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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 Reservado ($19.95).

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).




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