The class of spirits known as digestifs can make the beginning and end of any meal a more intoxicating experience.
It is the rare new restaurant that doesn’t espouse its farm-to-table bona fides. “Wild-caught salmon,” they proclaim; “grass-fed beef,” they boast; “artisanal cheese and honey from some cute farm in Chester County,” they assure. To farmers and vintners from France or Italy or even the Middle East, all of this American frenzy to be the freshest and the most local is all so, so arriviste.
Our enthusiastic return to agrarian roots, at least with regard to our food and drink, must give pause to those who have always eaten and imbibed what the seasons provided and what their own resourcefulness preserved.
Fishermen have salted and dried fish for centuries to store and transport them for sale to places far away. Hunters have roasted and preserved ducks and other fowl in their own fat — duck confit, anyone? — to eat later in the year. Farmers have been canning fruits and vegetables in cool cellars for centuries, and have made “potted meat” and sausages from butchered scraps for just as long. But some farmers also like to cook up the leftovers from winemaking and canning — the skins, pits and even the stems and vines — to make brandies for bartering, family celebrations, winter warming and relaxing after a long day in the fields.
These distilled spirits go by various names. In France, they are all classified as eaux de vie, “the water of life,” and pour clear to light amber in color, such as oak barrel-aged Armagnac, the country’s oldest brandy, and Calvados, distilled from apple cider. In Italy, it’s called grappa, made from grape skins, stems and pits. In Scandinavia, dill and caraway perfume their akavit, while in Turkey and southeastern Europe, grapes, plums and other fruits become slivovitz, raki or rakia, palinka or palenka. And if you’ve ever been to a big fat Greek wedding, you’ve raised a glass of licorice-charged ouzo with a loud “Opa!” In Israel and parts of the Middle East a similar, anise-flavored spirit is called arak.
Mezze, Cherries, Plums and Sweat
“Oh, dude, arak and grapefruit juice all the way,” said chef Michael Solomonov, co-owner of Zahav, the modern Israeli restaurant in Society Hill, as well as the mini-chain of doughnut-and-fried chicken shops, Federal Donuts, and the new Abe Fisher restaurant and Dizengoff hummusiya in Center City. “All the teenagers in Israel drink it that way, on ice in plastic cups, relaxing on the beach, or sitting on park benches at night, boy- and girl-watching,” he explained in his signature surfer-dude patter. “Old-timers might drink it straight with ice after dinner, but really, it’s great with a table full of mezze, like what we serve here, some kibbe tartare, a plate of fried haloumi or cauliflower, garlicky yogurt dip, stuff like that.”
Brian Kane, Zahav’s beverage manager, pours two different araks at the restaurant, both from Lebanon. “These are distilled from the obaideh grape, the ancestor of chardonnay,” said Kane, “and in the second distillation, anise seeds are added and the liquid is then stored in traditional clay barrels” known to archaeology lovers as amphorae. “This allows the arak to ‘sweat’ through the porous clay and hopefully remove any harsh edge.” Arak derives from the Arabic word araq, which means “sweat.”
Traditionally, an ounce or two of arak is mixed with an equal amount, or up to twice as much, of water, and poured over ice. Because the oils in anise seed dissolve in alcohol but not in water, this turns the arak into a milky white emulsion. Kane and I sampled the more traditional Razzouk brand arak first. At 100 proof, it exploded with anise spice and heat, and even my small sip subtly burned on its way down. Our next sip of 106 proof Massaya arak (“a newer, more artisanal product,” Kane added) was distinctly different; smoother, sweeter, with notes of grass and even the original grapes. This arak was triple-distilled in copper stills and aged for two years in amphorae before bottling.
Then we splashed in a good amount of fresh grapefruit juice and ice and the arak in taller glasses and — surf’s up, dude — we could taste why Solomonov was so stoked when he spoke of it. Light, citrusy, floral, with just a whisper of licorice, it’s a totally quaffable anytime drink.
I ask Kane, the newly crowned Best of Philly sommelier, about two other brandies — kirschwasser and slivovitz — popular throughout Eastern Europe.
“Kirschwasser, typically from Germany, is often served cold as an aperitif,” he explains, “but I think of it more as something used frequently in desserts, fondue and in chocolates. At Zahav, we’re serving the food of the Middle Eastern diaspora, where it’s not as well known.
“Slivovitz, on the other hand, made from Damson plums, is very prominent in the Balkans, especially Serbia and Romania,” Kane continues, “and very popular among Romanian Jews. We actually have a couple of Romanian customers that always ask for it. At our new restaurant, Abe Fisher, where we’ll be serving the food from the wider net of Jewish cuisine — Montreal, New York, France, Hungary, Italy — we will definitely be pouring slivovitz and kirsch, where it makes more sense.”
Chef Olivier Tells All
Lining up a row of small cordial glasses on the long bar of Caribou Café, his French bistro in Center City, Olivier DeSaintmartin was as excited as I’ve ever seen him. Known for his boyish good looks, boundless energy (and his exciting win on the Food Network’s chef competition, Chopped, two years ago), he splits his time between Caribou and its sister restaurant, Zinc, a few blocks away. In the lull of a quiet afternoon at Caribou, DeSaintmartin is educating me on eaux de vie.
“These are all for sipping after dinner — digestifs, the proper name — for helping to digest the meat, the sauces, the desserts, the butter, everything people think about French food,” he said, pointing to almost a dozen bottles of eaux de vie he’s also lined up on the bar. “But they are good for digesting after any food.”
DeSaintmartin grew up in Picardie, in the Champagne region of France, and he is partial to the Vieux Marc de Champagne and Fin du Marc spirits he’s known since childhood. Distilled from the remains of pinot noir grapes after pressing (called the marc), they are then aged in oak barrels for several years, imparting a golden-bronze color.
“When I was a child,” DeSaintmartin recalled, “after a big family dinner, I would line up with the other children and we would get to dip a sugar cube into a glass of Fin du Marc. That was a big deal, a big treat! I still love a glass of Fin du Marc.”
Eaux de vie are most often associated with the Alsace region, notes DeSaintmartin. “From the Alsace comes all the well-known eaux de vies made from fruit: Poire William (pear), Calvados (apple), and the lighter ones, framboise (raspberry), kirsch (cherry), mirabelle (plum).”
The clear Poire William was the essence of pear, while the amber-hued Calvados was like an apple cider palate-cleanser. The richest of the flight we tasted was the mirabelle, rich and buttery, like a fruit tart. The kirsch was a clash of intense cherry and pepper. The framboise had a disarming, vinegary aroma, but the taste was remarkably light and raspberry refreshing — the anomaly of our tasting.
“Burgundy has an eau de vie of its own,” added DeSaintmartin. “Marc de Bourgorgne is what they drink there, and then you go southwest from Burgundy and you find the Cognac and Armagnac, which people get confused.”
We tasted both, just to be sure. The Armagnac was rich and soothing, with loads of caramel in the nose and on the tongue, while the cognac we sampled was candy-sweet with an almost syrupy feel. “Armagnac is the more artisanal product,” the chef said, “much closer to what the local hunters would make for themselves when they would go duck hunting, to keep them warm in the cold. Cognac is more like a commercial product, made in larger quantities.
“Now let me show you what they make in Grenoble, in the southeast, near the Alps,” said DeSaintmartin, as he pulled out a surprise sip. “My grandfather, who was a pharmacist, used to make this in his free time.” He poured emerald-green Chartreuse into a small tumbler. “This has more than 100 herbs in it, and it is, to me, the best digestif.”
It was multi-minty, with distinct notes of tarragon, basil and oregano. “My grandfather would store his chartreuse in this big bottle with a skull stopper,” DeSaintmartin confided, “and it used to scare the heck out of me, but I loved what was inside. I still do.”
White Lightning, Italian-Style
“There is usually a little bit of a burn,” said Bill Eccleston, general manager of Old City’s Ristorante Panorama and Il Bar, “but that’s part of the pleasure of grappa. There is such a range of flavors with grappa, from raw and intense to softer, fruitier notes.”
Eccleston oversees the prodigious 150-bottle wine dispensing system at Il Bar (for which it has won a Guinness Book of World Records designation), but finds himself pouring plenty of grappa from the dozen-plus bottles he carries.
“People who enjoy grappa after dinner tend to know what kind they want,” Eccleston continues, “but I find it’s a good counterpoint to something sweet, like cookies, even ice cream, which cuts through the bitterness of many grappas.”
Grappa is made from everything left over from the winemaking process — even seeds, stems and vines — and its outcome can be as unpredictable as Virginia mountain moonshine. “It’s often called Italian white lightning,” added Eccleston, “but some of the finer, more expensive grappas can be quite enjoyable, especially those that come from a single grape varietal. Grappas made from Arneis and Moscato grapes will have a lot of the sweetness of those grapes, while a grappa of Barbera grapes can have a raw edge to them. Grappas from Nebbiolo and Picolit grapes are also quite delicious.”
Widely known for his wine education skills, Eccleston has solid advice for exploring after-dinner grappas.
“Approach the glass differently than you might with a wine,” said Eccleston. “Swirl the grappa a bit in the glass and smell from the edge of the glass. If you sniff directly into the glass, you’ll just get the harsh alcohol. Smell is a big part of what we taste.
“Start with small sips, and let the grappa settle in your mouth,” he continues. “After you swallow, you’ll get the most flavor. The aftertaste is where the enjoyment is.”
Richard Pawlak is the chief beverage correspondent for Inside. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.