Let Us Now Praise After-Dinner Drinks

I know summer is not supposed to be the time for thinking about, much less consuming, brandies, but I can’t help it: I’m addicted. For me, nothing completes an enjoyable dinner as well as a fine digestivo – or digestif, if you prefer. Whichever you call it, those names indicate exactly what that little tot does: Settle in the good food you’ve just ingested and comfortably begin the process of digesting it.

Not that I need to have eaten to the point of discomfort: far from it. I’m talking about a good, modest dinner, not a Coney Island hot dog eating contest. Perhaps in my distant youth I might have been interested in some such marathon, but these days I couldn’t even if I wanted to: Age and metabolic changes (they will come to all of us) have drastically reduced my consumption. Diane and I together now can’t finish a T-bone steak that once would have been just right for one of us. Our capacity is way down, but that doesn’t make a juicy piece of beef any less delicious:  Now more than ever, it’s quality that counts, not quantity – just as, with wine, it has always been quality that mattered more than alcohol.

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So the only question in my mind is not whether one should end a good meal with a little snocker of something, but with which one?  Armagnac?  Calvados? Cognac? A fruit eau de vie? Grappa?  Marc?  Tequila?  Single-malt whisky? And which one of the many in each category?  There’s no easy answer to that: Each has its niche. And it isn’t just a question of the great diversity of these drinks. No: It’s also the fact that each one of these spirits alters with the food you’ve consumed before it. That can be most obvious in the case of grappa, where the same specimen will sometimes smell freshly fruity and sometimes reek like aged Parmigiano, but it is equally true of spirits seemingly more well-defined, like Cognac or Armagnac, which, when they are not exactly what the doctor ordered, can be either too fiery or too sweet, depending on what foods they’re following.

I know only one way to determine which little tot to choose on any given evening: Pull the cork and sniff the bottle. Usually, the meal’s flavors in your mouth and scents in your nose will point to a broad category of spirits: an Alsace fruit eau de vie, or a Piedmontese or a Tuscan grappa, for instance. But after that, only taking a good sniff from a bottle or two or three will make clear to you whether you want Framboise or Poire, Barbera or Moscato, Sangiovese or Canaiolo – or maybe you want to go in a completely other direction and pour yourself a wee dram of peaty, smoky, seaweedy Oban or Talisker.

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I’ve enjoyed all of the above at different times and in different circumstances, and each has had its moment when it seemed like the only taste in the world that could fit that moment. Equally, I’ve had times when I sniffed the bottle and thought “Why in the world would I ever drink that?”  The process is always illuminating, and the result is always fun, haphazard as it may be.

What actually causes these changes, in the drink and/or in my perception of it, I don’t really know. Science has other things on its mind, and no wine journalist I know of has made a serious study of this phenomenon – but it strikes me as far more interesting and pertinent to day-to-day gastronomic contentment than the molecular composition of any of Ferran Adria’s foams. That’s not the chemistry I’m interested in. Much of my contentment and my health, both mental and physical, derive from the day-to-day experimental science of the table and its pleasures.

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Recently, I’ve been spending more time than I really want to with members of the medical profession – nothing life-threatening, but a few symptoms that are quality-of-life disturbing – and some MDs seem both unfamiliar with the concept of pleasure and incapable of pronouncing words like “wine” or “cognac” or even “beer.”  To the puritanical breed of White Coats, there is only Alcohol; and it’s all the same, and it’s a poison. No matter how healthy your liver and kidneys, brains and guts may be, it’s poison, and if you “use” it, you’re killing yourself.

I’ve given up asking such doctors whether metabolisms aren’t sufficiently different to make generalizations like that useless, and pointing out that I don’t plan to live forever and would willingly trade off a few years of gustatory boredom for a slightly shorter span of intense palatal pleasure. That’s my version of the choice of Achilles. Sadly, such MDs don’t seem to even comprehend the alternatives.

Not all are like that, of course: Occasionally I come across a sybarite who, while poking my torso in search of overripe spots, happily picks my brain for wine suggestions. Maybe I should bill them for the consultation?

All this is not as far off my subject as it might at first appear. It’s no accident that brandies and whiskies and that whole class of distilled drinks used to be known as cordials. They were thought to be – and I think they are – good for your heart. And remember, many are still called eaux de vie, and eau de vie means water of life. Now that I think of it, that too is what whisky means. I don’t think any of this etymological convergence is accidental. Stoking digestion is good for you, and doing so with a complex and delicious, gently fiery small glass of spirits (again, the word is no accident) is one of the more brilliant inventions of our flawed civilization.

6 Responses to “Let Us Now Praise After-Dinner Drinks”

  1. Tablewine Says:

    Great post. From the title, however, I thought you would have included the wide variety of Italian herbal digestivi like Fernet, Montenegro, Ramazzotti, and the like.

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Next post, Roland: I didn’t want to make this one too long — a constant problem I have (i.e., once you get me started you can’t shut me up).

  2. Ed McCarthy Says:

    Doctor Joe, alcohol consumption is on the rapid decrease in both France and Italy. The diseases you call alcohol-related are probably caused by dietary changes in said countries, such as the rise in consumption of junk foods, processed foods, etc.

    • Joe Calandrino Says:

      Hi Ed:

      Absolute numbers and trends within certain demographics aside, the rate of alcohol-related illness in France (30% increase over the last 4 yrs in hospital admissions for cirrhosis and other metabolic diseases [400K uniques per yr; 49K deaths in 2009]; 80% increase in admissions for intoxication over the same time period) and Italy (almost 20% of Italians admitting to binge-drinking; 20% of young people report being drunk regularly; nearly a tripling of the number people in treatment for alcoholism since 1996 [19K-54K]) has risen alarmingly.

      There are socio-economic forces at work here, and these cultures and peoples are not immune to them. The times they are a-changing, and moderation seems to be a lost art.

      I am grateful for growing up in an ethnically Italian home, where wine (and the rare spirit) was food, and getting tipsy was embarrassing and very rare.

      There really are health benefits in moderate consumption of the kinds of wines and spirits Tom celebrates in these pages of his blog. That they bring so many of us such joy and pleasure doesn’t prevent them from being misused and misunderstood in unfortunate contexts.

      No doctor will ever tell her non-drinking patient to start drinking for the health benefits, but many doctors will tell their drinking patients to moderate their consumption; a few will even tell those patients to try a glass of wine.

      Best regards,
      Joe C.

  3. Joe Calandrino Says:

    Hi Tom:

    Let me be one of those ‘white coats’ on the side of enlightened moderation: it is well-established that moderate consumption of beverages containing the molecule known as ‘ethanol’ is associated with longevity and well-being. It’s just this simple: if you want to live less quality and less quantity of life; DON’T consume wine and spirits; if you want to live a little longer and a little better, and you are a healthy person to begin with, enjoy!

    The French Paradox notwithstanding, there is bad news: alcohol-related diseases, including trauma (motor vehicle accidents), cancer and addiction are on the rise in France and Italy, most likely because these cultures have lost the edge of moderation.

    Wine is a beverage as old as humanity itself; it is the quintessential libation of moderation and it reduces heart disease, decreases mortality and gives life interest.

    Best,

    Doctor Joe

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