The bitter end


The mere mention of an after-dinner drink to an American seems to elicit queasy memories of a night ending with a White Russian or shot of Goldschläger and the harrowing hangover that followed; however, unlike these sweet and viscous drinks that add to your level of intoxication, taking you from comfortably content to grotesquely gorged, Europe’s bitter digestives actually subtract from your feeling of fullness.


Each country has its palliative drink for overindulgence. France, who whetted our appetites with everything from pastis to vermouth in last week’s column on apéritifs (and who, for a country that thinks nothing of serving paté, foie gras, béarnaise sauce, and crème brulée in one meal, should have a host of cures for gluttony) swears by Chartreuse, an herbal-infused liqueur of the same glorious color. Denmark has Gammel Dansk (bittersweet and caramelly) and Germany has Underberg (basically herbal jet fuel) for soothing overstuffed tummies.

Yet no country can come close to the 300 digestives available in Italy. Their salumi, cheese, bread, pasta, and meats (all with vini to match), are enough of an explanation for this incredible array, but the fact is, Italians are obsessed with digestion. An Italian proverb states that you aren’t what you eat, but rather, how well you digest. To Italians, one’s humor and mood is determined by digestion, with one at his worst while digesting. (This helps to explain why business lunches and working dinners are a rare occasion in Italy.)

Italy’s generic term for digestives is amari, meaning bitter, and they find their origin in the medicinal tonics of folklore, made with roots, herbs, and barks. Their bracingly bitter edge acts to restore your system by stimulating the secretion of gastric juices, arousing you from a state of bloated torpor.

The importance of digestive curatives dates back to 300 BC when Hippocrates drank a brew of steeped orzo and honey. In late 4 AD, Apicius wrote that Romans added honey, clove, and other spices to their post-orgy wine. In the 1300s, monks experimented with amari, perfecting their own secret blends. Homemakers tinkered around too, throwing whatever fruit, pits, or nuts they had on hand in their wine (likely the beginnings of our modern fruit- and nut-based liqueurs) and recipes were handed down over generations. Every Tommasso, Riccardo, and Giovanni had jars of homemade amari to offer guests after dinner. In fact, many of the large amari brands grew from small family businesses.

Fernet-Branca, unchanged since its creation in Milan in 1845, is Italy’s benchmark amari. Fernet is stiff stuff—we’re talking put dark, Italian hair on your chest stiff—but it’s a bartender’s trusted remedy for stomachs aching from gastronomic excess. Its recipe of 27 herbs and spices reads like a Gypsy charm, with aloe, gentian root, rhubarb, galangal, red bark, and saffron among the rumored ingredients. Slightly milder are Amaro Averna from Sicily and Amaro Ramazzotti from Milan. Both have the same tonic effects, but they taste more like Horehound candies than Vicks Vaporub.

Most amari are 40-90 proof (you’ll find them at your local ABC) and meant to be sipped rather than shot. Perhaps the beverage itself is just a placebo and the unhurried manner in which you drink it is the key, but I’ll still take an amari over an Alka-Seltzer any day.