Most people are fully aware of the Italian culture of gathering around the kitchen table for meals. Through the antipasti, primi, and secondi, vino is passed and shared. What many don’t realize is that Italians will extend their stay at the table once the meal is completed. They’ll linger over espresso and very likely, sip a nectar known as a “disgestivo” while allowing the conversation and the spirits to flow.
Digestivi, or “Digestives” are hardly new. In the middle ages, as the knowledge of how to distill alcohol become widespread, people began experimenting with various distillates infused with a vast variety of ingredients. Notably, Holy Orders of Monks were famous for creating the concoctions. However, the purpose was not to create a social drink, but rather to make spirits that had curative and medicinal properties. Since Monks believed that it was there holy duty to heal the infirm, they referred to many of these drinks as Aqua Vitae, or the “Water of Life”. Today, many of the most popular digestivi continue to use centuries old recipes originally developed by Monk Orders.
Digestivi as a group, are often referred to as “Amari” or bitters, because the plethora of ingredients used often results in a drink that is heady and often bitter.
Perhaps the most famous is the Sicilian Amaro, Averna. Named after it’s founder, Salvatore Averna, who created the spirit in 1868, Averna is still produced on the island of Sicily and is considered a drink steeped in tradition. Like many digestivi, Averna is made from slowly steeped herbs, dried fruits, spices, plant roots and other secret ingredients. Carmel is added to give the drink it’s rich golden brown color. The result is a wonderful thick nectar with a slightly sweet and gental herbal bitterness. It has excellent digestive properties and can be served on the rocks or neat.
The next digestive, is a personal favorite of this writer: Fernet Branca. Fernet has been made by the Branca Family for over 150 years and the exact recipe continues to be a closely guarded secret. Fernet is a classic Italian bitter. It’s a strong, seductive elixir with excellent digestive properties that come from the dozens of herbs, roots, and spices that combine to create this dark brown colored digestivo. It has a distinctive aroma and despite it’s assertive flavors, is one of the most popular digestivi in Europe. Branca also makes a mint flavored version of Fernet, called Branca Menta. Identical in color to Fernet Branca, the mint aroma and flavors in this digestivo are unmistakeable. It is also noticeably sweeter, and is a good choice for those that find the assertive flavors of Fernet Branca too challenging.
The popular digestive, Montenegro, is a classic Amaro that hails from Bologna. Montenegro was first produced by Stanislao Cobianchi in the late 19th century and is reportedly named after Princess Elena of Montenegro. Distilled from a closely secured recipe consisting of caramel and over 40 herbs, Montenegro is a light brown nutty color, with soft, gentle bitter and herbal flavors. This amaro is not nearly as assertive as Averna or Fernet. In fact, a good friend of mine once referred to it as: “Training wheels for Fernet Branca”.
Liquore Strega, is an Amaro that gets its soft sweet, green herbal, slightly bitter flavor from a combination of over 70 herbs and saffron, which helps give the digestive its distinct flavor and color. Originally created by Giuseppe Alberti, the recipe has been passed from generation to generation and is reportedly known by only 2 people. Created in the Benevento area of Campania in 1860, the recipe was learned from local Monks who named the liquer after the witches, who according to legend, liked to gather in the Benevento area. “Strega”, means Witch in Italian.
Finally, I include the classic Campari. Although not a digestivo, Campari is a classic Amaro. It is served as an Apperitivo, to whet the appetite and prepare the digestive system for the coming meal. Campari was first produced in 1860 with its invention by Gaspare Campari in Novara, Italy. Now produced in Milan, it gets it’s distinctive red color from the addition of carmine dye, which was originally derived from crushed cochineal insects! Distilled from numerous, secret citrus tree leaves, rind oils, herbs, and fruit, it has a bitter citrusey flavor. It is delightful on the rocks when mixed with club soda and an orange twist. Campari also is a main ingredient in the classic Italian cocktail: The “Negroni”
Below is the classic lineup of Italian Amari! Salute e ci vediamo!
|Left to Right: Averna, Fernet-Branca, Branca Menta
|Left to Right: Liquore Strega, Montenegro, Campari
Campari on the rocks was great this Mother’s Day Weekend! Ci Vediamo!