A digestivo comes at the opposite end of a meal to the aperitivo, and as the name implies, it is intended to help you to digest.
A popular digestivo in Italy that you may be offered in a restaurant is grappa, a clear spirit made from crushed grape skins, pips and stalks left over from winemaking. Grappa is often sipped alongside a coffee after a meal and can actually be added to the coffee to make a caffè corretto, or drunk as a chaser to an espresso which is called an ammazzacaffè. For centuries grappa was a drink of the people, inexpensively produced as a by product of winemaking, and just right for keeping the cold out in the winter. However, during the last fifty years, distillers realised that the quality could be improved by using different grape varieties, modern distilling techniques and cask conditioning in wooden barrels. Now we can find a vast range of grappas from the colourless young grappa giovane to the light honey-coloured, wood-matured grappa invecchiata and many are produced using a single named grape variety.
Among the many digestivi there is a particular group called amari which are herbal infusions with their origins lost in time and their digestive powers commanding reverence and respect. Don’t confuse amari with the well known sweet liqueur called Amaretto; amari can be made with juniper, aniseed, fennel or even ginger and they have a quite different complex bitter sweet taste.
The ancient Romans knew that herbs and honey in wine helped the digestion and later in history it was monks who perfected these cordials claiming all kinds of medicinal properties. Still today many monasteries use herbs and roots they grow themselves to produce these liquors from recipes handed down in secrecy through the centuries. Home made versions also developed in every part of Italy using local common herbs in varying proportions which have resulted in a wide range of nationally known brands. Look out for Amaro Lucano, Montenegro, Averna, or China-Martini. The alcohol levels of these drinks vary from about 16% to 35% and some even higher, so although easy to drink, they can interfere with your sightseeing plans!
Another way to finish your meal in Tuscany is with the sweet amber wine called Vin Santo. This well known wine is usually served in small glasses with cantuccini, quite hard almond biscuits also known as biscotti di Prato, which are softened by dipping them into the wine. Bunches of white Trebbiano and Malvasia grapes are hung up on racks for several weeks and sometimes months before pressing to allow them to lose moisture and to allow their natural sugars to become concentrated. The resulting wine is aged in wood for at least three years before it is bottled and sold.