As a country lauded for its culinary contributions—pasta, pizza, prosciutto, to name a few—it’s only natural that Italy has made an art form of the finer points of digestion. The timing of what and when Italians eat and drink is key to their daily rituals. And while the pre-dinner practice of aperitivo has been embraced and adopted well beyond Italy, the bookend ritual of digestivo remains uncharted territory for many.
Whereas the role of an aperitivo drink—typically a light, bitter and bubbly affair—is to “open the appetite” for the meal ahead, a bittersweet digestive, often amaro, is consumed after eating for its restorative properties that aid in digestion. But precisely what makes a drink suitable for this task is a nebulous thing.
“I’ll enjoy anything you serve me after a meal, from Cognac to Madeira, but for me the defining characteristic of a digestive is an obvious bitter quality,” says Sother Teague, beverage director of Overthrow Hospitality, which includes New York’s temple to all things bitter, Amor y Amargo. For Jason LaValla, founder of Casamara Club, which produces a line of nonalcoholic, amaro-inspired sodas, the key characteristic lies not in a specific flavor. “What makes a digestivo a digestivo to me has so much more to do with culture and context, the passing down of these secret handshakes between friends and family,” he says.
Indeed, across Europe, the after-dinner drink takes many forms, including fortified wines (port, sherry, sweet vermouth), herbal liqueurs (Chartreuse, sambuca, Bénédictine), sweet liqueurs (limoncello) and aged spirits (grappa, brandy, eau de vie, Scotch, whiskey). In the United States, meanwhile, coffee, dessert and an after-dinner drink are typically grouped together in a gut-busting grand finale. But Italians build up to a meal’s bittersweet finish, first with dolce—which could be a slice of cake, cookies, tiramisu or a palate-cleansing sorbetto—followed by a penultimate serving of espresso after dessert has been cleared, then ammazzacaffè (“coffee killer”), the final act otherwise known as digestivo.
While this methodical progression hasn’t been fully adopted stateside, the increased real estate of amari on menus is a move in the right direction. Brian Bartels, an owner and bartender at Settle Down Tavern and Oz by Oz in Madison, Wisconsin, welcomes the ways in which Americans are interpretating the traditions and rituals of Italian amari through their own distinctive lens. “I truly believe in the magical properties of amaro and all its mystical, myriad ingredients,” he says. At his self-described “cocktail snackeasy” Oz by Oz, amaro is served neat in both rocks glasses and ornate tulip glasses. “People enjoy both versions,” he points out. “But since this is Wisconsin, most people enjoy sipping on them while having a cocktail as their sidecar.”
As we head into the season of holiday gatherings, consider embracing digestivo as a way to extend an evening around the table—the benefits can be manifold. “I know that term is often associated with any drink that soothes the stomach after a meal, but I really celebrate the physiological influence of an after-dinner beverage, or the last drink of the day, and that extends beyond the stomach,” says Bartels. “A digestivo is anything that reconnects my stomach to my heart, my limbs, my shoulders and (hopefully not too much) to my head.”
KEEP IT NEAT
Traditionally, amaro is served neat at room temperature, but it can also benefit from a chilled approach, whether served in a frozen glass or with a couple of ice cubes. To elevate the serve, consider presenting it neat in a rocks glass or snifter with a choose-your-own adventure of accompaniments, including ice cubes, orange and lemon peels, and fresh herbs like sage, lavender or mint. In any case, there’s no need to break out a jigger; just free-pour one to two ounces in a glass of your choosing or allow guests to serve themselves.
Varnelli Amaro Dell’Erborista (Muccia, Marche, Italy | 21 percent ABV)
Dell’Erborista has taken on cult classic status among amaro aficionados in recent years, and the unfiltered, honey-sweetened amaro from the fourth-generation, women-owned family business is prized for its unique composition. It’s also a favorite of Lindsay Matteson, bar manager at Barnacle and The Walrus and the Carpenter in Seattle. “This is a beautiful, complex amaro that is also really bitter and lower in alcohol,” says Matteson, who adds ice and a grapefruit twist to her serve.
Amaro Braulio (Bormio, Lombardy, Italy | 21 percent ABV)
“As winter is upon us, I am quite partial to sipping Braulio after a meal,” says Teague, who prizes the historic amaro made in the Italian Alps for its “minty approach” and “earthy forest floor qualities.” This is one whose terroir instantly evokes the fireside après-ski life, and warrants a full embrace of ritual.
Amaro Nardini (Bassano del Grappa, Veneto, Italy | 31 percent ABV)
“Neat or on the rocks, Amaro Nardini is my go-to when I really need a digestivo,” says Matteson. The three-ingredient amaro (bitter orange, gentian, peppermint) from one of Italy’s oldest distilleries is also a favorite of Guido Martelli, general manager at the Palizzi Social Club in South Philadelphia. “An after-dinner digestivo is a beverage meant to be enjoyed and embraced during those fun conversations while lingering at the table,” says Martelli. “For me, it is often something you [are] slowly sipping while chatting with friends and family, and we always drink them out of our fancy cordial glasses.”
Averna (Caltanissetta, Sicily, Italy | 29 percent ABV)
The iconic Sicilian amaro, with pops of bright citrus and warm Mediterranean herbs, is a perfect balance of bitter and sweet, and a great starter bottle for those who have just begun exploring the world of amaro.
MIX AND MATCH
Digestivo isn’t the time for complex measuring and advance prep and subrecipes. It’s about quickly building or stirring a drink with ease. Equal-parts templates, especially, are your friends.
San Francisco Treat
Sam Levy, owner of the Fern Bar in Sebastopol, California, created this equal-parts combo of Fernet-Branca, Averna and blanc vermouth as the ultimate nightcap when he was the bar manager at the Michelin three-starred Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena, California.
This austere recipe from David Little, who formerly oversaw the bar program at Barnacle in Seattle, represents an inverse image of the classic Garibaldi’s bright sunrise hue in its moody combination of Braulio and Amaro Montenegro garnished with a lemon twist.
MAKE IT A 50/50
Combining two spirits in equal parts (typically one ounce each) and crowning it a composed shot with a cheeky name is a favorite pursuit of bartenders, but we all can take inspiration from that spirited tradition.
Tonia Guffey’s CIA (Cynar in Apple Brandy) marries Cynar, the bitter carciofo-style amaro, with Laird’s 100-proof Apple Brandy and a dash of Angostura bitters. It remains a gold standard in the 50/50 pantheon.
“The Ferrari, now and forever. We as society may never improve upon this combination,” says LaValla of the marriage of Fernet-Branca and Campari that’s become what writer Jennifer V. Cole dubbed “a handshake within a handshake for bartenders.”
Damon Boelte’s union of the bold and bracing Fernet-Branca with the sweeter and more mint-forward Brancamenta started as a house shot at the now-closed Prime Meats in Brooklyn and has since traveled the globe as a go-to, easy-peasy 50/50. Try it chilled in a hefty rocks glass.
SHAKE, SHAKE, SHAKERATO
Robby Dow, the beverage director at Grand Army in Brooklyn, took inspiration from the Campari Shakerato to experiment with over 20 different amari to see which styles and brands were best suited to the shaken treatment, which transforms the taste and texture of a familiar favorite into a whole new experience. Start your shakerato journey with Braulio and Brancamenta. Each of these will reveal a thick, long-standing foamy head and are as refreshing as a chocolate after-dinner mint.
CORRETTOS, CALDOS AND MORE
If you’re not quite ready to give up the coffee-after-dessert routine, these bittersweet options will keep you fortified—and insulated—as the after-dinner conversation lingers.
Italians have long been “correcting” their coffee and espresso with a spirited kick by adding a splash of grappa, sambuca, anisette, brandy or amaro. It’s as simple as pouring a bit of your favorite amaro into a hot cup of coffee or espresso. But consider the side-by-side serve, which allows you to alternate sips. And save a bit of amaro to rinse (rexentin, in Italian) the remaining coffee grounds for one last sip.
Italy’s version of a wintertime toddy combines two ounces of amaro with four ounces of hot water. Serve in a mug or a tempered glass with a lemon twist and discover its restorative properties. Alpino-style amari like Braulio are a natural fit for this format. Dan Zeiders, the beverage manager at Per Diem in Lititz, Pennsylvania, turns to Cappelletti Amaro Sfumato Rabarbaro for its smoky, earthy and slightly jammy notes, and whisks in a pat of salted butter for an added indulgence. Teague, meanwhile, takes a 50/50 approach, with equal parts Dell’Erborista and blended Scotch in a teacup, topped with hot water and a lemon wheel for a “truly soothing after-dinner treat.”
Moka Pot Amaro
On Thanksgiving and Christmas, Martelli and his brother break out the Bialetti moka pot and swap out the water for a dark, rich amaro that can stand up to the strong and bitter coffee grounds. Punch’s own Allison Hamlin also prescribes this one-pot approach, but recommends fortifying the amaro and coffee blend with a host of complementary herbs. The key is maintaining a medium heat to avoid scorching and stick to lower-proof amari.