in it.
Leading this amari cocktail revolution are the Big Three brands: Averna, Campari and Fernet-Branca. Their success lies in staying true to their traditions of products that originated with family recipes, and iconic branding, but more so, these days amaros have transcended their own category: amaros may not be just for after-dinner anymore. As evidenced by the cocktail menu at Balena and many other mixological haunts, an amaro can be a cocktail component, an aperitif as well as a digestif.
Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the fact that many cordials are poured nightly in the restaurants throughout Hawai‘i: Disaronno Amaretto, Cointreau, Kahlua, Benedictine—to name but a few. Distilled from a variety of ingredients, these household favorites delight the palate because each bears a delicious reward of fruit and spice, with a nip of sweet.
At San Francisco’s Park Tavern, chef Jennifer Puccio assessed the after-dinner drinking needs of her patrons, and wisely created a dish that pairs bitter with sweet in her dessert: Fernet with a Ginger Back. Here, she sources local ice cream glacier Mr. & Mrs. Miscellaneous Fernet-infused ice cream, drizzles the amaro over its top, adds a bit of lime zest and serves it with a Ginger beer chaser. I tasted one recently, and it hit the spot: rich yet bright and herbal, with a slight bitterness. I was tricking my stomach with every soft spoonful, the medicine going down just as I hoped it would.