Yin to the aperitif’s yang, the digestif appears at the end of a meal with the purported aim of aiding—what else?—digestion. A European tradition, the drinks blended into American consciousness during the late 19th century and have recently begun edging into the spotlight, riding the coattails of the craft cocktail revolution.
While the aperitif is typically bitter and dry—think vermouth or gin—the digestif leans sweet (and can sometimes taste downright medicinal) in order to mimic dessert. As the cheese course is another European dinnertime caboose, it’s unsurprising that these two railcars—to wring the metaphor dry—are pairing naturals.
From a fine Cognac to the searing purity of eau de vie, the brandy category offers varieties to suit every palate. One famously good couple is Camembert and Calvados—both from Normandy—while washed-rind cheeses such as Époisses (bathed in pomace brandy during production) or Cornish Keltic Gold have the compatible sweetness to blend beautifully into the heady honey and spice of a full-bodied brandy.
Alemar Cheese Bent River + Laird’s Rare 12-Year-Old Apple Brandy
Whalesborough Farm Foods Keltic Gold + Courvoisier VSOP Fine Cognac
Best divided into port, sherry, and madeira for the purposes of the cheese course, this category has too often seen the (deservedly) lauded pairing of Stilton and Vintage Port preclude all other considerations. But the caramelly, nutty richness of a powerful oloroso sherry brings out the best in robust grating cheeses like Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano, while a rich Brillat-Savarin is a gentle match for a glass of sweet madeira. And although creamy Stilton does indeed meld magnificently with the fig and raisin notes of a Vintage Port, try switching in a Portuguese Azeitão for a change. Its grass and tang marry well with the port’s sweetness to unfold delicious new horizons.
With varieties as numerous as the herbs they’re derived from, herbal liquors tend to spark fierce loyalty in the countries from which they hail. The belief that these frequently bitter drinks are beneficial to the system—with one theory suggesting that they prompt the body to react as if it’s poisoned—makes them tailor-made for the mysticism-cum-science of the digestif tradition. Where to begin? Well, it’s a matter of dedicated exploration, but some cheeses—such as Swiss Appenzeller and Deer Creek’s The MoonRabbit—are bathed in herbal liquors, generally a good indicator of symbiosis. For other cheeses, sticking with young wheels is a good rule of thumb; that way the flavors of the cheese don’t compete with complex herbal liquors.
Do digestifs really aid digestion?
The theory goes that the high alcohol content in digestifs stimulates the production of digestive enzymes and amps up helpful gallbladder and pancreas activity. Apparently, herb-based tipples—such as Jägermeister and Fernet-Branca—are the most effective in this regard, while Cognac can actually slow digestion by relaxing your stomach lining.
Photography by Evi Abeler