In the 2001 mob movie Made, written and directed by John Favreau, the character played by Vince Vaughn gets into a disagreement in the back room of an old school Italian joint with the character played by Sean “Diddy” Combs regarding what exactly is and what isn’t a digestif. Combs’s character orders four Fernets for the table, to which Vaughn immediately responds, “No. I’ll take a Strega.” This clearly upsets Combs’s character who bursts out “What, motherfucker? You drinking ‘the witch’ after dinner?” “Yeah,” Vaughn responds, “the Fernet tastes like tar, and besides Strega is also a digestif.” “No class,” Combs’s says, “it’s after midnight and this motherfucker is ordering an apéritif!” At this point the waiter weighs in and agrees with Combs. But in fact, the movie got it wrong, Strega is a digestif – Vaughn’s character was right the entire time. And thus proves how confusing this entire apéritif/digestif situation can be.
So what exactly is the difference between an apéritif and a digestif and why should we – and Vaughn and Combs – care?
As their names suggest, apéritifs and digestifs are meant to begin and end the meal – they actually serve a purpose! Apéritifs are meant to stimulate our appetite (and, if you’re looking to feed your guests, check out these great appetizers), preparing our system for the meal ahead, while digestifs do exactly what it is you most likely assume they’re supposed to do, help us digest the meal.
So what are the characteristics that can help you determine which drinks are apéritifs and which drinks are digestifs? Look no further than sweetness and alcohol content.
Because an apéritif is meant to stimulate the appetite, the drink should be very dry (low in sugar), since sugar actually limits our appetite, as well as low in alcohol, because no one wants to get sloshed before dinner. High alcohol also dulls our taste buds, which is why wines high in alcohol, such as big California Zinfandels, also need bold and aggressive flavors to stand up to them; if not, the high alcohol would just mute everything out. Classic apéritifs are drinks such as dry vermouth, gin, bubbly, and dry white wine. If you’re looking for a cocktail to start the night, a dry martini would be perfect, just don’t have too many, as the apéritif would lose its purpose of stimulating your appetite the more inebriated you’d become.
Once you’ve made it through the meal and polished off your bottle of wine, it’s time to change locations from the dining table to the parlor – doesn’t every restaurant have one of these? – and invite the digestifs to the party. You might want to also consider a nice cigar and a round of cards.
The digestif’s main purpose is to aid in digestion — at this point in the evening, with a full stomach, just a touch of sweetness and a higher alcohol percentage is welcomed as the drink helps our bodies settle the meal and bring everything to a close. In the digestif arena, options abound, from smooth whiskey and bourbon to brandy, port, sherry, and liqueur. Many concoctions have even been created for the sole purpose of aiding one’s digestion, including the Fernet Vaughn’s character claims to detest. While not for everyone, Fernet Branca and other amaros like it, are distilled with herbs and spices for the sole purpose of aiding digestion, almost like a tonic, which many people swear by. But you’ll have to be the judge as to whether or not it’s the right drink for you.
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