A simple way to add a touch of class to your dinner party and impress your friends is to serve French digestif drinks. Here’s everything you need to know from how to drink them, types of digestifs and when to serve them. Your guests will think you’re super chic and classy.
French Digestif Drinks / After Dinner Drinks Aren’t Just For Swanky Parties!
The thing that always amazes me about food and dining customs in France is the little everyday touches that seem chic and sophisticated compared to other countries.
For instance, the after-dinner drink, or digestif drinks (un digestif).
I’ve always associated digestif drinks with swanky or splashy affairs. An alcoholic beverage such as port or cognac you enjoyed after a nice meal at a restaurant, on a date, or at very formal dinner party gatherings like New Year or Thanksgiving meals.
That’s not the case in France:
Although after-dinner digestif drinks are not an everyday thing for people across France; serving a digestif drink in France is just as normal as serving coffee or dessert after a meal. It’s more common at casual get-togethers than in other cultures where it might be considered too chichi, pretentious or highbrow.
I’ve even been offered French digestif drinks at children’s birthday parties in France where people were dressed in shorts, t-shirts, and kids were running around in the back yard.
French Digestif Facts
What is a digestif drink?
A digestif drink is an after-dinner drink (usually alcoholic, but can be non-alcoholic) served after a meal to aid digestion. Digestif drinks can be sweet, bitter or spicy and tend to have a higher alcohol percentage than an aperitif.
An aperitif is an alcoholic drink served before or with your meal to whet your appetite. It is lighter in alcohol content than a digestif and can be dryer and acidic as well as sweet, as are many French liqeurs such as crème de cassis.
There are three main types of French digestif drink classifications:
1) White spirits, 2) liqueurs and creams and 3) two types of Eaux de vie (brown and grains). Eaux de vie is a generic French term for distilled spirits, which means “water of life. It’s a term used in the cognac industry to describe digestifs transformed from wine into Brandy.
Brown Spirits: (French – Eaux-de-vie brunes)
- Cognac: Name controlled-it must be made in the Cognac region of France (In Charentes north of Bordeaux). Cognac like beverages produced elsewhere is called Brandy.
- Calvados: A Brandy From Normandy France made with apples or pears, instead of grapes. Name controlled: It can’t be called Calvados if it’s made outside of the Normandy region.
- Marc: Like Italy’s grappa, Marc is a brandy, made from grape pomace, distilled from the pulp, skin, seeds and other stuff left over after wine production.
White Spirits: (French- Eaux-de-vie de blanches)
- Can contain cereals, fruits, plants, bark, flowers, seeds, herbs or spice based.
Liqueurs and creams: (French- Les liqueurs et crèmes)
Cordials and Liqueurs are the same, but in France, only the term liqueur is used. A liqueur is a distilled, heavily sweetened, un-aged alcohol with added flavourings.
- French liqueurs’ base ingredient is usually fruits, herbs, roots,
spices, and other extracts.
- French liqueur is not the same as Liquor- Liquor, which is any distilled beverage.
- French liqueurs’ base ingredient is usually fruits, herbs, roots,
Grain spirits: (French- Eaux-de-vie de grain)
Whiskey has been gaining traction in France, and there are now many whiskey producers in France that technically fall under the category of “Eaux-de-vie de grain.”
List of interesting French digestif Drinks:
Here are a few French digestifs and after dinner drinks, sure to impress your guests. Many of which you may not have heard of.
If these are not available in your area, there are many local variations inspired by the French classics. Or you could stick with the familiar, Cognac and Armagnac.
Invented by a monk Don Bernardo Vincelli in the 1500s, this French liqueur is infused with 27 plants and
2) Grand Marnier:
A Blend of fine French cognac dried bitter orange peels, vanilla and
An orange-flavoured triple sec liqueur produced.
Black raspberry flavoured liqueur from the Loire Valley, made from both red and black raspberries, vanilla, citrus, honey and cognac.
5) Mandarine Napoleon Liqueur:
This orange liqueur was created for Napoleon Bonaparte around the 1800s. While the recipe is a secret, we know it’s a mixture of aged cognac, herbs,
French brandy is made from a blend of grapes produced in the region of the same name. Known as France’s for Brandy and is over 150 years old. I.e., produced outside of the Cognac region.
7) Liqueur de thym or farigoule:
A traditional digestif infused with thyme from the south of France. Also used to relieve sore throats and congested coughs.
8) Crème de menthe:
Literally, “mint cream” is a sweet mint after-dinner drink.
9) Crème de Cassis:
Sweet red liqueur made from blackcurrants from the region of Burgundy and Dijon. Fun fact! Créme de Cassis is the liqueur used in Kir Royale cocktail.
10) Chartreuse Verte:
A naturally green liqueur, distilled and aged with 130 herbs, plants and flowers. It is one of a handful of liqueurs that continue to age and improve in the bottle. It’s been produced by Carthusian Monks since 1737.
This herbal liqueur is an acquired taste. Made from the flowers from the Génépi plant, genus Artemisia (commonly called wormwood) in the Savoy region of the alps. Wormwood is also the same plant used to make Absinthe.
12) Genièvre: (The cousin to English Gin)
Genièvre (Juniper berry) is an excellent alternative to gin. It’s sometimes called Dutch gin because its based on the Dutch recipe considered the ancestor to English Gin.
Dutch doctor and chemist, Franciscus Sylvius is credited with inventing gin in the 17th century by distilling juniper berries which he also used for medicinal potions. , the first major mention of juniper-based health-related tonics appeared in a Dutch publication in In 1269. This Juniper water crossed the border over to England where it became “genever” then “gin” and became all the rage in the 18th century England but didn’t reach France until after the French revolution.
French genièvre is made with juniper-like gin and can be aromatized with just about anything from coriander, licorice, cumin, camomile, ginger, cardamom…
It’s mainly produced in the Pas-de-Calais, in the north of France.
13) Douce, Pear and Cognac Liqueur:
A pear liqueur combined with cognac
14) Pear liqueur:
15) Mirabelle plum liqueur in Lorraine:
16) Amandine, Almond Liqueur:
Made with almond essence and infused with peach, cherry, vanilla and caramel extracts.
17) Eliser M.P. Roux:
herbal liqueur flavoured with fourteen herbs and
an apple or pear brandy can be served as an apéritif or digestif.
19) Eau de vie de vieille prune:
Literally means “old plum brandy.” It’s made with plums aged in oak casks. Mainly old timers drink this in France.
20) Eau de vie de framboise sauvage:
“Wild raspberry brandy.”
21) Verveine du Velay:
liqueur from Le-Puy-en-Velay b. Has a slightly lemony flavour from verbena and a mix of more than thirty plants,
22) Elixir du Mont Ventoux / Distillerie Blachère:
A plant-based liqueur infused with more than 30 plants and
23) Eau de vie de cerises:
24) Cherry brandy
An herbal liqueur from
NON-Alcoholic Digestif Drinks
After diner drinks don’t have to contain alcohol especially if you need to drive home right after diner. Here are some options for non-alcoholic digestives.
Black teas such as Earl Grey, or green teas are made with Camellia Sinensis leaves, a shrub that is native to Asia.
27) Tisane / Infusions (herbal tea)
In France, herbal teas or infusions are called “les tisanes” and they’re quite popular not just as after-diner digestif but just in general.
Any kind of tea that doesn’t contain tea leave and instead is made by infusing
- Fresh Spearmint Tea
- Fresh mint tea:
- Camomile tea
- Fennel tea
Many digestif drinks started out as medicinal liqueurs and elixirs:
Humans are the MacGyvers of food and alcohol. We can literally turn almost anything into alcohol and have been concocting, experimenting and turning plants and botanicals into elixirs and intoxicants for centuries. From wormwood and anise to thyme and herbs and fir trees.
France is a country known for its herbal, almost medicinal liqueurs such as Bénédictine and chartreuse. This belief that alcohol holds medicinal properties dates back to the Middle Ages when sugar and spiced drinks were considered a medicine that also aids digestion.
For example, Le Vert Sapin and other Fir tree-based liqueurs:
Le Vert Sapin” (The green Fir tree) is made by distilling fir tree buds, and it’s one of many after-dinner digestif drinks with a botanical or herbal backbone created for medicinal purposes.
Invented over 100 years ago in 1902, Le Vert Sapin is produced in Pontarlier France, the world’s Absinthe capital, by a Frenchman, named Armand Guy. The idea of making alcohol with fir buds was inspired by the fact that it was commonly used for medicinal purposes.
Fir trees are loaded with vitamin C. and even taste a little citrusy, but they also have other therapeutical properties, like a disinfectant, anti-inflammatory, diuretic… The buds also make an excellent tea, and you’ll find loads of recipes for fir tree tip tea like this one.
Does a digestif drink really help digestion?
These days, spiced, pine herbed and other botanical drinks are no longer considered medicinal. We also know now that alcohol does nothing to help digestion; however, the tradition continues.
How to drink a digestif drink!
- Most digestive drinks are served neat (at room temperature, without any water, ice, or other mixers).
- However, some French digestifs are served chilled or over ice or with hot water and sugar, such as “le Vert Sapin.” When in doubt, you can usually check the brands’ website for suggestions.
- You can use some digestif drinks as an ingredient in
cocktailssuch as a whiskey sour.
Digestifs are not chugged. You typically pour one small serving of a digestif, approximately 1 to 2 ounces, which you sip slowly in a small glass, a snifter or maybe a tall cordial glass. It’s best not to abuse alcohol at the end of a meal, especially if people have to drive home.
When to drink digestif drinks: Entre la poire et le fromage
French digestif drinks are conversation starters, served best at the end of the meal when bellies are full, people are relaxed, and conversations start to pick up, “Entre la poire et le fromage” (between the pear and the cheese). This old French expression comes from the 17th century, when fruits such as apple and pears were eaten after a meal, followed by cheese.
Times change; these days, the cheese is served after a meal, but before anything sweet, such as fruits or dessert (always salty before sweet).
The order of events usually go something like this:
- Main course
- Cheese plate
- Digestif Drink (drinking your digestif after your coffee is called Pousse-café ( literally “coffee-pusher”).
Serving an after-dinner drink is also a signal to guests that it’s almost time to leave the party and go home.
How to politely offer a digestif drink in French
Normally, you don’t come straight out and ask, “would you like a digestif?” « voulez-vous un digestif? » The reason is because your guests didn’t come over to digest their food, but to pas a wonderful evening or afternoon together.
Instead, you should offer a couple of choices “Would you like a Calvados?” a little liqueur?” « voulez-vous un Calvados, une petite liqueur? ».
Where to buy after French Digestifs?
If you’re in Europe, you can easily order bottles of French digestifs at local grocery stores, specialty wine and spirit shops, or order them online and have them shipped straight to your house.
You’ll have to do your own research in other parts of the world because it can vary by location.
For instance, if you’re in the US, I believe you can only order alcohol online in certain states. At Bevmo.com, for instance, they ship to CA, AK, AZ, NE, NV, ND, NM, OR, DC, WA, and WY. It just depends on the online shop. In Canada, walk into a large SAQ store.
(VSOP, XO, VO…) How To Read Brandy And Cognac Labels
Have you ever seen those strange letters on Cognac bottles like V.S.O.P. and X.O? Even French people don’t always know what they mean.
Those strange letters are abbreviations or acronyms for a unique grading system imposed by the French government to describe a cognac’s quality. The grade refers to the age of the youngest eau-de-vie used in making the cognac. 2 being the youngest.
The abbreviations are for English words because the first import and exporters of French Cognac were English. Here is what they mean.
- Aged a minimum of 2 years: V.S. (very special). Sometimes bottles will say “✯✯✯ (three stars)” or “luxury.”
- Aged a minimum of 3 years: Superior
- Aged a minimum of 4 years: V.S.O.P. (Very Superior Old Pale) Sometimes bottles will say “Réserve,” “Vieux,” “Old,” “Rare,” and “Royal.”
- Aged a minimum of 6 years: X.O. (extra old):. Sometimes the bottle will say Napoléon.
- Beyond age: Hors d’âge: Sometimes labelled “Très Vieille Réserve.” These suggest the Cognac is really old, but. Technically it’s equal to XO; however, XOs are often much older, with some being as old as 20 years old. In general, this term is used by producers to market a superior quality product beyond the official X.O. age scale.
Keep a couple of bottles of Digestifs on hand at all times.
Serving an after-dinner drink to your guests, no matter what the occasion, is sure to add a little “je ne sais quoi” to your soirée, but obscure liqueurs and after-dinner drinks, those are the ones that stand out. The ones that make you go, “oooooh, wooooow.”
I’ve grown accustomed to making sure I always have a bottle to serve my unexpected guests a digestif drink.
L’abus d’alcool est dangereux pour la santé. À consommer avec modération.