When you’re stuffed after a big meal, another drink may seem like the last thing you’d want. But a certain group of boozy beverages known as digestifs may actually settle your stomach. Here’s everything to know about digestifs, plus a few options to add to your collection.
What Is a Digestif?
These after-dinner drinks are meant to be enjoyed in small quantities, usually an ounce or two, says Anthony Caporale, director of spirits education at the Institute of Culinary Education.
Digestifs (pronounced die-jest-EEFs) can be fortified wines like vermouth or Sherry. They can also be herbal liqueurs including Chartreuse or Cynar; bitter liqueurs like amaro; aged liquor like whiskey; or sweet liqueurs such as limoncello or Grand Marnier.
The same kinds of booze can overlap as aperitifs or pre-meal drinks, but Caporale says these nightcaps tend to be sweeter and are usually consumed straight or with coffee or espresso.
There is a long tradition of drinking digestifs in Europe, but the digestif drinks course is often overlooked in the U.S., he says. However, it’s a valuable way to extend a great meal with great company.
“It’s just a way to reconnect with the fact that spirits should primarily be about the communion of people, shared experiences, conviviality, celebrating a meal [and] celebrating occasions,” says Caporale.
Here are eight digestifs to sip on after a large meal, according to the pros.
Eight of the Best Digestifs
Tomas Bohm, chef and owner of The Pantry Eateries in Little Rock, Arkansas, lists grappa with a shot of espresso as his favorite digestif. Grappa is a centuries-old Italian spirit made from grapes—including their skins and stems—leftover from winemaking. It tends to have a fruity, sweet flavor and is glutenfree.
“It closes the gates from the great time you had with your friends and family,” he says.
Amaro is a type of Italian bitter liqueur traditionally consumed as a digestif. Ashley Mac, bar manager at NiHao in Baltimore, says Amaro Montenegro and Fernet-Branca are some of her favorite amaro brands.
“Montenegro has an almost bubblegum sweetness,” she says, while Fernet-Branca is more herbaceous and bitter.
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Caporale credits his Italian-American heritage for his love of drinking sambuca, an Italian anise-flavored liqueur, after a meal, either neat or with espresso.
“That’s something that brings back a lot of memories,” he says, adding that digestifs are often rich in culture, history and nostalgia.
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Pacharán is a Spanish liqueur from the Basque region that’s made from the fruits, or sloes, of the blackthorn tree. The sloes are fermented and infused into brandy with anise, coriander and other spices. The brandy is then sweetened, says Eamon Rockey, beverage consultant at Oliva in New York City.
“Pacharán liquor has a bright, tart and somewhat cherry-like flavor with a hint of spice and gentle sweetness,” says Rockey. He believes it’s best served over ice and pairs well with traditional American desserts like berry cobblers and pies.
Caporale also recommends Drambuie, a Scotch whisky-based liqueur, as a digestif. It features spices, herbs and honey. According to Caporale, Drambuie’s sweetness goes with coffee, chocolate and cream.
“It’s sort of baking-spice forward, cinnamon and nutmeg, those things we associate with desserts and fall,” he says.
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While it may not be as traditional as others, the Chinese distilled spirit baijiu fits the bill, according to Mac.
Made from sorghum or rice, baijiu features ancient Chinese medicinal herbs and is believed to have healing properties, she says.
Light aroma baijiu “makes a fantastic digestif,” Mac says. This is because it features floral flavors. Another digestif option is huangjiu, a Chinese yellow wine that resembles Sherry.
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Becherovka is a Czech herbal liqueur. Its recipe dates back to the early 1800s and includes about 20 herbs and spices as well as orange oil and sugar. It’s bittersweet with notes of clove and anise.
Bohm, who’s from the Czech Republic, grew up drinking Becherovka and says that, like many liqueurs, it was originally created for medicinal purposes.
“It just does something really magical to your digestive system, and I enjoy the flavor, too, of course,” he says.Mac says she pairs Becherovka with strong coffee or tea.
Buy Becherovka at Total Wine & More→
8. Balsamic Vinegar
For a non-alcoholic after-dinner option, sip traditional balsamic vinegar that’s made in Reggio Emilia or Modena, Italy, says Michele Casadei Massari, chef and co-owner of Lucciola in New York City. It’s made with grape juice that’s been concentrated over a low flame and slowly fermented in wooden barrels. Massari recommends Giusti 100, Banda Rossa and 3 Medaglie. Balsamic vinegar’s tangy and sweet flavors pair well with dark chocolate.
According to Massari, the active compound in balsamic vinegar is acetic acid, which contains probiotic bacteria.
“These probiotics can enable healthy digestion and improve gut health,” he says.
Please note, drinking straight vinegar can be dangerous. Be sure to dilute it with some water or talk with your doctor if you have a history of digestive issues.
What Is the Difference Between an Aperitif and a Digestif?
You will find a lot of overlap in ingredients and flavors between the two categories. But there are some key differences.
“If an aperitivo is bitter, red to orange, lightly herbal and relatively low in alcohol, a digestivo is another level up: much darker (often deep brown), much more bitter and flavorful and usually stronger in terms of alcohol,” Evan Rail previously wrote for Wine Enthusiast.
Digestifs tend to be more herbal, botanical and register around 30% alcohol by volume (abv). They are consumed after a meal and are said to aid with digestion.
Comparatively, aperitifs or aperitivos are consumed before a meal and are believed to help stimulate one’s appetite. They are bitter/citrusy liquors and tend to be red or orange in color (think Aperol). Most are 15 30% abv.
How Do You Drink Digestifs?
Typically, you sip digestifs straight. Unlike aperitifs, which are typically mixed—think an Aperol Spritz.
Do Digestifs Actually Help With Digestion?
We can’t say for certain that consuming an alcoholic digestif will help jumpstart the digestive process after a big meal. But there is evidence to suggest consuming something bitter can stimulate the stomach into secreting hydrochloric acid, which helps break down food more efficiently.
What Kinds of Digestifs Are There?
There are many different styles of digestifs. Not to mention, there are countless producers, both big and small, around the world that make these spirits. But you may already have some sitting on your bar cart.
Some common digestifs include:
- Fortified wines like vermouth or Sherry
- Herbal liqueurs like Chartreuse or Cynar
- Bitter liqueurs like amaro
- Aged liquor like whiskey or brandy
- Sweet liqueurs like limoncello or Grand Marnier
This article was updated on February 16, 2023.