Historically, digestifs were what you served after a meal to help aid digestion. They tended to be bitter, herbal and culturally specific. Think of that mystery bottle your grandmother pulled from the back of the pantry to set out with the cookies.
But somewhere along the way the digestif became synonymous with sweetness. Instead of putting a final accent on a meal, these lush liqueurs and dessert-like cocktails stifled it (looking at you, White Russians and Grasshoppers). Today, a growing number of distillers and winemakers are reviving the funky, strange, beautiful, what-the-hell-is-this postprandial drink. These are 11 digestifs for those who don’t like it too sweet.
San Francisco-based Cannella Spirits is best known for its lovely, dry cinnamon cordial (which is another not-too-sweet after-dinner digestif), but the company struck gold again with Amaro Cannella. Similarly inspired by founder Joe Cannella’s travels through Sicily, this is a balanced bitter liqueur that takes on anise, coriander, citrus and more than 20 herbs and botanicals, including, yes, the namesake cinnamon—high-quality Ceylon cinnamon, to be precise.
From Portugal’s enchanting, tropical Madeira, the island’s namesake fortified wine ranges from dry to lush and nutty depending on which grape varietal is used. Blandy’s Madeiras are affordably priced, at around $25 for the five-year-old and $30 for the 10-year-old expression. Once you figure out your favorite Madeira style (try a few at a good bar), you can control the sweetness level. Sercial is the driest, with plenty of acid and nuttiness. Verdelho still runs dry but at a younger age can exhibit more fruity notes. Bual starts to get a little richer with raisin notes but just borders on sweet. Malmsey goes “sweetest,” but Madeira is all about the balance between acid and lushness, so even the coffee-caramel notes you often find in Malmsey are blessedly reined in.
The family distillery and winery of Charbay has been a Napa treasure since the 1980s and is still intimate and family-run with a warm welcome central to its cozy tasting room experience. One of the winery’s special bottles (the distillery is now a bit north in Ukiah) is its robust-yet-refined Distiller’s Port. Using its six-year-old brandy to fortify the port, this release shows off late-harvest 2006 cabernet franc grapes resulting in a velvety delight of cherry and chocolate notes that’s blessed with a semi-dry finish.
What exactly is rancio sec, you ask? Think a dry, nutty, even briney or umami wine, and you’re on the right track. A Catalan tradition from France, dry rancio wines are rustic, old-school and so full of funk you might taste mushrooms, dark chocolate or salted anchovies when you sip a good one. Whether this intrigues or frightens you, it’s not a drink that will bore you. Haus Alpenz offers a beautiful lineup of dry rancios. Pyror is an oxidative, citrusy, earthy and smoky wine with mushroom undertones that brings a rich, bright finish to any night.
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This Don Ciccio & Figli release is all about the artichoke. Amalfi Coast native Francesco Amodeo’s stellar amari and liqueurs are produced in D.C. and inspired by his family’s historic recipes. Many, including this artichoke liqueur, will supposedly aid digestion. This bottling has a savory, bitter finish from three different kinds of artichokes, as well as cardoons (a cousin of the artichoke), grapefruit and 18 roots and herbs, mostly pulled from the distillery’s garden or local farmers markets. Anyone can enjoy C3 Carciofo, but it’s a bottle geared toward the amaro/fernet/bitters fanatics.
One of the most revered sherry houses, aka bodegas, is Lustau, and while the company has a range of great bottles in its regular lineup, some of its finest treasures are almacenista sherries. To explain: In Spain, larger sherry bodegas may produce their own sherries, but historically—and currently—many work with small maturation houses that age the wines and are run by almacenistas (warehouse keepers).
Lustau releases almacenistas’ bottles from these family-run bodegas—in this case, a house started by Cayetano del Pino Vázquez back in 1886, now run by his great-grandson Gerardo del Pino. This palo cortado sherry is a blend that averages around 20 years old and is clean, nutty, velvety and pungent all at once.
Escubac is a French liqueur produced at Distillerie Combier by London’s small, artisanal Sweetdram, founded by Daniel Fisher and Andrew Macleod Smith. They make high-quality liqueurs that go light on the sugar. With its artful bottle design, Escubac is still only available in a few markets in the States, and this release is a winner of caraway, cardamom, nutmeg, clove, bitter orange and lemon, all given a golden hue from saffron. With a touch of sweetness courtesy of sugar and raisins, the citrus keeps this herbal-spiced spirit balanced. It’s not only a lovely aperitif or digestif but a fun alternative to gin in cocktails.
In the dreamy village of Bassano del Grappa, Nardini is one of the region’s—and Italy’s—great grappa producers, going back to 1779. You’ll find balance and beauty in all of its spirits, but one of its most unique products is Mandorla. The pale spirit is a dry, silky beauty made from its grappa that has been touched with almond oil and a natural cherry distillate. You get grappa’s robust elegance, nuts and cherry freshness—all without the sweetness.
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No, we’re not talking rum. This is cachaça. Produced from fresh sugar cane juice that’s fermented and distilled, cachaça is not sweet but rather grassy, fresh and sometimes contains whispers of coconut water. In recent years, barrel-aged cachaças have started to trend, and Novo Fogo has released a series of organic cachaças aged in American oak bourbon barrels. The result adds notes of banana bread, cinnamon and even coffee to the spirit’s peppery-green goodness. The aging transforms the clear, unaged liquor into a fine post-dinner dram.
OK, maybe it’s fine to go a little sweet, and this elegant port is one of the best routes for those seeking balance in their dessert drink. Revered port house Sandeman produces a beauty of a 20-year-aged tawny port that takes on honey, vanilla and dried apricot notes balanced by nutty spice. It’s a dessert dram that is neither cloying nor heavy, but crisp and light, with complexity and mild sweetness. It shines when paired with cheeses.
In Minneapolis, Tattersall Distilling was started by bartender Dan Oskey, entrepreneur Jon Kriedler and his wife, Michelle. They craft a slew of quality spirits, including a fresh-tart sour-cherry liqueur and a savory aquavit. Tattersall’s fernet is an ode to all things amaro. It’s distilled with more than 30 botanicals, including hints of eucalyptus, mint and an array of herbs, and has a subtly bitter finish. This is fernet that’s balanced: bitter but not harsh, minty but not like toothpaste, herbal and dry.