The digestif makes its appearance at the end of the meal, bringing a sweetness to round off the palate and – in theory – aid digestion. My research often uncovers its fair share of old wives’ tales, but this one sounds to me suspiciously like an old husbands’ tale to explain away that second brandy. What you will probably find though is that if your guests have been enjoying a glass or three of wine over the meal, switching to a digestif will slow the pace of drinking and very hospitably edge the evening towards its final phase.
For the host who has spent the evening mixing cocktails, fixing aperitifs, and opening and pouring wines – and presumably there was food to contend with too – there is happy news with the digestifs. They are generally drunk neat, just as they are, rather than mixed. By this point in the evening your guests should be feeling nicely relaxed in your home; and you’ve definitely earned the right to nod in the general direction of the bottle and let somebody else pour you a drink. Single or double measures depending on how stressful it has all been.
Brandies are made by distilling fermented fruit. Usually grapes, but there are brandies from other fruits too. Once opened it will keep just fine for a few months.
Cognac – is a particular type of brandy which uses grapes from the Cognac region of France. What you really need to know about cognac is how to read the label. That’s going to tell you how old it is; and for brandy being older is a good thing indeed.
The label will carry one or other of these markings:
‘VS’ is Very Special – at least two and a half years old;
‘VSOP’ is Very Superior Old Pale – at least four and a half years;
‘XO’ is Extra Old – age of six years or more.
Serve your cognac at room temperature in a balloon/snifter glass. That is the glass of choice because its balloon can (and should) sit in the palm of your hand, letting the cognac take in the warmth that is going to release its flavours.
Armagnac – is another type of brandy. Again from a particular region of France with its own particular methods of making. And like cognac, the label will tell you much about how old (and good) your armagnac is.
VS / Three Star – at least 2 years
VSOP – at least 5 years
XO / Napoléon – at least 6 years
Hors d’Age – Minimum 10 years
An armagnac expert might be happiest if you serve her armagnac in a glass with a narrow taper to harness the brandy’s flavours – something like a sherry copita. But for kicking back at the end of an evening with friends, pausing between sips to roll the armagnac around the glass that’s nestling in your palm, serve it in a balloon glass.
Eaux de Vie –is what the French call their brandies which are based on fruit other than grapes. That could be anything like plums, pears, or apples (which is what Calvados is). Serve in either a tapered copita or a balloon glass.
They’re not French and so not really eaux de vie, but other other-fruit brandy digestifs worth knowing are:
Kirsch – German. Cherries
Grappa – Italian. Grape skins.
Schnaps – German. Apples, pears, plums or cherries.
Applejack – American. Apples.
With whiskies it is more about the where than the what. However the different countries do it, whiskey is always distilled from fermented grain. What changes, is whether that is barley, malted barley, rye, wheat or maize.
This whistle-stop tour of whiskey is only going to take in those countries whose whisky you are most likley to find on the supermarket shelf; but if you fancy something a bit different then you could look to Japan or Australia.
Serve neat, over ice, or with a splash of water in an old-fashioned glass. Once opened it will keep for a few months.
The USofA – mainly these days produces bourbon, things like Jack Daniels. Corn based, and originally hailing from Old Bourbon in Kentucky. Miss American Pie was drinking rye, which you can definitely get but not so easily as bourbon.
Ireland – is the reason you’re seeing ‘whisky’ and ‘whiskey’ so far; because I’m totally hedging my bets, sitting on the fence and endeavouring not to cause offence. Irish whiskey is mainly barley and I’m told that some people do prefer it the whiskies of its celtic cousin…
Scotland – for many, this is the real McCoy. Scotch. And there is only one way to spell whisky from here on in. These often have a complexity of flavours to match the complexity of working out exactly what it is you’re drinking or buying. The label will help you out, so here’s what you’re looking for and what it means.
Single Malt – is only ever malted barley and only from one distillery. It’s not been mixed with any other grain or anything from any other distillery. The soil in which the barley grows changes across the country, giving distinct regional and distillery taste identities. The region that the whisky hails from is usually on the label and the main ones are: Speyside (often described as being like heather and honey); The Highlands (is a huge area so there are a lot of contrasts within it, which is precious little help I know); Islay (peaty and smokey from being right by the sea); and The Islands (again, peaty and smokey).
Blended (or Vatted) Malt – means that the whisky is a mix of single malts from different distilleries. But, crucially, it is still only malted barley. A good one will give some lovely flavours as the blend will have been very carefully put together. Think Johnnie Walker Green Label, Blue Hanger, or Glencoe.
Blended Scotch – is malt whisky that has been mixed with corn or maize ‘grain whisky’. So it is not just derived from malted barley. To keep this simple I am going to make a sweeping generalistion and say that the flavours of blended scotch do not lend it to being served as a digestif. If you spend quite a bit and get something really terrific, then maybe. Otherwise, it is not going to be good enough to do its job of rounding off the palate, or of creating a sense of decadence at the end of the evening. It will do you just fine, though, for slugging into the christmas cake.
Just as there are aperitif fortified wines, so there are types which are better as a digestif.
Sherry – at the end of the meal is going to mean an oloroso. Darker and richer than its aperitif sisters, but retaining the dryness. The sweeter sherries, like a Pedro Ximenez, work well, as do the cream sherries which are sweeter. Serve at room temperature, in a sherry glass or copita. Once you’ve opened the bottle you only have about 6 weeks to polish it off.
Port – must be Portugese in order to really be called port. Ruby Port is your entry-level choice, but if you go for anything other than the ‘Premium Ruby’ its probably not going to be great quality. ‘Late Bottled Vintage’ (LBV) may be a better digestif choice, with its more complex flavours. Do bear in mind that if the label says it is ‘unfiltered’ then you will have to do the filtering, and that means you need to decant it to get rid of the sediment. Skip that bit and your port will taste awful no matter how old it is or how much you spent on it. LBVs will keep for a week or so in the fridge once opened, the Rubys up to a month.
If you are really going for it then choose a Vintage Port, which will have been formally accredited as such by the portugese authority. I’m afraid you will definitely have to decant it, ideally a good few hours ahead of time. If it’s an old VP – by which I mean a proper senior citizen of sixty years or more – the time between decanting and drinking goes down to maybe just an hour. Once opened, it will keep for a day or so before dropping off its perch taste-wise.
Whichever port you’re having, serve it in a port or copita glass at room temperature.
Madeira – will keep for up to 6 months once you’ve opened it, and so is a good choice if you don’t need it to ‘aid your digestion’ all that regularly. For a digestif you’ll want the rich (Malmsey) or medium-rich (Bual) wines. Serve at room temperature in a copita.
Liqueurs are very sweet because they have been bottled with sugar, and that is their distinguishing feature. In their making the alcohol could have been mixed with fruits, spices, herbs, nuts or cream and those are the flavours which define the different types of liqueurs. There may be exceptions below, but on the whole serve in a balloon/snifter or old-fashioned glass with a few cubes of ice. For these drinks it is the cold which brings out their best flavours.
Also consider that if your basic cocktail mixologist endeavours have been going well and you are branching out into more adventurous territory, you’ll find that many of these liqueurs are cocktail ingredients as well as drinks in their own right. Thus making liqueurs a versatile digestif choice.
Coffee Liqueurs – such as Tia Maria and Kahlua are literally liqueurs flavoured with coffee. You’ll be able to use the rest of the bottle when mixing a Black Russian or White Russian.
Cream liqueurs – are mixed with cream. They include drinks such as Baileys Irish Cream, Advocaat and Amarula. This may be a good time to point out that crème liqueurs are something wholly different and nothing whatsoever to do with cream. ‘Crème’ is just the consistency and so could be any one of these flavour groups.
Orange liqueurs – are also known as ‘triple sec’ and I won’t insult you by specifying the primary flavour you get with these drinks. They include the big brands such as Cointreau and Grand Manier but there are many others too. The tastes can vary between them so if using for a cocktail do try to use the one specified in the recipe. They’re handy for mixing a cosmopolitan, sidecar or margarita.
Herbal liqueurs – aren’t just herbs but also plants, flowers and spices; so these liqueurs have a greater complexity of flavours than most others. Look out for Chartreuse (it’s bright green), Benedictine (just green) , Strega (bright yellow) or Galliano (not as bright but still very yellow).
Fruit liqueurs – is a group as diverse as fruits are.
There’s limoncello which is gorgeously lemonny and should ideally be served in a specific limoncello glass but if not then go for a copita.
Then there are the berries, such as crème de cassis (blackcurrants) and chambord (raspberries). It may be best to skip the ice if you’re serving them as a digestif on their own, or they could go a bit watery and ribena-esque. Both crème de cassis and chambord and handy to have around for cocktails, or for pouring over vanilla ice-cream.
Nut liqueurs – are dominated by amaretto and its lovey almond-ness. Like liquid marzipan. But here’s an interesting fact: Disaronno Originale, which is the best-selling amaretto, doesn’t have any nuts at all in it – almonds or otherwise – so is fine for anyone with a nut allergy. The almond flavours come from apricot kernels. If you see Frangelico on the supermarket shelf then do give that a whirl. It is hazelnuts, but has a chocolate and vanilla warmth too.
When serving coffee at the end of the meal and a digestif alongside, it’s worth knowing that the nut, berry and orange liqueurs go well if actually added into the coffee. That is obviously less of a good idea if you were hoping that the coffee is going to sober someone up. Although that in itself is an old wives’ tale.
Other then the cream ones, your bottle of liqueur will stay fine for a good few months after opening. Cream liqueurs really should be kept in the fridge once opened and do not use them more than six weeks or so after opening. The booze and the sugar may help keeps things fresh for a while, but these are drinks with dairy cream after all.