- On November 16, 2016
Thanksgiving is a wine holiday. Riesling, Pinot noir, and sparkling wine pair beautifully with so many parts of the holiday’s meal. But what about when you’re not eating? Enter the world of aperitifs and digestifs!
Aperitifs are spirits consumed before a meal, meant to stimulate one’s appetite. Aperitif is derived from the Latin aperire, which is the verb “to open,” relating to the opening up of one’s appetite. They are usually enjoyed in a drink, and are commonly more dry than sweet. Sparkling wine, sherry, and pastis such as Pernod are all aperitifs, but bitter spirits
is where the real fun with aperitifs happens. Typical bitter spirits include Campari, Tattersall’s Bitter Orange, Cappelletti, and other red, bitter orange spirits. The root of a tall yellow flower named gentian is used as a bittering agent in these spirits. Gentian root contains one of the most bitter, naturally occurring compounds known to mankind. It is rightfully named, “amarogentin,” which is derived from “amaro,” meaning bitter in Italian. Gentian and other bittering agents have been known for their broad medicinal uses for nearly 3000 years. They are now known mainly known for stimulating appetites and aiding with digestive distress (more on that later). A clear spirit called Suze contains 50% of its flavorings from gentian, and it is a bracingly bitter spirit. Think of it as clear campari without the orange.
Try these bitter spirits in a simple cocktail called an Americano: 1 ounce bitter spirit, 1 ounce sweet vermouth, pour over ice, top with soda water, garnish with an orange peel. If you find the alcohol content too low for your liking, substitute an ounce of your favorite gin for the soda water for a Negroni. If gin is not your thing use an ounce of bourbon or rye instead, and you have a Boulevardier.
Another aperitif group is known as “quinquina” (kenKEEnah), named because of their use of the cinchona tree bark, a plant native to South America and an excellent bittering agent. The bark is a natural source of quinine, a medicine for lupus, arthritis, and most importantly, malaria. Folks found that adding soda water and a bit of sugar to quinine helped the bitter taste, thus tonic water was born. Adding a splash of gin to this mixture proved even more palatable, thus the gin and tonic was born!
Some spirits use quinine in their mixture of botanicals, usually on a wine base with
partially fermented grape juice added to balance. These include: Lillet (formerly known as Kina Lillet) from France known for its use in James Bond’s Vespr cocktail; Kina L’Aero d’Or, made by Tempus Fugit Spirits, based on the white Cortese grape from Piedmont with a hint of orange peel; and Byrrh Grand Quinquina, based on the red grapes Carignan and Grenache of Mediterranean France, and flavored with coffee and bitter orange which creates an interesting balance of sweet, sour, and bitter. All of these are delicious on their own with an ice cube, but I highly suggest mixing with soda water for ease of drinking. You’ll find quinquinas more balanced than gentian based spirits on their own, but all together delicious when enjoyed. If you cannot decide between gentian or quinine, you can try Bonal Gentian Quina which uses both and is an excellent substitute for sweet vermouth.
In contrast to apertif, a digestif is an alcoholic beverage served after a meal to aid digestion. Brandy, port, whiskey, ouzo, aquavit, and Becherovka (which we wrote about last week) fit that definition, however bitter digestifs are more fun. Amaro, Italian for bitter, is a broad range of spirits. Amaros are usually Italian, usually dark and rich, and play a balance between sweet and bitter, and use a broad spectrum of herbs to increase the complexity of flavor. I suggest drinking them on their own to explore their distinctiveness, however they do lend themselves very well in cocktails.
Averna Amaro might be the most well known. The recipe started as an herbal elixir used by Benedictine monks of the San Spirito Abbey in Sicily. This is the ultimate standard amaro. It’s on the slightly sweet side, however the bitterness is still present. Orange, liquorice, juniper, rosemary, and sage. Medium bodied, easy drinking. Similar but much more refined is Nardini Amaro, from the oldest distillery in Italy, which uses their highly regarded grappa as a base for an infusion of just gentian, bitter orange, and peppermint. Cynar is an artichoke based amaro, with 13 different plants infused. It has a savory herbal/vegetal quality, however it’s closer to a bitter sweet vermouth than a straight amaro. They did recently come out with a 70 proof version if you crave a bit more bite. Local spirits powerhouse Tattersall makes a delicious amaro with a funky aroma, almost similar to old cake, but in a great way, and a touch of rhubarb to the base.
Fernet could be considered amaro, defined by a common ingredients like aloe, saffron,
myrrh, with a very much pronounced eucalyptus. Fernet Branca is the most ubiquitous brand, with hints of candy cane and mint toothpaste, along with gentian and quinine bitterness. Made in Italy since 1845, this is hands down my favorite amaro. Its very easy drinking but very much an acquired taste. Chicago producers Letherbee makes a fernet that’s much smoother with a more forward minty-ness, and Tattersall makes one as almost an homage to Fernet Branca.
If you’ve been to the store, you’ve probably noticed the tiny, individually wrapped bottles at the registers and wondered what is that? That’s Underberg, pronounced UNDERBERG, and it is a lifesaver in a bottle. Made in Germany since 1846, this little bottle packs a huge punch of flavor. It uses ingredients sources from 43 different countries and aged in Slovenian oak casks. They are only sold in tiny, iconic 20mL bottles to combat counterfeiting. Its dark in color, heavy in christmas spices, clove, chamomile, and licorice. Think jagermeister mixed with whiskey, aged in oak, twice as potent in flavor, and a fraction as sweet. Its meant to be taken as a straight shot, “after a good meal,” using just your teeth to drink it. However, I find its flavors delightful and enjoy sipping it just as much. When I’m feeling overly full from a rich meal, such as a Thanksgiving dinner or one of the many famous burgers around town, Underberg is the defining digestif to ward off food coma.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
The line between a digestif and aperitif is tough to draw. Just about every bitter source that helps one’s appetite could be used to aid digestion afterwards. A basic guideline I follow is based on color and weight. Campari and other bitter orange liqueurs, fortified and aromatized wines, and similarly made spirits of a lighter color would be categorized as aperitifs, and darker, richer, heavier spirits such as amaro, fernet, and jagermeister would be digestifs. As always there are outliers: Byrrh is dark but should be an aperitif or akvavit and chartreuse are light but are considered digestifs. Either way if you prefer a negroni as a nightcap rather than a starter, who is to say you’re wrong?