At a Thanksgiving a while back, after our family was reduced to immobility by the meal we had just consumed, someone at the table made a sensible suggestion: We should all just take a nap.
We didn’t bother to stand up and find a couch or spare bed, but simply slid from our chairs one by one, dropping to the carpet beneath the dining room table, poleaxed. Occasionally someone would giggle or groan or make a feeble attempt to crawl toward the medicine cabinet and its merciful canister of Tums, only to lie back down.
The dog went from one of us to the next, inspecting our faces for traces of leftovers. We could see in her eyes a dawning understanding that we had been reduced to human turduckens, stuffed with sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce and broccoli with hollandaise, there for whatever enterprising canine might summon the will to take the first bite.
Estimates of what Americans eat at the Thanksgiving meal range from the slightly alarming (2,000 calories, a typical day for many adults) to the truly Brobdingnagian (up to 4,500 calories, which I presume is for those who accompany each dish with a shot of gravy). There is some delicious irony in a national holiday that bastes our heritage of colonialism in butter and leaves celebrants so incapacitated with food that, should foreign hordes wish to re-vanquish our borders, Thanksgiving would be a good time to try.
Had we been thinking more clearly that year, we would have accompanied the Grand Snarf with a strategic application of bitters. Bitters are the stomach’s wingman—its appetizer before a big meal, its comfort and helpmeet in the aftermath. And while the taste of bitterness often stimulates a prehistoric “Nope!” deep in the human brain (it’s a flavor long associated with toxicity), when balanced with other flavors, bitter can be beautiful.
Drink bitters come in two basic forms: potable and non-potable. Those terms are misleading, because “non-potable” bitters are poted, just typically in very small doses. Such bitters (like Angostura and Peychaud’s) are intensely flavored, with bitter plants like cinchona and gentian and other botanicals that contribute to the taste. This type is usually used in drops and dashes. Think of them as a cocktail seasoning. Potable bitters, on the other hand—liqueurs such as Campari, Suze, Jägermeister—are consumed in bigger portions. While they, too, are bitter, some intensely so, most include sweeteners that make them easier to swallow.
Even though most non-potable bitters are highly alcoholic, you can walk into a grocery store and buy a bottle of Angostura bitters (which at 44.7% alcohol by volume is boozier than most vodkas) without ever having to show any ID. Try to drink the stuff neat, and you’ll understand why; it’s the rare teenager indeed who’d decide getting blitzed off this stuff would be a good idea.
Although both types of bitters are now used mostly for the flavors they impart, they all came out of herbal medicine traditions and are sometimes still used for their digestive effect. Andrew Chevallier, an author and medical herbalist, told me via email that we experience bitterness through molecules that stimulate taste receptors in our tongues, mouths and the stomach itself. “A wide variety of compounds do this and thereby stimulate digestive activity, especially digestive secretions” like saliva, stomach acid and duodenal juices, “all of which promote the ability to process and absorb nutrients,” he said. “One of the main functions of aperitifs and bitters is precisely to promote nutrient uptake, and to aid the digestive system in efficiently processing a meal.”
The bitter liqueur tradition in Europe is wide-ranging. The Italians make red bitters such as Campari and Aperol and a host of darker digestive bitters called amari. The French have bright yellow Suze and clear Salers, both gentian-based; the Germans have Jägermeister and Underberg.
Because brands tend to treat the formulas with extreme secrecy, it’s hard to decipher what’s shaped the traditions that govern when to drink these. Why are some bitter liqueurs treated as aperitifs and some as digestifs? Italians seem to concur that their red bitters are aperitivi and darker ones are digestivi, but I’ve yet to fully understand why. I often seem to arrive at a tautology: Digestive liqueurs are so categorized because you drink them after a meal.
Chevallier, though, helped me think it through. Bitter herbs have different effects on the body, he explained—promoting nutrient uptake, slowing the heart rate, reducing physiological components of stress, easing bloating and gas and the sense of fullness after a big meal. In the days when these liquids were consumed primarily as medicines rather than recreationally, people probably learned to consume them for their particular digestive impacts.
Francesco Amodeo, president of Don Ciccio & Figli, a D.C.-based distiller of multiple cordials, aperitivi and amari based on the traditions of the Amalfi Coast, said the company uses different botanicals for its aperitivi than for its variety of digestivi. Some of these traditions came from superstition, he said, but “if you’re going to have an earthy amaro, you need earthy and stronger ingredients. The botanicals will activate your stomach and tell your digestive system to contract. If you use something lighter—gentian, bitter orange, juniper—those will tell your stomach to expand and make you hungry.” The base of the word aperitivo, aper, he points out, means “open.”
Sticking with the tradition of red bitters before the meal, I created a festive hibiscus-pomegranate punch for Thanksgiving. It’s rosy and herbal, lightly bittersweet, and topped off with bubbly. Prepped with all its garnishes, it’s a visual treat, but should also act as an aperitivo to get you and your guests in the mood for munching.
For postprandial imbibing, you can go with darker digestive liqueurs, or, for something light and stomach-settling, try the classic bitters and soda. It couldn’t be easier: ice, club soda (you can use tonic or a flavored carbonated water if you prefer), a few dashes of bitters and a squeeze of citrus. What I’m planning, though, is to combine two classic after-dinner options: coffee and amaro. A giant meal (especially one laced with tryptophan!), seems to point to a need not only for a tummy-settling, but also for a wake-up call. In Italy, the caffè corretto (an espresso “corrected” with a little alcohol) varies by region. The alcohol is usually sambuca or grappa, but I’ve found that many amari go nicely with coffee, either added directly to coffee or served alongside an espresso.
There are even options that combine the two in the bottle. Lucano Caffè Amaro combines coffee with notes of cloves and other herbs, and Baltimore Spirits Co. makes Baltamaro, the coffee version of which has nice citrus and cocoa notes. A real standout is J. Rieger & Co.’s Caffè Amaro, which started off as a housemade concoction when Ryan Maybee was behind the bar at Manifesto in Kansas City. An alcoholic infusion of coffee paired with juniper, cardamom and orange peel was a customer favorite; when Maybee went on to co-found the distillery, the team started producing it at scale.
Don Ciccio & Figli makes a barley/coffee liqueur called Concerto. It’s not an amaro, but it is far more complex than a standard coffee liqueur and is based on a recipe made by monks on the Amalfi Coast since the 1600s. Amodeo remembered his father drinking that version after meals. “Since there’s such a star anise flavor profile, his mustache, every time he would kiss me, I would just feel like I had that smell all over my face,” he recalled.
If coffee, bittersweet liqueurs and the thought of paternal kisses scented with spice don’t give you that post-Thanksgiving glow, maybe you didn’t get enough to eat. Time to go back for fourths?
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Note: We used Luxardo Bitter, but you can substitute Campari or another red Italian bitter if you can’t find it. Hibiscus herbal teas are widely available at grocery stores and online. Look for one without many other herbs and spices in the blend, but the versions with berries like strawberries and raspberries are fine.
MAKE AHEAD: If you’re making a block of punch ice, you’ll need to freeze it the night before. A Tupperware container or large cereal bowl can create a large block of ice. If you want to get truly festive, use a Bundt pan, and then gently run it under hot water to dislodge. You can also prep the hibiscus-thyme tea 1 to 2 days in advance and refrigerate it until needed.
For the tea
2 bags hibiscus tea
1 teaspoon dried thyme
2 cups boiling water
For the punch
3 cups pomegranate juice
2 cups gin (or vodka)
1 cup Luxardo Bitter Bianco liqueur
Pomegranate seeds, sprigs of thyme, slices of blood orange or lemon, for garnish (optional)
1 bottle (750 milliliters) chilled Brut-style sparkling wine
The night before you serve the punch, freeze water for a block of punch ice.
Make the tea: At least 1 hour before you serve the punch, place the tea and thyme in a teapot or fine mesh strainer. Pour the boiling water over the mix and allow it to infuse for about 5 minutes. Strain (you should have about 2 cups) and discard solids, and let the infusion cool completely. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.
Make the punch: 10 minutes before serving, place the punch ice in the serving bowl. Add the hibiscus tea, pomegranate juice, gin (or vodka) and bitter liqueur. Stir to combine, then add the garnishes (if using). Top with the sparkling wine, stir gently and serve in punch cups or cocktail coupes.