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The best after-dinner drinks

Don’t let a special meal end on a low note. From dark spirits to liqueurs, cocktails and fortified wines, a decadent digestive makes the perfect finishing touch.

One should never do anything that one cannot talk about after dinner,’ wrote Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Whether or not you choose to follow his advice, you’ll know the moment he’s referring to. That time at the table when you’re well fed, enjoying good company and the conversation just flows.

This is the perfect opportunity to enjoy a digestive – digestif or digestivo, depending on your preference – though many of us ignore the post-dinner drinking moment. We might pour another glass of wine, or opt for a coffee. Or we simply might have no idea what to drink after a meal.

In that sense the digestif is completely eclipsed by the aperitif: a drink enjoyed before a meal. ‘I guess that’s because aperitifs are always the first drink and everyone gets more excited about the beginning of the evening rather than celebrating the end of an evening,’ suggests Sandia Chang, sommelier and co-founder of Michelin two-star restaurant Kitchen Table. ‘It’s like the flight to a holiday is a bit more fun and exciting than the flight coming back from one.’

That’s a mistake, as the category of digestive drinks can be just as exciting as aperitifs – and they have a practical purpose. ‘I believe a digestif completes the whole experience,’ continues Chang. ‘Also, digestifs are named for the reason that they help with digestion after a meal. Most traditional digestifs are elixirs and tonics that do have real medical purposes.’

Sandia Chang, co-founder of Kitchen Table, central London, in black top

Sandia Chang, co-founder of Kitchen Table, central London. Credit: Marcus Cobden

Last but not least

In simple terms, digestifs are alcoholic beverages that are served after a meal to help settle the stomach and aid digestion. They tend to be higher in alcohol than drinks served before or during a meal. Spirits such as whisky and Cognac traditionally fall into this category, as do fortified wines. But they’re just the beginning. Take a look at drinking cultures across Europe and you’ll find plenty more ideas.

‘For Italians, ending a meal with a digestivo is almost a ritual,’ says Matteo Luxardo, export director of Italian liqueur company Luxardo. ‘There are so many spirits that can fulfil this role, so it really depends which part of Italy you’re from. In the north you see a lot of grappa, amaro or fernet; whereas in the centre you tend to see more anise-flavoured drinks. In the south, limoncello is king,’ he adds.

‘You see these flavour profiles in other countries, too. Germany is oriented towards herbal liqueurs, in France they favour anise, while Spain has orujo, which is similar to grappa [distilled from the solids left over from wine production].’

So there are plenty of options. ‘It really depends on what you like and also what you had to eat,’ says Chang. ‘If you prefer something sweet and less strong, fruit liquors or after-dinner cocktails are a great way to finish a meal. If you have had a light lunch or dinner, I would recommend some eau-de-vie [‘water of life’ – colourless fruit brandies]. When you have a heavy meal with lots of butter and sauces, I always like to finish with Cognac or an Armagnac – and of course, whisky is a friendly digestif for any occasion.’

A digestive dram

Are some whiskies better for the purpose than others? Billy Abbott, content and training manager at retailer The Whisky Exchange, has some tips. ‘Generally, I’d look at richer and darker whiskies for after dinner, whiskies that hint at amaros while still being whisky,’ he says. ‘On the Scotch and world whisky front, I’d lean towards Sherry cask-matured whiskies and richer smoky whiskies, or even a combination of the two. For American whiskey, something long-aged and focused on the wood – finding a balanced one can be difficult, but the dark and oaky edges can really work well in a digestif.’

‘Bourbon makes a great after dinner drink due to its different flavour profiles,’ continues Liam Sparks, prestige manager at Hi-Spirits, UK arm of Buffalo Trace producer Sazerac. ‘Bourbons, particularly those with higher alcohol percentages and longer ageing, tend to offer very complex aromas, be rich on the palate and have an increased viscosity. Due to a bourbon’s high corn content in the mashbill, it often presents as sweeter to the taste, offering flavours of vanilla, butterscotch and caramel, naturally being the perfect accompaniment to (or even replacing) desserts,’ he explains. ‘In addition to a neat pour, classic bourbon cocktails such as an Old Fashioned or Manhattan are also a wonderful after-dinner option,’ adds Sparks.

Cocktails and wine

Other classic cocktails that work well as digestifs include the Negroni, Espresso Martini and Amaretto Sour. It’s also worth checking out top bar menus for some creative inspiration, as many feature bespoke recipes. ‘We get a lot of the after-dinner crowd along to the American Bar at The Savoy,’ says its head bartender Chelsie Bailey. ‘A nightcap provides a lovely and decadent end to the evening. Anything with dark spirits such as Cognac, whiskies and rums,’ she advises.

‘We have a few cocktails on our latest menu – the American Bar Journal – which are just perfect for after dinner. The Last Call is a lovely moreish and nutty drink with Glenfiddich 21 Year Old malt whisky, walnut wine, chestnut liqueur, oloroso Sherry and Pedro Ximénez Sherry.’

Fortified wines such as Sherry, Madeira and Port make great digestifs thanks to their higher alcohol content, luscious texture and complex flavours. ‘Port is the oil of good conversation,’ declares Adrian Bridge, CEO of Taylor’s Port producer The Fladgate Partnership. Vintage Port is a classic choice, but don’t overlook styles such as ruby and tawny, which is aged in barrels rather than bottle, giving a more nutty, caramel taste profile.

‘Tawny Port is actually my favourite because you can serve it chilled,’ says Jamie Waugh, wine and spirits buyer at Fortnum & Mason. ‘It’s a better food pairing than vintage Port because it’s a bit lighter, and it’s fresher and nuttier. It goes brilliantly with desserts such as ice cream and apple crumble – and it’s such good value.’ Tawny is also a great match for hard cheeses such as Comté, Cheddar and Pecorino.

Palate revivers

Waugh also recommends rich Madeira as a contrast to the dry wines served with a meal. ‘When you’ve had a bottle of wine with dinner, you want something a bit different to freshen up your palate. With Madeira you’ve got so much sweetness in there, but because there’s really high acidity you don’t often notice that sweetness. So I think they give your palate a lift and keep you thinking, keep you alert,’ he says.

For the same reason, Champagne can work surprisingly well as a digestif. ‘Champagne at the end of the meal helps digestion because of its high acidity and lively bubbles,’ says Giacomo Recchia, head of wines at London restaurant Bob Bob Ricard. ‘Demi-sec goes very well with fruity, light desserts and I also love doux (sweet) Champagne. But the real winner is vintage Champagne. In this style, you can detect flavours such as buttery brioche, baked apple, toasted hazelnut, bread crust, white truffle, mushrooms and honey, which elegantly complement any end of meal food. In my opinion, enjoying a glass of Champagne at the end of the meal is the perfect grand finale.’

Giacomo Recchia, head of wines at Bob Bob Ricard

Giacomo Recchia, head of wines at Bob Bob Ricard

Seven delicious digestives to try

Appleton Estate 15 Year Old Black River Casks

Jamaica’s Black River is the water source for Appleton Estate’s rums, including this long-aged blend of pot and column still rums created by Master Blender Joy Spence. Caramel and vanilla, notes of dried orange peel, light fruitcake, ginger and dark spices. Intense, layered with woody spice, black toffee, ripe banana, coffee, pink pepper and leather, with a lingering, complex finish. One to sip and savour. Alcohol 43%

Barbeito Fortnum & Mason Single Cask Boal Colheita 2005

Madeira, Portugal

Made for Fortnum & Mason by Barbeito, which has been releasing rare single casks since 2001. Cask 707 contains Boal from top vineyards, aged to produce an unctuous palate packed with velvety layers of creamy toffee, nuts, figs, sultana, moist fruitcake and baking spices. Fresh acidity cuts through the 80g/L residual sugar for a long, dry finish. Only 600 bottles produced. Alc 19%

Camus XO Cognac

Aged for 10 years, XOs are the ultimate luxury Cognacs, making them a perfect choice for decadent after-dinner drinking. From the Borderies cru, this has aromas of orange, apple, apricot overlaid with spice and cacao. Lovely silkiness to the complex palate is balanced by assertive oak and spice. Newly packaged in a stylish square decanter that you can reuse, it’s a luxe addition to your drinks collection. Alc 40%

Glenmorangie Amontillado Finish

Glenmorangie’s fourth limited-edition Barrel Select Release, launched earlier this year. This small-batch bottling boasts serious digestif credentials: the whisky spends eight years in American white oak bourbon barrels, with a further four years in amontillado Sherry casks. Glenmorangie’s signature fruity notes – orange, peach and fresh lemon – are overlaid with Sherried tones; nuttiness, dried fruit and spice, with salted caramel and ginger biscuits. Alc 46%

Luxardo Espresso Liqueur

This sweet yet bitter coffee liqueur is made with a blend of coffee beans from Brazil, Columbia and Kenya, heat-infused for 30 days to replicate an espresso style. Notes of coffee, dark chocolate and vanilla. Enjoy it neat over ice, or in an Espresso Martini: 45ml vodka, 30ml hot espresso coffee, 20ml coffee liqueur shaken over ice and served in a chilled Martini glass. Alc 27%

Taylor’s 30 Year Old Tawny Port

Douro, Portugal

Taylor’s is one of only a few houses to bottle a 30-year-old tawny – and it’s a beauty. Structured, complex and lingering; mellow silky notes of dried fruit, fig, apricot and orange peel are countered by a savoury streak, nuttiness and salinity with a focused finish. Pairs beautifully with nutty, caramel desserts and cheeses, and doesn’t need decanting – serve slightly chilled. Alc 20%

Villa Massa Amaretto

Made with Sicilian almonds, which are ground with their skins and macerated, this unctuous amaretto has marzipan aromas, with cherry, vanilla and Bakewell tart notes on the palate. The distillery in Sorrento also produces a limoncello. Serve this neat over ice as a simple, sweet digestivo or mix up a classic Amaretto Sour: 60ml amaretto, 30ml lemon juice, 15ml egg white. Alc 30%

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