December 23, 2009
There are things not to like about the modern cocktail revolution. The seemingly requisite facial hair, for instance, and the suspenders that go along with it. The endless prattling on about ice, perhaps, or the idea that bacon makes a nice Martini garnish.
But the revival of digestive liqueurs is not one of them.
Digestives, or digestivi in Italian, have been used for centuries to help settle the stomach after a large meal — or any other time one feels off-kilter (as a student in Italy, my sister was regularly given doses of Fernet Branca, a powerfully bitter digestive, to ward off winter colds.)
They are probably as old as the distilled alcohol on which they are based — which, being strong and rather raw-tasting, was originally considered more pharmaceutical than enjoyable. Pharmacists (and monks, who were big on elixirs) would distill alcohol that had been infused with herbs, spices, roots and/or barks thought to have health-giving properties, and recommend the results for various ailments; Fernet Branca, for instance, was originally marketed to women to relieve cramps.
Nobody is making any health claims for digestives today (the FDA would frown on that) but many people still swear by their power to soothe digestive complaints. They've just had a harder time catching on here in the US, where bitter — a primary flavor in many digestives — doesn't rank highly. Italian restaurants may be the exception, long stocking grappas and Sambuca, but even that's nothing compared with the array of digestivi you'll find offered today at places like Frasca in Boulder, Lupa in NYC, and Osteria Mozza in Los Angeles.
But the movement goes beyond ethnicity: At Rye in Williamsburg, N.Y., the drinks list actually includes a short list of digestives, served straight up; in San Francisco, any respectable bar includes at least one kind of Fernet, the spirit having attained such a cult following that the city now consumes well over a quarter of the Fernet Branca imported to the U.S.
Bartenders all over the U.S. have been rediscovering the power of bitter through old cocktail recipes calling for a shot of Chartreuse or a dash of bitters, helping to move our collective tastes from the unchallenging sweetness of the Fuzzy Navel toward the bittersweet joys of the Negroni, a combination of gin, vermouth and herbal Campari.
In the process, the cocktail movement has put these bottles of weird, wild, bittersweet bliss back on the shelf, where we test them out mixed into a drink or can ask for them straight up when the digestive system needs some encouragement. If you're not big on bitter, bars may be the best places to try digestives out, as you don't have to commit to an entire bottle. But a bottle lasts a long time, and is a lovely thing to have around the house for the holidays, when overindulging is easy, and they tend to grow on you, once you recalibrate your tastes.
Here's an array of suggestions to get you started, from mellow to most intense.
Marolo Chamomile Grappa: Combining the best elements of a strong drink and a soothing cup of tea, this deserves a place on the essential digestivi list for its incredibly restorative qualities, even if it is technically not a digestive. (It's an infusion.)
Averna: Gentle enough to double as an aperitif, this Sicilian digestive uses local blood oranges and lemons to craft a refreshing after-dinner pour.
Amaro Nonino Quintessentia: The beautiful bottle looks like it belongs on the shelf of a 19th century pharmacy; inside is a mahogany- hued liquid that's bittersweet with woody spices and a gingery warmth.
Chartreuse: The yellow version is sweeter (and less interesting, in my view) than the green; if you can find a bottle of V.E.P., an extra-aged version, it's worth the extra money. Made from 130 alpine herbs by French monks, it tastes a little like a hillside in full blossom: faintly grassy, a touch mentholated, floral and gently spicy. According to Madeleine Scherb, author of "A Taste of Heaven: A Guide to Food and Drink Made by Monks and Nuns," Chartreuse is also "an occasional farmer's aid for flatulent cows."
Barolo Chinato (kee-NA-to): The word Chinato derives from quinine, which is infused, long with a slew of other botanicals, in Barolo wine, to make this Piemontese digestive. It's dark and spicy, a terrific winter warmer, and lower in alcohol than most.
Fernet (ferNET): Not for the faint of heart, this gets its dark color from beet molasses and its bracingly bitter flavor from myrrh, cardamom, saffron, rhubarb and about 36 other aromatics. Fernet Branca is one brand; Luxardo and others make Fernet, too. Approach cautiously: It can feel like a slap in the face and can also be surprisingly addictive once you get used to it.
This article first appeared in the Denver Post.