Before the era of filtered water, refrigeration or modern plumbing, people got really sick from the water they drank and the food they ate. It was really the advent of distilled spirits that changed that and helped enable people to live in closer proximity to each other. The process of distillation is synonymous with purification, and distilling had the magical power to transform something that was unclean or unsuitable for consumption (like rotten or fermented grain) into a beverage safe for consumption. Distilled spirits could also be added to water to kill bacteria, making it safe to drink. This is why many of the terms for distilled spirits literally translate to “water of life”, including the Latin aqua vitae, Irish uisce beatha, and the Scotch uisge beatha (from which we get the word whisky).
In addition to purification, spirits have extraordinary preservative properties: when you mix herbs with a spirit, they don’t rot or spoil. Spirits also can extract many of the core elements from herbs and botanicals making them much easier to dispense for their medicinal properties. Juniper is a lot easier to consume in its distilled format as gin than in its native form. Many of the things we drink today were once dispensed as medicine, most famously the gin and tonic. Tonic water is an effective way of delivering the otherwise unpalatably bitter quinine (especially mixed with gin), and quinine is a key medicinal botanical which is used to help fight off the ill effects of malaria (namely the fever).
With the advent of modern medicine, most people turn turn towards spirits solely for their intoxicating properties and tend to pay very little attention to their medicinal properties, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t still there. Spirits can actually do a lot more for you than get you drunk, and this Thanksgiving they can play a key role in stirring your appetite for the big meal and helping you digest it after you’re done eating.
These classes of spirits and beverages dealing with digestion are referred to as Apéritif and digestif. Apéritif is the term given to a spirit or cocktail designed to be consumed at the beginning of a meal to open up your palate and stimulate your appetite, whereas a digestif is a spirit or cocktail designed to be consumed at the end of a meal to help aid digestion.
The good news is, despite the fact that this category sounds foreign and complex, these spirits are extremely easy to work with, and odds are you’ve consumed them without realizing it. If you’ve ever had a Martini or Negroni before a meal and found yourself wonderfully hungry, you’ve felt the effect of an aperitif. If you’ve had a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned after a big meal and it settled your stomach, you’ve had a digestif.
The problem during Thanksgiving is that, with all the prep time spent in the kitchen, it’s difficult to then step behind the bar and mix cocktails, so we’ve come up some suggestions for an extremely easy Thanksgiving Aperitif and Digestif which require almost no preparation.
Pour equal parts (we suggest 2 ounces) Cocchi Americano or Vergano Americano Aperitif (you can find both of these at fine wine stores) and soda water into glass with ice. Stir. Add an orange twist or orange slice and you’ve got an extremely easy aperitif.
For a more robust opening drink, try the Americano (which is also easily built in a glass).
1 1/2 ounces Campari
1 1/2 ounces sweet vermouth (you can also use the Cocchi or Vergano Americano above)
Top with club soda ~2oz
Garnish: orange peel or orange slice
When it comes to digestifs, the work is even easier. Instead of a cocktail, you can serve small glasses (or shots) of one of several great Amari (which are traditionally Italian made digestive liqueurs) that are easy to sip and will give your stomach the digestive support it needs to tackle a monster Thanksgiving feast.
Here’s a breakdown of some of our favorite Amari (which is the plural form of the word Amaro, which the category is often referred to as) for you to use this Thanksgiving:
Nardini Amaro (62 Proof – $55 per Liter) – absolutely one of our favorite amaros. The Nardini Amaro is sweet, but not too sweet, herbal without hitting you over the head, and the bitter mid notes are soft enough for even the most sensitive palate. Nardini Amaro has beautiful cinnamon notes in the heart of the mid palate and is one of the most pleasing digestifs we’ve had. At $55 a bottle, it’s a little expensive, but for a special occasion like Thanksgiving it’s worth every penny. Not only will you wow your Thanksgiving guests with Nardini, it’s the ultimate cap to a big meal.
Amaro Nonino (70 Proof – $40) – we simply adore Amaro Nonino. Priced at $40 a bottle, Amaro Nonino isn’t inexpensive, but it’s well worth every single penny. Perfectly balancing bitter and sweet, Amaro Nonino is a well-tuned symphony of flavors which all work together in perfect harmony. There’s so much going on with the Amaro Nonino that it’s best enjoyed straight up and sipped slowly. Amaro Nonino is the kind of amaro which will make you fall in love with Amaro and serving it at Thanksgiving is an exceptional treat for your guests.
Averna Amaro (64 Proof – $25) – If your dessert for Thanksgiving is more savory than sweet, or you are serving a group who likes sweeter drinks, then Averna Amaro is the perfect pick. Significantly sweeter than the other amaros on our list, Averna is wonderfully thick and rich. Averna’s bitter notes, like the Nardini’s, are well tempered and shouldn’t scare anyone off (the bitter herbs are key to its digestive properties). Priced at $25 a bottle, it’s an extremely affordable option for your Thanksgiving digestif and if you fall in love with it, you’ll easily find it on the back bar of many popular restaurants and bars.
Fernet Branca (80 Proof – $25) – If you ever ask a bartender which amaro they drink, odds are Fernet will be the first word out of their mouth. Spirit industry insiders consume Fernet Branca at an unbelievable rate, so much so that it often borders on obsession. Sweet and bitter, Fernet’s centerpiece is a minty pine taste that is initially a little disarming and then becomes something you crave. Fernet isn’t the best starter amaro, but if you want to really get people talking after Thanksgiving (or you just want to stir things up a bit), serve Fernet. Be warned: Fernet lends itself extremely well to be consumed as a shot and once people get hooked on Fernet Branca, they tend to consume a lot of it. At $25 a bottle, it’s thankfully not an expensive obsession. We also adore Fernet Mente which is a softer, sweeter mintier version of fernet. (Read more about Fernet in our piece: The Fuss About Fernet)
Cynar (33 proof $20) – made from artichoke, this amaro is low in alochol and balances bitter and sweet very well. Cynar has a slightly sweet green tea herbal note with a slight hay like quality. Cynar is one of the most approachable of the amaros and the best to turn to if your Thanksgiving evening involved more wine and spirits than you had counted on. Cynar has gotten us through a number of rough nights and is one of our favorite low proof amaros.
Whichever amaro you pick, you’ll be surprised at just how well it helps settle your stomach after a huge meal like Thanksgiving. Sitting and sipping an amaro is also a really nice way to linger at the table after the meal, and it’s a easy way to leave a great impression and introduce your guests to a category of spirits they may be completely unfamiliar with.