In a season made for gathering around the table, the role of the after-dinner drink is twofold: to aid digestion and to keep you lingering — so you can finish one conversation and, with the tip of a bottle, pull the thread of another.
Just as an aperitif is meant to open both meal and appetite, a digestif provides a final, often bitter-leaning cap. A common practice in Europe, the after-dinner drink is malleable in definition and practice, taking on whatever form is wanted or needed. One could even pour it after lunch.
“It’s an opportunity to revive you from a meal,” said Claire Sprouse, a consultant and co-owner of Buddy, a recently opened wine bar in San Francisco.
She thinks of the after-dinner cocktail as the domain of the medium-A.B.V. cocktail.
“You want something with a bit of a kick to pick you up depending on where your night’s going,” she said, “even if it’s a nice walk home.”
The options are plentiful. Bitter-leaning amaro, full of restorative herbs, is a wonted — and excellent — choice. Brandy, Cognac or Calvados, poured neat or on a rock, are classic, and excel at the part. When searching for a touch of acidity, Ms. Sprouse often reaches for fortified wines like sherry, Madeira, vermouth or port. On a too-full stomach, herbal liqueurs such as Chartreuse, Bénédictine or even Underberg may be the cure for what ails.
The list only expands from there. According to Ms. Sprouse, modern after-dinner drinks don’t need to stay within any traditional model: “There’s classic definitions of aperitifs and digestifs, but those beverages have been around for over 100 years. We don’t have to pretend like it’s the 1800s; we can redefine how we enjoy drinks.”
Ms. Sprouse suggests an aperitif also could work after a meal. “Most people tend to start their meals with something like Champagne, but I think Champagne is a fun way to finish a meal as well.”
Add sparkle of another sort with a splash of dry tonic or soda water. Ms. Sprouse likes the combination of Calvados or Pommeau and tonic.
A lightly fizzy, Cognac and vermouth-based drink, the Nuitcap employs a final bubbling ounce of soda water just before serving. If you’re with a mixed drinks crowd but don’t want to overindulge, stir a final round of Bijou cocktails and serve in half size, sipping portions. Or, if the intention is to make life — and cleanup — a little easier, set a bottle or three on the recently cleared table, along with a bowl of ice and a jumble of glasses, and join in on the pouring, passing and lingering.
However you proceed, the psychological effect of a nightcap is as important as the physiological.
“We’ve all spent so much time away from each other that I think, once you get in the room with people, you’re looking to elongate that experience,” Ms. Sprouse said, adding, “Why not do that over a beverage?”