Anthropology of Wine

Amaro: A Boozy, Bitter History of Digestivi from the Pharmacy to the Bar

Have you ever had a wonderful copious meal and regretted that last bite of panna cotta? A long walk after dinner will help but Italians have come up with an even more civilized cure–the digestivo.

A digestivo is an alcoholic beverage often consumed after a meal in Italy, although many of these drinks make appearances at the aperitivo (drinks before dinner) and are believed to stimulate the appetite. Digestive drinks include amaro, Vermouth, grappa, vin santo, herb-infused concoctions as well as a bevy of non-Italian drinks such as Whiskey and Cognac. They all have the main function of aiding digestion. These drinks have a long history that is tied just as much to Italian medicine and pharmacies as to the specialty beverage trade.

How did digestivi, such as Barolo Chinato, Martini, San Simone and Fernet Branca, go from being consumed as a medicine to drinks associate with more pleasurable, social moments. At one time digestivi were concocted and sold mainly in local pharmacies; now they have become popular ingredients in cocktails, particularly in North America. In particular, modern manufacturing, branding and distribution have played an important role in transforming the way in which these drinks are consumed. By looking at the changing meaning of these beverages, we can begin to understand the ways in which the consumption of digestivi has lost most of its medicinal meaning and taken on a new life in different cultures of alcohol consumption.

I will be presenting this paper at the Food in Bloom Conference in Bloomington, Indiana on June 3, 2010.