Dining Partners

Before- and after-dinner drinks serve their purpose—the palate and digestion, respectively.

Aperitif. Digestive. The two words are rarely used in casual conversation but represent an almost unlimited assortment of spirits from around the world. While Americans might knock back a before-dinner cocktail or a postprandial whisky, diners in Europe look toward sometimes ancient and esoteric concoctions as the opening notes and final chords of a finely orchestrated experience.


Paul Schmidt, assistant director of food and beverage at Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, puts the difference best. “Americans like martinis before dinner, cognac after. In Europe, nobody would do this; it doesn’t open the palate or calm the digestion.” 
More assertive than the average cocktail, the aperitif is not only a drink, but a social occasion, created for shouts of “Cheers!” and “Salud!” The bitterness of the before-dinner drink is designed to make your mouth water and liven up the tastebuds, an appetizer for the tongue. Licorice is popular: Pernod, a French anise-flavored liqueur, was created in the early 1900s to replace the banned absinthe, that most wicked of beverages. Ouzo from Greece, Italian Galliano, French pastis, Lebanese arak, Czech Becherovka, Salmiakki from Finland and Mexican xtabentún all make use of the sweet-bitter taste.  
Digestivos (to use a lovely Italian word) are almost medicinal in nature, but while most digestives are designed to settle the stomach after a fatty meal, some, like the Italian sgroppino (lemon sorbet, vodka and prosecco) are practically dessert. Europeans like cognac served warm, Spaniards love sherry alongside tapas and mixed in with very strong espresso afterward, while Germans drink Jägermeister, despite its hipster popularity, after heavy meats. Italians, the masters of the digestive, quaff an anise and elderberry Sambuca con la mosca (“with flies’’) topped with coffee beans — always three—or the almond-flavored amaretto or green walnut nocino after a rich late-night supper. 
On the facing page are some readily available options and average prices per bottle. Salute!
Cynar Made from artichokes, Cynar (CHEE-nar) was invented in the 1950s, mixing the bitter essence of this edible thistle with a dozen herbs to make an unexpectedly refreshing base for pre-dinner drinks. Venetians love the spritz (pronounced “spriss”) before lunch: Cynar, soda and prosecco, served with an olive and a twist of lemon zest. $30
Lillet A curious French amalgam of wine and liqueur, Lillet, both red and white, adds sweet and bitter citrus and quinine to sweetened Bordeaux wines for a fruity and mildly bracing drink that is mixer and cocktail all in one. Lillet blanc, with origins in the 19th century, certainly wakes up the tongue before a meal. $20
Limoncello Limoncello is both a digestive and celebratory beverage, uncharacteristically sweet and cheerfully colorful but deceptively strong. From the sunny island of Capri and the winding cliffside Amalfi coast, where only Italians and the insane drive, Limoncello di Capri is made solely with lemons grown in Italy and is worthy of slow, pleasurable sipping. $25
Grappa A bad grappa, disturbingly easy to find in the U.S., can be like drinking a short shot of lighter fluid. A good one, made from good grapes, is as heavenly after dinner as great brandy. A vineyard byproduct, grappa is distilled from the grape skins, seeds and solids left over from wine production. Some drink sweetened espresso mixed with grappa for a caffè corretto, (a “proper coffee”), and those in the know drink Nonino Prosecco Grappa, made from sweet prosecco grapes. $50
Pimm’s Cup Invented in 1823 in England as a digestion-aiding tonic to wash down raw shellfish (Pimm owned an oyster bar and, one suspects, a gin distillery), the Pimm’s No. 1 Cup  is a gin and quinine-based fruit infusion popular with the tennis and hip cocktail set. It’s usually served with mint, cucumber and lemonade (British lemonade is more like Sprite than good old Southern lemon squeezings). $25


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