After-dinner drinks are an enjoyable part of the food and cocktail experience. When considering a dessert drink, “traditionally, most folks would probably think of a sweet cocktail,” says Jayson Landers, operating manager at Italian eatery Strada and its Social Lounge. “But there’s really a wide spectrum.”
Popular postprandial tipples include cognac (ideally served in a large brandy snifter) and any of a wide variety of amari (Italian herbal liqueurs). The latter — a broad category that includes locally available liqueurs like Averna, Cynar, Fernet Branca, Montenegro, Ramazzotti and Zucca — is “a very traditional after-dinner drink in Italy,” says Landers. “It’s believed to be good to stimulate digestion.” Limoncello, a citrus-peel based liqueur, is also very common on Italian after-dinner menus. (We’ll explore ’cellos in an upcoming DIY-focused article.)
Most dessert drink bars carve out their own niche. “We can always recommend a lovely port or a cognac or a scotch,” says Abby Wallace, bar manager at L’Ecluse, the dessert bar at downtown French restaurant Bouchon. “But we like to provide something that’s going to be a little bit more unique, something with a sweeter kick to it.” She mentions three martini-style drinks based on specific flavor profiles: crème brûlée, chocolate and salted caramel.
At Social, Landers offers a rum and coffee liqueur concoction playfully named We’re Going to Need a Bigger Boat. The bar’s Buttercup combines vanilla, pineapple, cinnamon and rosemary flavors. There are plenty of choices for the more traditionally minded, too. Ask most drinks aficionados to name a dessert cocktail, and some familiar choices will be mentioned. The minty grasshopper (equal parts green crème de menthe, crème de cacao and cream or half-and-half) and brandy Alexander are among the most popular and well-known drinks.
It’s true that cocktails are “usually made more for sipping on their own or enjoying with a meal than an after-dinner dessert,” write the bloggers at northern California’s Sift Dessert Bar. But when a drink’s components are carefully thought out — pairing with a dessert and/or riffing off the flavors of a meal just enjoyed — dessert cocktails truly come into their own. “What you want to think about,” says Landers, “is, do the flavors and textures complement one another?” He suggests that when choosing a creamy dessert, “you might want something [to drink] that has some acidity to cut through that creaminess.”
It makes sense to think about what you’ve just eaten for dinner as well, suggests Wallace. “If you’ve just had the beef bourguignon or steak au poivre with red wine, I always recommend the brandy Alexander,” she says. The brandy Alexander has some rock ‘n’ roll credibility, too: It was the drink of choice of the early ’70s coterie of Los Angeles carousers that included Harry Nilsson, John Lennon, Alice Cooper and Keith Moon. “We ordered them in pitchers,” says guitarist-songwriter Keith Allison, a member of that celebrity drinking club known as the Hollywood Vampires.
For those who want something not so closely associated with getting thrown out of Hollywood bars, Landers notes that wine can actually work in an after-dinner drink as well. “We’ve done wine-based cocktails with Marsala; it matches up great with tiramisu,” he says.
Drinks that combine flavors associated with dessert can pair well, too. Social’s after-dinner drinks menu features the Cafe Toscano, combining Tuaca (a liqueur with flavors of saffron and citrus) and hot coffee. Wallace says the drinks menu at L’Ecluse centers on well-known liqueurs that can be enjoyed neat. “But we decided to mix them together to create our own unique cocktails,” she says.
Baking spices can sometimes serve as the secret ingredient that brings a drink and a dessert together in harmony. “Maybe a little star anise, nutmeg or cinnamon,” Landers suggests. His bar often incorporates those flavors by way of a made-in-house flavored simple syrup or by direct addition of, say, a cinnamon stick. “Infused liquors can help build those sorts of flavors, too,” he says. “That really kicks it up a notch, rather than just relying on basic liqueurs and sugar.”
Trends come and go, of course. But today, cocktail bars that feature or focus on dessert-styled drinks are on the rise. “Dessert bars have been popping up all over the country,”Meredith Bethune writes on the food and drink trend-watching website Tasting Table. In a profile of Austin, Texas, bar Nightcap, she also mentions “a reservations-only dessert tasting menu at U.P. in Brooklyn” and new, popular dessert bars in Raleigh and Washington, D.C.
But whether one goes with a simple digestif or a sweeter concoction to cap off an evening, Wallace notes that the choice is ultimately a personal one. “The French don’t really need many excuses,” she says. “After a hearty meal, you can drink your dessert if you want.”