Bitters, Cognac and grappa

There’s a moment at the end of a perfect meal when the conversation is flowing, the light is flattering and the atmosphere perfect. You don’t want the meal to end, but the dessert plates are long gone and there’s not a drop of wine left in the bottle. 

There’s a moment at the end of a perfect meal when the conversation is flowing, the light is flattering and the atmosphere perfect. You don’t want the meal to end, but the dessert plates are long gone and there’s not a drop of wine left in the bottle. 

That’s a moment made for an after-dinner drink. 

The post-dinner drink, which the Italians call a digestivo and the French a digestif, has long been the domain of the foodie class. “I’d say mostly the people who order them are wine enthusiasts, people who like to try different spirits, or restaurant people,” says Kelli Walbourn, manager of Cleveland Park’s Italian-flavored Palena.

Epic meals always seem to end with them; multi-course feasts recounted by legendary gourmand-writers like A.J. Liebling and Calvin Trillin are always capped off with a cognac or a Calvados.

“If you’re just going for a casual meal, you’ll probably have a few glasses of wine and that’s the end of it,” says Derek Brown, assistant manager and sommelier at Citronelle. “But if you’re going for the full experience, absolutely an after-dinner drink is part of that. Then again, I think every meal should start with champagne and end with a cognac or nice eau de vie.”

There’s a dizzying array of after-dinner options. They include spirits ranging from the Italian bitter-style digestivi, which some say taste like cough syrup, to fiery grappas, French brandies and ports. The dozens of bottles, many with exotic ingredients and inscrutable labels — some have astonishing price tags, too — might be enough to intimidate the uninitiated.

But after-dinner drinks can be surprisingly approachable. While typically one might choose a French brandy to accompany a French meal or an Italian digestivo after a plateful of Neapolitan pasta, experts say the choice of an after-dinner drink is simply one of personal preference. Since many after-dinner drinks are sipped without food, there’s no worry about flavor bridges or complementary tastes, as there is with wine and food pairings. 

And there are plenty of reasons to try an after-dinner spirit. Many are thought to settle an overstuffed stomach. Consumed midway through an elaborate meal, Calvados, an apple brandy made in the Normandy region of France, is said to create a “Norman hole” — room in the stomach for another course. 

And, of course, an after-dinner drink offers the chance to linger over a celebratory dinner.

It’s just a matter of finding one you like — or trying them all.

Most people are familiar with ports or with liquors such as the orangey Grand Marnier or coffee-flavored Kahlua, but more esoteric bitters and brandies are worth exploring, too.  

Bitters, usually proprietary and mysterious concoctions of herbal extracts and essences derived from vegetables and even tree barks and roots, began as medicines (the most popular brand of bitters, Angostura, is labeled a “stomachic”) but have long been drunk for more recreational purposes. Many are Italian brands, like the popular Cynar, which is made from artichokes, or the powerful Fernet Branca. “Everyone on staff drinks this when they don’t feel well,” Walbourn says of the mahogany-tinted Fernet Branca.

Others are more delicate and slightly sweeter. Popular brands include Borsci San Marzano, a butterscotchy variety that is sometimes poured over ice cream to create a decadent dessert, and Averna, a caramel-colored elixir.

The category of brandy encompasses a wide variety of spirits derived from fruits of all kinds. While they don’t have the purported medicinal tummy-soothing qualities attributed to bitters, brandies, too, are thought to help clear the palate. Eau de vie, which can be made from nearly any kind of fruit, is usually colorless and unaged, with a powerful punch and fruit flavors. Common types of eau de vie include kirsch (cherry) and poire (pear). 

Also in the brandy family are Cognac and Armagnac, each specific to a region in France and bearing aged, mellow notes that come from its stint in aging barrels. And Calvados, also specific to a French region, is a brandy.

The powerful alcoholic punch brandies pack makes them best to sip without food — a cigar is often the only accompaniment. “Alcohol can be really punishing on food,” Brown says.

Grappa, a type of Italian brandy, is made from the same types of grapes from which wine is made. At Dino in Cleveland Park, beverage manager Chris Cunningham has no fewer than 28 varieties on the menu. “I like to be able to help people find the one that’s right for them,” he says. “It all depends on what kinds of flavors you like.”

The grappas on Dino’s menu range from a young, clear variety made from moscato grapes to a toast-colored 16-year-old version. There are even grappas infused with natural flavors like chamomile and chestnut.

Unaged grappas come on strong, with Cunningham likening the first taste to “jet fuel,” an acquired taste, while the aged types boast more subtle flavors.

Cunningham says grappas, like any after-dinner drink, are meant to be savored.

“None of these are to be drunk quickly,” he says. “It’s a romantic thing; you sip them, and it’s a chance to be social while you’re digesting a meal.”