In my last blog I spoke of the pleasures of the apéritif and how it can be employed to stimulate the palate and enhance your enjoyment of the meal to come. Now I feel the need is there to give equal time to the conclusion of the feast…
So you’ve just sat through a delicious multi-course dinner. The food, the wine, the conversation were superb. Maybe you overdid it on the lamb course, and perhaps the dessert was a little too much. But you are feeling full and happy. Coffee has been served and savored, and now it is time to round the evening off and bring it to a fitting conclusion.
In the heyday of the British Empire this would be the moment that the men retired to another room for brandy (or port) and cigars and perhaps a round of cards. While I would not be so presumptuous as to restrict the company of the women from this fine tradition, it does seem a good idea to move away from the table at this point, to change the setting for the finale.
What makes a digestif a digestif? We have already said that the before-dinner apéritif should preferably be dry (to stimulate the palate) and not high in alcohol (to avoid overwhelming the taste buds). The digestif, on the other hand, needs to stand up to the plethora of intense flavors of the entire meal and should therefore be either strong in alcohol, pungent enough to make its mark or both. This pungency may be in the form of a certain amount of sweetness or an herbal bitterness. In theory at least, the digestif should be an aid in the digestion of the meal.
Digestifs can be set forth in a few basic categories. The first would be brandy. These include Cognac and Armagnac, and let’s not forget those wonderful quality brandies of Andalucia. Closely related are eaux de vie (such as fruit brandy, schnapps and Calvados) and pomace brandy (such as marc and grappa which are distilled from the skins of wine grapes).
Another category is fortified wine which includes port, sherry (mostly the sweeter ones such as oloroso, cream or PX), Madeira, and vermouth.
Then there is the liqueur – a huge and varied category which can be sweet (Drambuie, Grand Marnier, Benedictine, Irish Mist, Kahlua, limoncello) and/or herbal (Green Chartreuse, Jägermeister, crème de menthe or the various amari of Italy such as Fernet-Branca). In one sense at least the herbal liqueurs are best in aiding digestion as they typically contain carminatives which quell or prevent the formation of gas in the gastrointestinal tract, thereby combatting flatulence. But let’s not get any further into that!
Finally there is distilled liquor – that simple glass of single malt Scotch or quality bourbon makes a perfect after-dinner drink; and the liquor cocktail – of which the Rusty Nail comes deliciously to mind.
The choice is wide and may be fixed by the host or open to the subjective proclivity of the guests. At any rate it should be the culmination and crowning glory to a genial and engaging evening. The digestif is indeed the Art of the Happy Ending!
Bill Stobbs, ABC Fine Wine & Spirits wine supervisor
Follow me on Twitter @abcwinebills