There are entire libraries full of treatises on which beverages to pair with which dishes, but when it comes to what to drink immediately before and after a meal, the reading list is surprisingly light. Don’t worry, we have pre- and post-meal occasions covered with classic aperitifs and digestifs to bookend any dinner.
The French term aperitif tends to be the one most English-speakers use when discussing an opening drink (the word, incidentally, derives from the Latin aperire, which means “to open”). Think of it as the warm-up act: The typically dry, sometimes bitter tipple of moderate alcohol strength is designed to stimulate the palate and lengthen the social aspects of dining, enabling a smooth transition from the pressures of daily life into the evening’s culinary escapades. I would argue that Italy is responsible for some of the most iconic brands in the category and we probably should be using the Italian term aperitivo more often. You’ve heard of the ruby-hued, herb-infused liqueur Campari, right? It’s been around since about 1860—though it’s not likely as famous as the cocktail in which it is the primary ingredient: the Negroni (Campari, gin, vermouth and orange peel). Campari is like a liquid love letter to bitterness, so its bite may be a bit much for some. That’s where the rhubarb-, bitter orange- and gentian-infused spirit Aperol comes in. The bright orange concoction dials back the bitterness —and the alcohol content—considerably. Aperol sports a modest ABV of 11% versus Campari’s 21-28% (strength varies country to country). The milder liqueur’s most pronounced flavor is orange, offset by the more bitter herbs in its recipe.
Some of the finest post-dinner drinks are derived from grapes, so it’s no surprise that Old-World wine producers like France and Italy also have cornered the digestif market: The French and Italians are famous for taking things up a notch ABV-wise with their respective grape brandies. Modest quantities of such beverages are believed to aid in digestion, hence the term digestif.
So distinctive are the styles distilled in France that the country boasts at least two world-class appellations: Cognac and Armagnac. What’s the difference, besides their respective, region-specific names? A big one is that Cognac is typically distilled twice, while Armagnac usually is distilled only once, with each distillation imparting different flavors. Armagnac’s notes reveal more fruit, ranging from hints of apricot to prunes; Cognac leans more floral. Both are aged in oak—and thus amber to brown in color—but they interact differently with the wood; more spicy and herbal elements assert themselves in Cognac, while vanilla and caramel move to the fore in Armagnac. Strengths differ as well: Cognac’s usually 40% ABV while Armagnac often hits the high 40s.
Whereas France’s most famous digestif grape brandies often emanate an air of elegance, one of Italy’s classic contributions can be a bit rougher around the edges. Grappa, at its best, is an acquired taste. It’s not distilled from the grape itself, but from pomace, the leftovers of the wine-making process, like pressed skins and seeds. Grappa has become a common punctuation mark at the end of a quintessential Italian dining experience—an exclamation point, usually, as it’s an aggressively intense digestif, served either on its own in a tiny tulip glass or with espresso to soften the blow. Modern distillers—including American craft producers like Catskill Distilling Co.—have slowly changed the perception of grappa by allowing some of the floral and pearlike nuances to take center stage, as opposed to the burning, often-described-as-lighter-fluid elements.
Grappa admittedly isn’t the easiest spirit to love. Thankfully, the range of alternative Italian meal-closers is vast, including fernet, the herbal liqueur that tastes like a cross between Junior Mints and black Twizzlers. Fernet Branca, the best-known brand, has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance among chefs and bartenders as their preferred end-of-shift indulgence.
Fernet, grappa, grape brandy and amaro aren’t going to appeal to all tastes, but they’re part of the culinary journey. And every journey needs a beginning and an end.