Raise a toast to an Italian digestivo this Christmas 

Have you ever tried an alcoholic drink on holiday and wished to re-create the experience at home? How about one …

Cuisine

Have you ever tried an alcoholic drink on holiday and wished to re-create the experience at home?

How about one of those lovely liqueurs that traditionally follows an Italian dinner?

Italian wines are rightly known for their quality, flavour and variety, but a well-stocked drinks cainet should always include a good selection of Italian spirits and liqueurs too.

They are some of the best in the world, after all, and are wonderful to try either before a meal, as an aperitivo (aperitif) to stimulate the appetite or as a digestivo (digestif) to help aid digestion.

During the festive season, or any other special occasion, an Italian digestivo will help to add the perfect finishing touch to a gathering of friends and family or after enjoying a long, leisurely meal. 

When we cook, we Italians look to nature to provide our ingredients and it’s the same when we make alcohol – many of our most famous drinks were inspired by the seasonal ingredients we found in abundance in our different regions around the country.

Limoncello, for example, wouldn’t exist were it not for the abundance of lemons in southern Italy, particularly around Sorrento and the Amalfi coast. This delicious, sweet liqueur is typically served chilled in a shot glass or in a small stemmed liqueur glass as a digestivo. It is easy to make at home, using the rinds and zest of lemons steeped in a spirit, usually grappa but vodka can also be used, and mixed with a simple syrup.

Then there’s nocino, which is made from unripe green walnuts, that, traditionally are gathered on the night of the 21st June – Midsummer night – and steeped in spirit. Dark brown in colour and originating from the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy, it also can also feature additional ingredients such as cinnamon, vanilla pods, coffee beans or cloves and is said to aid digestion. Many families have their own recipe for it, passed down from generation to generation.

Or you may try one of a group of liqueurs known as ‘amari’ – known for their stomach-soothing properties – these are almost-medicinal tasting after-dinner drinks.

Amari in its singular form is ‘amaro’, the Italian word for bitter, and these herbal liqueurs are often bitter-sweet, and best consumed after a meal. Made from herbs, roots, flowers, citrus peels and bark, spirits and sugar syrups, most of the recipes – many of which originated in monasteries – date back to 19th century or longer.

Although the name is similar, don’t confuse amaro with amaretto, a sweet Italian liqueur (and another popular digestivo) made from almonds and often used as an ingredient in cakes and cocktails.

In fact, you’ll often see Italian liqueurs and spirits used in making desserts, whether poured over a gelato or added to cake batter. The Gubana is a traditional cake of our Friuli Venezia Giulia region, in the north-east corner to Italy, and it’s the custom to pour local grappa or slivowitz plumb brandy over the cake before eating it.

Of course, grappa can also be served on its own, as a shot. This well-known spirit is often clear in colour and fermented using the peels, stems and seeds of grapes and flavoured with fruit, such as pears, apples or prunes. But be warned, take a small sip first if you’ve never tried grappa before, it can be high in alcohol content and is powerful stuff!

Salute!