Don’t know what is a Digestif drink?
A quick intro and definition:
A digestif drink is any after dinner drink, usually alcohol, but can be non-alcoholic, served after a meal to aid digestion. As opposed to an Apéritif, which is served before the meal. After dinner drinks are usually sweeter and have a higher alcohol percentage than aperitifs.
Stick around to the end of this article, where I list some French after dinner drinks and digestifs, including a few non-alcoholic ones for you to consider.
After dinner drinks are not just for swanky parties
With each year that passes, I learn more and more about French customs and French culture. Not the sort of knowledge you get from books or as a tourist but as an insider from friends who so graciously invite me into their homes to share a meal and experience French customs first hand.
The thing that always amazes me about various food and dining customs in France are the little everyday touches. Many of which, when compared to other cultures, seem so chic and sophisticated.
Take for instance, the after dinner drink, more formally known as a digestif drink (un digestif).
I’ve always associated after dinner / digestif drinks with swanky or splashy affairs. Something you drank only at a restaurant, after a meal on a date or at very formal dinner party gatherings like New Years or Thanksgiving meals. And the main ones I knew about were restricted to cognac, Armagnac and my favourite, Porto.
I was wrong.
Eau de Vie, liqueurs and other after dinner digestifs are nothing new. It’s just as normal as serving coffee or dessert after a meal in France.
I’m in no way implying that after dinner digestives are an everyday thing for people across France. I’m simply trying to make the point that it’s more common at casual get-togethers than in other cultures where it might be considered too chichi, pretentious or highbrow.
I discovered this revelation at a friend’s BBQ party. It’s stuck with me and had a profound effect on how I throw small dinner parties, even casual ones.
The Paella BBQ: My first foray into after-dinner drinks
Years ago, newly arrived in France, I met a French couple through my daughter’s elementary school. Maria was her name, and she was kind enough to invite Blake and me to their house for a small dinner party.
Nothing fancy. There were about 13 people, plus everyone’s children and us — just a casual outdoor BBQ on the terrace to ring in the warm summer months with some friends. Only there were no burgers or steaks on the Barbie.
The main course was Paella, cooked on a gigantic Paella pan on the BBQ grill.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Paella, the iconic Spanish rice dish, is immensely popular in France, especially the South of France and much of the Mediterranean. The Paella was excellent, by the way. It makes a great party dish.
Entre la poire et le fromage
“Voulez-vous un Calvados, une petite liqueur ?”
As our host began serving coffee, she asked me if I cared for a little Calvados or a liqueur. A polite way of asking if I wanted an after dinner digestive drink. By the way, the act of drinking your digestif after your coffee is called Pousse-café ( literally “coffee-pusher”).
If you’re at all familiar with after dinner drinks and digestives, you’re no stranger to Brandy and Cognac, but what about Calvados from Normandy France? Calvados is a brandy made with apples or pears, instead of grapes.
Honestly, I was surprised she offered me a digestif at all because the dinner party was very casual. People were in shorts. Kids were running around in the back yard, being rowdy. Not at all formal.
I contained my surprise, and I politely said, “yes, I would love a liqueur.”
Maria, my host, returns and pours me an ounce or so of something called “Le Vert Sapin” (The green Fir tree) into a small glass. I took the bottle in my hands to inspect what I was about to drink. There were four perfect little green Christmas trees on the label and the phrase “Liqueur de bourgeons de Sapin du Haut-Doubs.”
I did a double-take.
For those of you who don’t speak French, “Sapin” is often associated with the word Christmas tree “Sapin de Noel,” but many simply say “Sapin” for short. And “bourgeons de Sapin” means Fir tree buds or pine buds depending on who you talk to.
So you can understand my reaction:
“I’m about to drink a liqueur made from the baby needles or pine buds of Christmas trees from the Haut-Doubs region?”
Herbs, botanicals, spices and to some degree fir tips are common ingredients in French digestive drinks.
I’ve always known we humans, the MacGyvers of food and alcohol could turn almost anything into liquor. We’ve been concocting, experimenting and turning plants and botanicals into elixirs and intoxicants for centuries. From wormwood and anise to thyme and wheat and more.
Many digestifs started out as medicinal liqueurs and elixirs:
Le Vert Sapin is only one of many after-dinner digestive drinks with a botanical or herbal backbone created for medicinal purposes. France is a country known for its herbal, almost medicinal liqueurs such as Bénédictine and chartreuse.
The 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.
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.
In the case of Le Vert Sapin and other Fir tree-based liqueurs:
Invented over 100 years ago in 1902, Le Vert Sapin is produced in Pontarlier France, the Absinthe capital of the world 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, a type of Conifer is loaded with vitamin C. The buds 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.
How to drink a digestif
Most digestive drinks are served neat, at room temperature however some are served chilled or over ice. When in doubt, you can usually check the brands’ website for suggestions.
Digestifs are not chugged. You typically pour one small serving of a digestif, approximately 1 to 2 ounces which is sipped slowly in a small glass. A snifter or maybe a tall cordial glass.
Many digestives can also be served with hot water and sugar or used in cocktails. For instance, Le Vert Sapin website suggests adding a splash to sweeten other drinks such as Absinthe.
And of course, you can cook with many after-dinner liqueurs. For instance, I like using Port to add depth to some sauces.
Where to find or buy after-dinner drinks?
If you’re in Europe, you can easily order bottles of digestives online and have them shipped straight to your house. In France, you can usually find many digestives at your run of the mill grocery store or walk into a wine and spirits specialty shop like Nicolas.
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.
In other words, you’ll need to find a local wine and spirit store to see what they offer.
List of French digestifsHere are just a few French digestives and after dinner drinks, sure to impress your guests. Many of which you may or 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.
- Bénédictine: This French liqueur, invented by a monk Don Bernardo Vincelli in the 1500s is infused with 27 plants and spices. The three main ingredients are Angelica, Hyssop and Lemon Balm.
- Grand Marnier: A Blend of fine French cognac dried bitter orange peels, vanilla and spices.
- Cointreau: An orange-flavoured triple sec liqueur produced.
- Chambord: Black raspberry flavoured liqueur from the Loire Valley, made from both red and black raspberries, vanilla, citrus, honey and cognac.
- Mandarine Napoleon Liqueur: This orange liqueur was created for Napoleon Bonaparte around the 1800s. While the recipe is a secret, what we it’s a mixture of aged cognac, herbs, spices and mandarin orange peel.
- Armagnac: French brandy 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. ie, produced outside of the Cognac region.
- 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.
- Crème de menthe: Literally “mint cream” is a sweet mint after-dinner drink.
- 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.
- 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.
- Génépi: 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.
- Genièvre: Genièvre, is Juniper in French and as the name implies, is a Juniper flavoured liqueur from Northern France, sometimes called Dutch gin. It’s also popular in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany.
- Douce, Pear and Cognac Liqueur: A pear liqueur combined with cognac
- Pear liqueur:
- Mirabelle plum liqueur in Lorraine:
- Amandine, Almond Liqueur: Made with almond essence and infused with peach, cherry, vanilla and caramel extracts.
- Eliser M.P. Roux: herbal liqueur flavoured with fourteen herbs and spices: Bitter Almond, Lemon Balm, Cinnamon, Diamiana, Ginseng, Lemon, Nutmeg, wild Angelica, Garden Balsam, Coriander, Fennel, Hyssop, Marjoram, and Star Anise.
- Calvados: an apple or pear brandy can be served as an apéritif or digestif.
- 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.
- Eau de vie de framboise sauvage: “Wild raspberry brandy.”
- Verveine du Velay: liqueur from Le-Puy-en-Velay b. Slightly lemony flavour from verbena and a mix of more than thirty plants, spices and aromatic herbs.
- Elixir du Mont Ventoux / Distillerie Blachère: A plant-based liqueur infused with more than 30 plants and spices: (Thyme, Rosemary, Genièvre, Sage, Nutmeg, Cloves…)
- Eau de vie de cerises: Cherry brandy
- Izarra: Is an herbal liqueur from Bayonne in the French Basque country.
There are three different varieties of Izarra, yellow (almond), green (minty) and Izarra 54 which is similar to the green but stronger in alcohol. All three are flavoured with a secret mix of herbs.
- Fresh Spearmint Tea
- Fresh mint tea:
Brandy And Cognac Labels deciphered (VSOP, XO, VO…)
Have you ever seen those strange letters on Cognac bottles like V.S.O.P. and X.O? Ever wonder what they mean? No worries. 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 the quality of a cognac. The grade refers to the age of the youngest eau-de-vie used in making the cognac. 2 being the youngest.
Incidentally, 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.
I’ve grown accustomed to making sure I always have a bottle of one type of digestive drink or another.
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.”
They’re 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.” It’s also a signal to guests that it’s almost time to leave the party and go home.
Remember to drink responsibly and in moderation.
L’abus d’alcool est dangereux pour la santé. À consommer avec modération.