Cheers in the New Year

In the New Year, you may be feeling the need to lighten up and improve your digestion. Fortunately, you don’t have to undertake one of the unpleasant cleanses or detoxes that are so popular these days. You have many natural options for improving digestion daily.

First off, many herbs can help improve your digestion. Many of these herbs have a naturally strong taste. In fact, you have heard me say — when it comes to greens for your salads and vegetable dishes — “the more bitter, the better.” The same is true for herbs.

The bitter taste reflects the plant’s potent constituents that stimulate digestion, liver metabolism, and bile production. Nature sends this bitter taste as a cautionary signal to eat them sparingly, for medicinal properties, rather than make a big meal out of them.

Bitter is better for drinks too

You can also get “bitters” in traditional alcoholic beverages known as “aperitifs,” which prepare the digestion before the meal, and “digestifs,” which help the digestion after a meal.

The differences between an aperitif and a digestif involve when, how and why you drink it. In Europe, taking a digestive liqueur drink after a big dinner is “de rigeur” (or very fashionable). Plus, a digestif typically has a higher alcohol content than the pre-dinner counterpart. It’s usually served straight or neat, at room temperature, and imbibed slowly.

Digestifs of countless variety are popular all around the world.

Italian amari, or bitters, are often made with carminative herbs, like cardamom, cinnamon, or ginger, which aid digestion and help balance healthy blood sugar levels. These herbs and spices are also found in hot infusions in other parts of the world for the same reasons.

Other popular varieties of digestifs around the world are anise (licorice-flavored) liqueurs, which have both strong flavors and medicinal properties; arak or raki from the Middle East and the Levant; ouzo in Greece; and sambuca in Italy.

Silent monastic orders and deposed royal families living in exile protected their regional variations and “secret recipes” for their digestives. They passed these recipes down through generations.

Alcohol releases medicinal quality of plants

We now know many secret formulas involve steeping bitter herbs, flowers and roots in alcohol. This process releases the medicinal quality of the plant. (You will find many of the very same plant extracts present in modern-day herbal dietary supplements. The FDA allows liquor distillers to maintain their “secret” formulas. But the agency requires herbal supplement makers make no secrets about their ingredients.)

Many of these spirits were seen as “elixirs” in the 1700s, as they help relieve a queasy stomach and support digestion. By the 1800s, tavern keepers infused their stores of alcoholic beverages with botanicals and herbs to help soften the taste and the effects of strong or hard liquor, like bourbon, gin, rum, vodka, or whiskey.

Also, remember that water supplies were not safe to drink in most places, so adding some strong alcohol effectively sanitized the water — making it safe, and savory, to drink.

Eventually, European traditions and formulations made their way into the American cocktail, which accomplishes largely the same purposes.

The American “take” on the aperitif

Today on shelves, I see cinnamon-infused bourbons and whiskeys, which I find a little hard to understand. It must be an acquired taste. Of course, some distillers also add sugar to the liqueur beverages to help counteract the bitter taste. But adding a lot of sugar is by no means necessary.

I find that the infused or flavored vodkas provide both tastes and plant constituents with multiple benefits. As more nearly a pure alcohol, vodkas have the chemical property of extracting the ingredients and flavors right from the plant. These infusions provide additions to the chemical composition of the drink that can’t quite be matched by mixing in ingredients, after the fact, when making a cocktail.

Vodka infusions can be quite medicinal, including lemon or other citrus, which provide good amounts of vitamins, as well as the citron oil’s medicinal properties.

Red pepper vodka provides a nice, flavorful dose of capsaicin from red pepper for joint health. A Bloody Mary is a healthy choice especially as it combines vodka with tomato juice, bitters (e.g. Angostura), celery, and lemon-lime.

Adding a touch of vermouth to make a not-too-dry Martini (from the Italian vermouth brand, “Martini and Rossi”) combines the Artemisia (ancient “wormwood”) remedy, together with the angelica root, juniper berry, and other botanicals in gin. Of course, gin with tonic (quinine) was an effective anti-malarial.

An old-fashioned Manhattan combines whiskey, vermouth, and a touch of Angostura bitters. It is basically the same thing when it comes as an aperitif or a digestive. You can also work digestifs into after-dinner drinks like coffee, a hot toddy, or teas.

These alcoholic beverages provide a good way to get botanical constituents that help with digestion. Plus, I find it adds an entire new level of enjoyment and interest to the meal.