What's in a Digestif? Variations of the After-Dinner Drink

An after-dinner drink is a cultural ritual celebrated the world over. A few of the foremost drink experts spill the secrets of digestifs to Food Network.

By Brad Japhe

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An after-dinner drink is a cultural ritual celebrated the world over. But what exactly qualifies as a proper digestif? Although the category has traditionally been defined by straight spirits, modern mixologists are shaking things up a bit by serving cocktails. But to fit the bill, a post-meal elixir can’t just look pretty; it also requires a certain degree of practicality. It must relax the mind while easing a bloated belly. Consider these recommendations from a few of the country’s foremost drink experts.

Manhattan Meets Coffee

Charged with running the cocktail program at LA nightspot Harvard & Stone, head bartender Aaron Polsky is used to greeting post-dinner clientele. As a fellow admirer of his city’s gourmet cuisine, he knows just what to serve them in their time of need. “I love to go out for a special fine dining night once in a while, which usually means the meal will be rich, and that’s when I’ll have a digestif,” he says. “At Harvard & Stone, one of our most popular is the Manhattan Special.” Polsky’s riff on the classic American whiskey tipple introduces cognac and rum into the fray, along with coffee liqueur to add a touch of roasted sweetness. A dash of cherry bark-vanilla bitters makes for a fine finish.

The Sweetest Sting

As the inventor of the Penicillin, a cocktail that quickly gained acclaim among the bartending set, Sam Ross knows a thing or two about drinks. He’s chosen to dabble in digestifs as beverage director at The Dorsey, a craft cocktail hideaway in Las Vegas. Here, Ross developed The Midnight Stinger as a signature entry into the after-dinner drink category. “[It] hits the perfect note, where bitter, sweet and sour intersect,” says Ross. “The healthy measure of Fernet Branca helps with post-meal digestion, but does not take over the drink like Fernet tends to do.” Served over crushed ice and garnished with fresh mint, its overall effect is pure pleasure.

A Soothing Sip

The digestif is designed to work its wonders after dinner. It also serves an equally significant role, it turns out, in apres-ski. Bartender Shanna Sweeny discovered this shortly after taking over the bar program at Park Hyatt Beaver Creek Resort & Spa in Beaver Creek, Colorado. Weary riders coming in from the cold took solace in alcoholic ingredients typically reserved for later in the evening. Sweeny responded in kind, developing a cocktail dedicated to these unexpected desires. Her Slopeside Manhattan is a barreled assembling of rye against two particularly aromatic vermouths. The marriage should soothe not just an achy belly, but sore bones, to boot.

A French Twist

Amor y Amargo in Manhattan’s East Village neighborhood is a world-class destination for digestifs. That status is largely a testament to beverage director Sother Teague and his extreme devotion to the category of bitter liqueurs. His back bar is lined with hundreds of them, which he builds into the one-of-a-kind cocktails featured on Amor y Amargo’s drink menu. Teague recommends the Coa Strike. It’s a tequila-based arrangement, mining savory notes out of an amaro made with zucchini, as well as gentle spice from chile liqueur and cocoa chile bitters. The real standout ingredient, though, is Suze — a French spirit made with the bitter gentian root.

An Appealing Amaro

When it comes to digestifs, amari are as classic as it gets. For centuries, Italians haven’t dared conclude a meal without them. With wild tones that many liken to alpine herb or even cough syrup, they are increasingly relevant to the modern bartender’s arsenal. Yet they remain intimidatingly bitter to the unsuspecting palate. Mixologist Patrick Natola of Sable Kitchen & Bar in downtown Chicago has found a way to make the bitters more pleasing for the masses via his variation on the Boulevardier.

The cocktail involves a base of bourbon, topped with sweet vermouth. He also pulls in Montenegro, a particularly floral amaro that has broad appeal. The combination of ingredients results in a sum greater than its parts.

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Photography courtesy of Harvard & Stone, The Dorsey, Park Hyatt Beaver Creek Resort & Spa, Amor y Amargo and Sable Kitchen & Bar

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