There’s little ceremony to the digestif. Certainly nothing that compares to the pouring of tea, the pulling of a perfectly made espresso or even the carving of a shamrock into the thick, creamy head on a pint of Guinness.
But then again, what compares to the sheer luxury of an after-dinner drink? Poured with a flourish into delicately fluted stemware, cordial glasses or snifters, the jeweled tones say, “What’s the rush?” and “Relax” and maybe even “Hey, we’re just getting started here….”
Commonplace in Europe, a symbol of civilized dining, the after-dinner drink has suffered a fall from grace in the States, done in, in part, by all that rushing around. At home, we’re in such a hurry to clear the table and get a jump on those dirty dishes. Even when eating out, servers seem eager to slap down the check and send us on our way. We’ve relegated it to “special occasion” status, and those seem to come around rarely, if ever.
If there’s one meal that demands a more leisurely approach, it’s Thanksgiving. And if there’s a more special occasion than the gathering of family and friends, I’d like to know what it is. So perhaps it’s high time to revive an old tradition and make room at the holiday table for the all-but-forgotten after-dinner drink.
A counterpoint to the aperitif — which serves to whet the appetite for what’s to come — the digestif signals the end of the meal. Often higher in alcohol than wine and accented with more than a hint of bitterness, the classic digestif serves to help settle the stomach and aid in digestion. But I prefer that gray area in between. I want that calming affect without the medicinal edge, and something that stops short of a syrupy sweet stand-in for dessert.
But finding the perfect after-dinner drink is easier said than done, and I’ll tell you why just as long as you keep it between us: It’s the cost.
At a restaurant, even if I do manage to wrangle an after-dinner drinks menu from the in-a-rush waiter, the double-digit price tags can take my breath away. It’s an abrupt reminder that I can often buy a bottle for what it would cost to underwrite a round for a table of four.
It can be a gamble
The holiday, however, gives me a perfect excuse to indulge my fascination with the after-dinner drink.
I’m the person who eyes the seductive array of bottles behind the bar, curious about the lush liquids inside. Yet not quite so curious that I’m willing to squander money on a pricey drink that I might not like. (I harbor a fantasy that I’ll get locked in a well-stocked bar for the night, and I’ll play Goldilocks, pouring a thimbles-worth from each bottle until I find the one that’s just right.)
And when I find myself at a well-stocked market while shopping for a dinner party, I’m similarly reluctant to gamble on the unknown, unwilling to make room in the liquor cabinet for a bottle I know I’ll never revisit. Luckily, digestifs are worth a bit of an investment: The high alcohol content means that the bottle will keep for months on end, ready to do service on the next special occasion.
So how to choose? I have no loyalty to wines: I mix and match them to accent the meal. But I think of an after-dinner drink like I do a signature perfume — the prey can be elusive, but once you’ve discovered the right one, there’s no need to keep looking.
I don’t know why more merchants don’t take advantage of such eagerness to try, and willingness to buy. I can’t be the only one who wishes tastings of aperitifs, digestifs, liqueurs and cordials were as common as wine tastings. Sales would no doubt skyrocket, don’t you think?
Love at first sip
Savvy restaurateurs should also take notice, perhaps offering a taste gratis now and again to diners eager for the introduction. That’s how I found my current favorite — St-Germain. Dreamy and fragrant, it’s made from elderflowers plucked wild in the Alps. And I doubt I ever would have discovered it had not the manager at Susan Feniger’s Street brought it over one night and given us a glass to pass around. Smitten, we all ordered our own.
So, if I’m coming to your house for Thanksgiving, why, I’ll have no problem buying a bottle that catches my eye and bringing it as a hostess gift — one I plan to partake of fully. (Now you know why I like to keep this penny-pinching habit of mine under wraps.)
After dinner, we can clear the table and sit tall for desserts and coffee, and then carefully pass out the glasses for a tasting. Is it worthy of a spot in the liquor cabinet?
All the while, we can blissfully pretend that the silky liquor will somehow counteract a day of overindulgence, this special occasion that happens but once a year.
And if one glass is good, two must be better.