There are many things Europeans enjoy—to the benefit of their health and digestive systems—that we Americans should adopt. And, no, I'm not talking about universal health care. I'm addressing the very civilized tradition of the after-dinner digestif.
The point of a digestif, as suggested by its name, is to help diners digest their meals. (Aperitifs, on the other hand, are drunk before a meal and are meant to whet the appetite.) That is because digestifs typically contain herbs and spices that are believed to have stomach-settling properties. Classic digestifs are usually drunk straight and are most often spirits—bitters, brandy, cognac and brandy, armagnac, grappa, or even a whiskey-based liqueur such as Drambuie. Some fortified wines such as sherry, port, and Madeira are often served after dinner, but I would classify them as dessert wines.
Common in most European countries, the digestif has never really taken off in the U.S. Partly this is because restaurateurs, anxious to flip tables, often don't much encourage after-dinner drinks except for regular patrons, or perhaps if the evening is winding down. And unless diners have already been indoctrinated to appreciate the civility of lingering over a meal and conversation with that last blast, they are apt not to want to run up bills after pre-dinner cocktails and wine.
Europeans celebrate civilized roots
Some restaurants, though, are glad to break with the rules of commerce and just do right by the customer. Indeed, some will pour the digestif gratis, especially for a regular customer or a large party. For instance at the recently opened Kefi, a Greek-inspired restaurant on Manhattan's Upper West Side, chef/co-owner Michael Psilakis offers house-made limoncello as a digestif. Easily put together, it usually requires vodka or grain alcohol to steep with lemon peels for about six days. After that, you add simple syrup and usually an herb such as mint or basil. Mine was served table side, shaken with ice to bruise the basil and release its flavor.
Restaurants run by chefs who embrace and celebrate the truly civilized traditions of their European roots can be counted on to supply them. Waiters have offered up menus of after-dinner drinks to me in recent months at New York's Daniel (Daniel Boulud of France), Aquavit (Marcus Samuelsson of Sweden), and Lupa (Mario Battali and Joseph Bastianich of Italy).
In fact, waiters in many restaurants in Europe rarely ask if patrons want a digestif. They simply wheel up the drinks cart or place a bottle on the table with a few glasses, knowing it will not only aid digestion but put the diner in a more generous frame of mind when calculating the tip. So, it's not a bad idea when dining in for a smart host to keep a few bottles around. At home, nobody needs to flip the table unless your guests have worn out their welcome by dessert.
A mainstay digestif of Hungary—now making its way around bars and restaurants in major cities, especially where you find Hungarian enclaves—is Zwack ($23.99, 750 ml). Made from a more-than-200-year-old recipe and known locally as Unicum, Zwack is pretty much Hungary's national drink. It's an 80-proof herbal liqueur with a wonderfully balanced oral sensation and finish that embodies the perfect capper to a rich meal.
more options than a "Zwack Attack"
Although the name sounds as if it were hatched at a product-naming firm to compete against Jaegermeister for the college frat market, Zwack is actually the family's name. The recipe is secret, but 40 or so ingredients certainly include licorice, clove, cardamom, and orange peel. Oak barrel aging gives it a golden whiskey coloring. The flavor is deep and complex. One can imagine, while sipping, that Zwack has several ingredients in common with Angostura bitters, which any good cook or mother knows can settle a stomach when a few dashes are added to ginger ale or seltzer.
In 1989, Izabella Zwack's father purchased the business back from the Hungarian government, which had been making a faux Zwack. Having restored the original recipe, she began selling it in the U.S. in 2006. You may see promotional material in bars pushing a "Zwack Attack," an ice-cold shot of the stuff dropped into an energy drink like Red Bull. Don't be put off if you are over 30. "We are pursuing a two-road strategy as it works very well as a mixer—which is the more popular way to drink this type of spirit in America—but also as that gentler, after-dinner digestif that completes a meal," says Zwack.
In Italy, it is not uncommon to find well-established restaurants still making house digestifs, or at least relying on local families to supply one. It happens in a lot of basements, too, though the home tradition, which dates back to 19th century pharmacists, isn't what it used to be. Any self-respecting Italian household I know in the U.S. keeps Sambuca (Romana Sambuca, $24) in the cupboard to drink straight or mix with espresso. Other popular digestifs include Grand Marnier ($40) and Benedictine ($30), but there are many more choices.
Veal, offal, then Fernet-Branca
Amaro (meaning "bitter" in Italian) refers to any herbal liqueur. Alcohol content usually ranges from 16% to 35%. Like the recipe for making limoncello, Amari are produced by macerating herbs, roots, flowers, bark, and/or citrus peels in alcohol—either neutral spirits or wine—then mixing the filtered spirit with sugar syrup and allowing it to age in a cask or bottle. Amaro Averna ($25) is one of the more commonly found brands: Sweeter than Zwack, but not so much as Grand Marnier, its orange peel and licorice root poke through myriad other ingredients.
Several other well-known European digestifs are worth discovering. One is Cynar ($21), an Italian artichoke-based herbal digestif whose taste some have compared with tarnished pennies. Another is Fernet-Branca ($24), a peppery-but-sweet Milanese herbal that has become popular around San Francisco, New York, and New Orleans. I recently had one at the bar at Incanto, the much-acclaimed Bay area restaurant of chef Chris Cosentino, after a rich meal of veal and offal.
Grappa, distilled from grape skins and pomace (the solid that remains after grapes are pressed) from the wine-making process, is also finding its place on more drink menus. Unfortunately, most Americans have been introduced to cheap Grappa that tastes rather industrial. But better versions are making their way into restaurants. Jacopo Poli's line of well-crafted grappas include one of my favorites—Po' di Poli Aromatica, made from Gewürztraminer ($69.99)—and Allegrini's Grappa de Amaroni ($38). Tasted with an open mind, they can impart true delight.
It is increasingly evident when traveling around Europe that Americans' eating and digestive habits are continuing to infiltrate European practices. Long midday meals are scarcer. American fast food eateries are more abundant. Children as well as adults are becoming as round as Minnesota mall denizens raised on high-fructose corn syrup instead of fresh ears of corn in high summer. But the digestif is one European tradition that's still going so strong that is well worth importing into the U.S. dining experience.