We have already taken a look at aperitivo and apertivo drinks, the before-dinner ritual intended to whet the appetite before dinner. But what about digestivo, another of Italy’s all-important drinks based practices? While many trace aperitivo back to 18th-century Turin, where Vermouth was first invented by Antonio Carpano, the birthplace of digestivo is much disputed. This is due to the fact that certain digestivi have ancient roots, whereas liqueurs others such as Limoncello and Sambuca are relatively modern creations. It is perhaps more widely agreed that most digestivi can be traced back to monasteries as a result of their often herbal and botanical ingredients. Amari, for instance, were drunk for their medicinal qualities and restorative properties by the nobility of ancient Rome, long before their evolution into health tonics sold by pharmacies in the 19th century.
Today, digestivo signifies the practice of drinking after a meal to aid digestion, settling the stomach and prolonging the dining experience. While aperitivi tend to be made from drier liqueurs, digestivi can be both sweet or bitter, and, typically contain a higher amount of alcohol than their pre-dinner counterparts.
Popular Digestivo Drinks
Limoncello is perhaps one of the best internationally known digestivo, and one of the most cherished. No matter whether you are lounging under the heat of the Sicilian sunshine or tucked cosily away in the alpine villages of Piedmont, an ice-cold glass of limoncello is Italy’s answer to an all-year round taste of summer. Native to Southern Italy, the production of this liqueur is primarily isolated to the Amalfi coast and is made by soaking oil-rich lemon rinds in sugar and alcohol. Zesty, sweet, and slightly bitter, limoncello hits all the right notes of a perfect post-dinner drink.
Sambuca, as we know it today, was created in 1851 by Luigi Manzi. Although Manzi hailed from the region of Campania in Southern Italy, he began crafting this liqueur in Civitavecchia, by Rome, thus giving sambuca a sort of double geographical paternity. This sweet and syrup-like digestivo is often served in coffee: adding a few drops of sambuca to an espresso creates a caffè corretto, or “correct coffee”, suggesting that coffee is made right by a slight addition of alcohol. This liqueur is also often served with a sprinkling of 3 coffee beans on top; one for happiness, one for health, and one for prosperity, which of course perfectly epitomises the cultural significance and importance of the digestivo ritual.
Regardless of any particular region, amaro is well loved across Italy and is classified as a bitter drink with an alcohol gradation of at least 15 degrees. The flavour profile of amari hinges on whether it is light or dark; darker amari feature hints of herbs, roots, citrus peel, bark, and spices, while other lighter amari like Campari play on the tastes of citrus peel, florals, and spices.
Some of the most popular amaro brands in Italy are:
- Amaro Lucano – an amaro liquor from Basilicata that takes its name from where it was first produced in 1894, Lucania. The much loved television ad for this brand goes: ‘E cosa vuoi di piu’ dalla vita? Un Lucano’, literally meaning, ‘What else you can ask for, in life? A Lucano’).
- Cynar – although cynar can be drunk as an aperitivo, it is also a popular amaro made from artichokes and said to aid significantly in digestion.
- Amaro del Capo – this amaro is a blend of almost thirty various herbs and flavours from the sun-drenched region of Calabria. Although widely drunk on its own, it is also today in vogue as unexpected base for cocktails.
Digestivi are very much regional drinks in Italy, so if you find yourself staying in any of Italy’s southern cities, you will almost certainly come into contact with stregha. The birthplace of this liqueur is Benevento, a city known for its witches (streghe in Italian), from whom this drink is so named. A relatively recent invention, stregha dates back to the latter half of the 20th century, and is bright yellow due to the addition of saffron and over 70 other varieties of plants indigenous to the Calabrian countryside.
Made from grape pomace which is left over from wine production, grappa comes in a variety of styles and ages and if often produced in oak barrels to yield a semi-aromatic flavour. The spirit is very much the acquavite of Veneto; the mountainous town of Bassano del Grappa in Italy’s north is still home to two of its oldest distilleries. Like sambuca, grappa is commonly enjoyed alongside or within coffee, particularly as as an ammazzacaffè (coffee killer) to dull the effects of the caffeine.