Postprandial Preferences (January 23, 2004)
Digestif is a French term for a drink that you take after dinner
in the optimistic hope that it will help you to digest the meal you have
just consumed. Trust the French to find a medical reason to drink neat
alcohol after dining.
The French also found a way to insert neat alcohol into the meal itself.
They called it a "trou normand" literally a "Norman
hole," a small glass of Calvados (brandy made from apples) consumed
at multi-course banquets between the fish and meat courses to cleanse
the palate. This custom has been sanitized for the North American constitution
by substituting a tart sorbet for the shot of brandy a practice
that not only anaesthetizes the palate so that you can't taste the wine
but also adds twenty minutes to the length of the meal!
Certainly, a little alcohol at the end of a meal helps you to digest,
and you have a range of beverage alcohol to choose from.
Cognac: Perhaps the best-known after dinner drink from the region
of the same name. As a distillate from grapes, it is a brandy, but only
brandies from the region can be called Cognac. Cognac comes in a variety
of qualities based on age in barrel (once bottled it will no longer mature):
VS (Very Special), VSOP (Very Special Old Pale), XO (Extra Old). The oldest
are sometimes labeled Paradis (as in Paradise, that part of the cellar
where the distillers keep their oldest brandies). My house cognac is Hine
Rare & Delicate $75.55. (Incidentally, all the products recommended
here are currently listed by the LCBO.)
Armagnac: A more rustic style of brandy, similar in style to Cognac
and using the same age designations, but earthier and to my palate more
intense. My choice: Armagnac de Montal VSOP ($48).
Brandy: These grape distillate products are made wherever wine
is made. They are cheaper than Cognac or Armagnac and generally lack the
finesse, complexity and smooth finish. If you like a sweet brandy, try
Duff Gordon from Spain ($20.95) or Metaxa Grand Olympian Reserve from
Greece ($39.75). My choice is St. Remy XO Brandy from France ($24.95).
Calvados: As mentioned above, this is a brandy distilled from
cider in Normandy. There is one brand available on the LCBO's general
list, Calvados Boulard ($42.55).
Eaux-de-vie: These colourless, spirits are distilled from a variety
of fruits and berries and they taste dry, unlike fruit liqueurs. The most
popular are Poire William (pear), Framboise (raspberry) and Kirsch (cherry),
although they can be made from plums, apples and even holly berries. Try
Schloss Kirsch from Austria ($20.85 for 375 mL).
Grappa: Unlike eaux-de-vie, which are fruit brandies, grappa (the
Italian term for "grape-stalk") is made from what's left over
from the winemaking process the discarded skins and stalks of the
grapes, called pomace. This residue is distilled to make a fiery,
colourless spirit, currently more refined than it used to be (in the old
days you could fuel a 707 with it!). Again, all winemaking regions produce
this distillate from pomace. The French call it marc (pronounced
"mar" as in marc de Bourgogne) and the Portuguese, bagaceira.
Two good Italian grappas to consider: Sandro Bottega Club ($29.85) and
Stradivarius Fine Moscato ($29.45 for 700 mL).
Whisky: Single malt whiskies also make a good digestive after
a meal. My favourite on the general list comes from the Orkneys, the most
northerly distillery in Scotland Highland Park 12 year Old Single
Malt ($49.95). Likewise, a fine, aged American Bourbon can help you to
digest. Try Booker's Bourbon ($79.70).
Rum: A well-aged rum takes on Cognac-like smoothness. Try Appleton
21 Year Old from Jamaica ($89.95).
When I was in Chile some years ago I was introduced to their national
spirit, which is made in the north of the country from the Pais grape,
which has the same taste profile as Muscat. The drink is called Pisco
and it's a fragrant, colourless spirit with a dry floral-cardamom flavour
(like drinking carnations!). And they're bargain priced: Pisco Control
If the idea of having spirits after a meal with wine is daunting, you
can always continue with the grape in its fortified form that is,
with alcohol at 22 per cent rather than 35 to 40 per cent for spirits.
Port: A traditional after-dinner wine that comes in two basic
styles either bottle-aged as Vintage Port or Late Bottle Vintage
or Ruby or as a wood-aged port which will bear the designation Tawny.
For bottled-aged ports on the general list, I recommend Taylor's Reserve
Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) at $18.35. For Tawny, Warre's Optima 10 Year
Old ($21.95 for 500 mL).
Sherry: While sherry comes in a range from bone dry to syrupy
sweet, I recommend an off-dry style as a digestif, such as an Amontillado.
Try Savory & James Amontillado Deluxe ($11.55).
Madeira: One of the most neglected of the world's great wines
and one of the most long lasting, even when you've opened the bottle.
The reason is the wine has been oxidized during the "baking"
process that gives the dried fig and date flavour with spectacular acidity.
Try Casa Dos Vinhos Fino Old Madeira ($17.75).