Step aside, hipster cocktails; take the empty wine bottles away, it’s time to make space on the table for an after dinner drink (or digestif). Why? you ask? Because there is nothing more enjoyable, more romantic, more of a remoteness from everyday life, than extending the intimacy. In these times of fast food, meals on the fly with electronics in hand (remember in the 1970s when Amy Carter made headlines for bringing a book to the dinner table?), and skipping mealtime altogether, sometimes, we need a reminder to slow down, to stop and smell the cognac. To allow ourselves to linger.
The digestif was created to be taken at the end of a hearty meal in order to aid digestion. To simply look at it that way, one might just take an Alka-Seltzer and call it a night, but where is the romance in that? Just as there’s a language to flowers, there’s a language to dining. Everything from where you dine to what you wear to dine sets a mood. So when you’ve had the perfect meal, the table set with linen, flowers and candles, Louis Armstrong in the background singing “A Kiss to Build a Dream On” and the evening is drawing to a close, (Too soon, too soon!) what do you do? This is the time to look into someone’s eyes and suggest an after dinner drink, and to have that suggestion means, “I am here with you now, and there is nowhere I’d rather be.” And to accept that offer is to say, “Nor am I ready for this night to end. Let us linger on.”
But as everything romantic is at once simple and impossibly hard, so, for the novice, is this choice. What do I choose? Bitters and herbals are traditionally known for their ability to aid in digestion (bitters is often called “the bartender’s Alka-Seltzer”). Our ancestors used to eat bark and bitter herbs as a regular part of their diet. Later, the herbs were made into a liquid and put in a bottle, and were known as restorative tonics; now, they are gaining popularity as something to sip rather than an ingredient in a drink which is mixed to mask their bitter taste. On the other hand, dessert wines are often thought of as too sweet, and people can shy away from pairing them with a sweet dessert thinking it might be too much. (Not so.) Then, of course, there is Cognac, steeped in romanticism, bringing to mind Downton Abbey with women draped in pearls, men in dinner suits, secret liaisons all around and evenings that lasted late into the night.
Time for a few suggestions from some experts. Mark Spradling and Karen Easton of Kokoman Fine Wines tell us they have a huge amount of digestifs to offer, many unusual and hard to find. A few of their favorites are Jan Becher Becherovka, a Czech herbal liqueur, with its own romantic story that includes princes and pirates; Sibona Amaro, Amaro is Italian for bitter—though there are similar products made throughout Europe, only those from Italy can be called Amaros; and a Mexican herbal liqueur, Fernet-Vallet created by Henri Vallet who emigrated to Mexico from France. They like Gaston Rivière Pineau des Charentes as a dessert wine, “not too sweet, it has some tart as well!” And they suggest Nocello, a walnut liqueur, which the better-known Frangelico aspires to be. For Cognac, Mark says Camus Borderies XO is “absolutely incredible, why drink any of the others after trying this.” (It’s $175.00 a bottle, that’s why.) They also make a VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) and VS (Very Special) at a lower price. (The other Cognacs and digestifs mentioned are in the $25 to $40 range.)
Jasper Jackson-Gleich and Aline Brandauer of Susan’s Fine Wines and Spirits also had some suggestions: Green Chartreuse, which is “syrupy and herby” (and made by monks, who seem to know their alcohol); Amaro Montenegro, which Jasper describes as a “beginner’s approach” to Amaro. Fernet Branca from Italy; and Noble Dame Calvados (France). Calvados is an apple brandy that can trace its roots back to Charlemagne in the 8th century. Their Cognac pick is Delamain, which Aline describes as “light and refined’” ($117.99) Delemain is one of the oldest Cognac producers.
Back to our evening around the table (it doesn’t have to be a table for two): Louis Armstrong is singing “Cheek to Cheek” in the background, the candles are getting shorter, the dinner plates are gone, the wine is empty, it’s getting late but we don’t notice because the company is good, the conversation is flowing, the evening is not ready to be over, yet it doesn’t feel right to open another bottle of wine. Or let’s imagine ourselves dining al fresco in Tuscany on a warm summer night, or at a tapas bar in Madrid. Or in fancy dress at Downton Abbey. Our phones are put away because the only people we want to share our evening with are at the table with us, and everything else can wait for the moment. Or let’s go further back, to our ancestors who have just discovered fire, to the first man who handed a piece of bark and some herbs to his dining companion. Let’s embrace the feeling of mystery, excitement and remoteness from everyday life, because that is romance. Let’s linger. And back at the table for two, which one of us will look the other in the eye when the wine is gone and the plates are cleared, when what remains is the yearning to linger, and wonder, as did T.S. Eliot in his “Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”