Before And After Dinner Drinks

Before and after drinks can make the meal. Here are the best choices for any occasion.

Hello & Goodbye
Every culture has its own before and after dinner drinks, and no matter what the drink or the language, they are crucial to a holiday meal.

Sparkling wine (below) is an ideal aperitif, while a sweet, rich cognac (above) is a divine and satisfying way to end the meal.

Aperitifs and after-dinner drinks are the graceful introduction and farewell to any exceptional meal. In Spain, you’d sip a light Fino sherry before the first course of tapas made the rounds and finish with a rich brandy served after dessert. In Italy, you might start with Campari and end with Frangelico. In France, it would be champagne and cognac.

Dining at Santceloni in Madrid, I finally understood the point of both. It was a night I wanted to remember forever – my 31st birthday, and I was dining with Ignacio Osborne, chief executive of The Osborne Group, makers of wine, brandy, sherry, and more, in one of the most talked about restaurants in Madrid. Before we sat down, before we even popped an olive in our mouths, we were served a chilled glass of Fino. While we mingled and sipped the dry sherry, I noticed my mouth watering for the first course. I was ready to start the meal. That’s the purpose of an aperitif, which means “to open” in Latin. It’s the invitation to indulge and an opportunity to wake up the palate.

Seven courses, including Norway lobster, suckling pork, and an assortment of cheeses and sorbets paired with wines to match, was certainly a feast. But we weren’t done. After the petits fours were served, we were given the opportunity to choose a brandy, port, Madeira, or anything from a menu filled with tasty options. Some settled for coffee and quickly left the table. Several more selected a brandy or port and lingered just a little bit longer as the room filled with laughter and the party became more intimate.

Holiday meals are often the only time of the year we have family and friends gathered around one table, and there’s no better reason to linger just a little bit longer.

Choosing an aperitif and after-dinner drink is easy. Both are generally served without food, so you don’t have to worry about pairing the spirit with a complicated course. Aperitifs have low levels of alcohol, which helps to whet the appetite. A few standards include sparkling wine, Fino sherry, Campari (made from a secret recipe of herbs), or Pineau des Charentes. Try Osborne Fino ($6.49, bevmo.com). It’s bone dry and crisp with a slightly nutty finish. I also find that a sparkling Italian Prosecco is an easy way to get people in the party mood. Try Santa Margherita ($21.99, wine.com).

When your guests have a full stomach and satisfied look, it’s time to spoil them just a little more with decadent spirits, which have a high alcohol content and are often deliciously sweet. I like to offer a tray filled with a selection of liqueurs, cordials, ports, brandy, and scotch. For a little added drama, fill a glass with ice and pour sweet anis over it. The clear liquid becomes milky white when chilled. Try Anis Del Mono Dulce ($15.99, hitimewine.net). Schnapps is a nice alternative to more sugary spirits. Try Rumpleminze Peppermint Schnapps ($19.99, bevmo.com).

DON’T SAY DIGESTIVE
The word alone, digestive, or as the French say, digestif, is a turn off. The last thing you want to think about after eating your body weight in mashed potatoes and glazed ham is what’s going on inside your stomach. Ignore the name or call them bitters, as many do, because these herbal concoctions are good for you. And after a typical American meal, we could use all the help we can get.

Some digestives are syrupy, bitter, and medicinal, and, despite worldwide acclaim, should rarely be served straight. Italians swear by Fernet Branca ($27.99, bevmo.com), made from herbs, white wine, and brandy. Germans recommend Underberg ($15.95 for a pack of 12 20-ml bottles, gdh-trading.com), made with gin and herbs from 43 different countries.

You can add a little tonic and lemon to water down the bitters, but I like to mask the sometimes overpowering flavors. Mix your bitters with a smoky whiskey, a spoonful of sugar, and a splash of orange liqueur for a nice balance of flavor.

The line between digestive and after-dinner drink is a little blurry. Grappa is often considered a digestive, as are several other cordials and distilled wines. It is potent and not for the faint of heart. Try Michele Chiarlo Nebbiolo Grappa ($34.99, bevmo.com) for an elegant Grappa with slightly less kick.

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