PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 April, 2009, 12:00am

The idea that alcohol helps to stimulate appetite before a meal and can help settle a challenged stomach afterwards is scientifically questionable but culturally well entrenched - particularly in western Europe. Dieticians may quibble, but gourmets agree that a serious lunch or dinner is incomplete without its overture and finale in the form of an aperitif and a digestif.

Different countries have different drinks of choice for these purposes. As aperitifs - the French word derives from the Latin aperire meaning 'to open' - light, dry white wines and sparkling wines are universally popular, but of the other options sherry is a popular choice in Spain and Britain, bitters are likely to be offered in Italy, ouzo in Greece, raki in Turkey, and in France pineau des Charentes, pastis, kir or - oddly enough - port.

The United States did not invent the ingredients of the dry martini - gin (the Netherlands) or vodka (somewhere in Russia or Eastern Europe) - or indeed vermouth (Italy), but it did give us that classic cocktail and the 'three-martini lunch' before performing an abrupt about-face and insisting that the midday meal should be washed down with nothing more interesting than mineral water. H.L. Mencken called the dry martini 'the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet', and many people still find it an excellent appetite sharpener.

One notable common thread running through several popular aperitifs around the Mediterranean region is the influence of the anise plant, which flavours pastis - the most popular brands being Pernod and Ricard - ouzo, raki and Italy's sambuca, all of which can be served at either end of the meal, or at both.

A taste for sweet aperitifs is a primarily French phenomenon, as is the practice of punctuating a meal with a shot of neat spirit to aid digestion ahead of the next course.

Trou Normand is the term for the time-honoured practice of swallowing a shot of calvados - Norman apple brandy - during a mid-meal break. Calvados can also be served as either an aperitif or digestif, aged versions being an alternative to cognac and armagnac.

There are traditions but no rules. Whisky and cognac, although usually considered after-dinner drinks, can also serve as aperitifs.

Relatively light single malt whiskies from the Scottish Lowlands, such as Glenkinchie and Auchentoshan, go well with canap?s - particularly Scottish smoked salmon - as can some of the subtler Highland spirits.

Bill Lumsden, Glenmorangie's head of distilling and whisky creation, recommends the original 10-year-old Glenmorangie as an aperitif dram, although on a recent visit to Hong Kong at the Kee Club he introduced perhaps the definitive Glenmorangie digestif - Signet, a richly complex, multilayered spirit definitely made for post-prandial contemplation.

'I imagine that most people will probably drink this neat or on the rocks. I can also see people drinking it with a nice cigar. I can see people having it with coffee and chocolate. It's that kind of whisky. It's very intense. We've said to people that in some respects it's the dark side of Glenmorangie. Not quite Darth Vader, but something a bit deeper, a bit more mysterious than the traditional style,' Mr Lumsden said.

Classic Highland and Speyside single malt whiskies such as Aberlour, Balvenie, Dalmore, The Glenlivet, The Macallan and Oban are also popular digestif choices in many Hong Kong restaurants - now increasingly offered as alternatives to the more traditional cognac and armagnac.

The most powerful whiskies from the Scottish islands - Highland Park from Orkney, Talisker from Skye, and Ardbeg, Bowmore, Caol Ila, Lagavulin and Laphroaig from Islay - also come into their own when the coffee has been poured. All those noble spirits are known for individual character, but there are connoisseurs who maintain that the finest Scotch whiskies are the product of the blender's art - Chivas Regal and Johnnie Walker Black Label are the most popular choices or, for the more extravagantly minded, their deluxe cousins, Royal Salute and Blue Label.

Any serious fine dining restaurant will usually have a good range of liqueurs, although given that hundreds are produced worldwide, no list can truly claim to be comprehensive.

Alcohol may not really be a stomach settler, but the fruit or herbal content of some of these drinks quite possibly has a soothing effect. Chartreuse has been drunk since the 18th century, while Grand Marnier and Cointreau date from the 19th. Most coffee- or cream-based liqueurs, such as Tia Maria or Bailey's, are of more recent provenance.

Armagnac, the fiery spirit of Gascony, like single malt whisky, is an individualist's drink and also continues to feature prominently on the digestif trolleys of Hong Kong's French restaurants, often in decades-old, vintage-dated bottles. In Italian restaurants, diners who like to end their meals with a warm glow often choose grappa, an increasingly wide selection of which is now available here.

For sheer velvety smoothness, however, XO cognac is hard to beat. Martell Cognac's heritage director Jacques Menier was another recent visitor to town, introducing the house's new top-of-the-range cognac, L'Or de Jean Martell. Mr Menier believes that Martell XO with a dash of Perrier water - with which he preceded a formal introductory lunch, prepared by Richard Ekkebus at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental's Amber - is an excellent appetite sharpener, but reserved the rare and expensive L'Or for the end of the meal. It doubled wonderfully as a partner to the dessert - a chocolate sphere containing salted caramel ice cream served with a sauce made from the same cognac - and as a superb digestif with petits fours.

Hedonistic indulgences such as L'Or de Jean Martell - or its competitor, Hennessy's Richard, dedicated to the founder of the house and luxuriously presented in a fine crystal decanter - may be difficult to justify in these harsh times, but Martell's Cordon Bleu, Hennessy XO or the equivalent products from Camus, Courvoisier or Remy Martin are as decadently delightful a conclusion to a meal as any reasonable diner could wish.

They may or may not aid the digestion, but they certainly please the palate.

Palate pleasers

Fortified wines may be served either as digestifs or as aperitifs but are not considered fashionable. The good news is that this means they can offer excellent value for money.

Drier sherries - fino, manzanilla, amontillado, palo cortado and unsweetened oloroso - make good aperitifs, while sweetened oloroso works well as a dessert wine.

Port is usually served at the end of a meal, often with cheese, except in France where it is served as an aperitif. In Portugal and Macau, there is a tradition of beginning a meal with a glass of white port. Vintage, late-bottled vintage or tawny ports may be served before digestif spirits or liqueurs, or instead of them.

Dry sercial madeira also makes a good aperitif as an alternative to sherry, while the sweeter bual and malmsey madeiras can be substituted for port. Less assertive in alcohol than spirits, the classic fortified wines are well worth investigating.




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