After-Dinner Drinks like this Irish Cream Coffee Liqueur are timeless, but restaurants are offering more savory options as well, introducing bitter, dry, and citrusy notes to help finish the meal.

The Evolution of After-Dinner Cocktails

After-dinner cocktail selections don't have to be sweet and syrupy, especially with an emerging selection of top-notch products.

Amor y Amargo is a tiny space, a cozy New York City bar that only has room for an equally petite-sized crowd. Yet imbibers flock here, undeterred by the lack of seating, because the cocktails—bitter tipples like the Black Rock Chiller (Suze, Branca Menta, resposado tequila) and 8 Amaro Sazerac—are exactly what they want to sip after a filling, three-course dinner elsewhere in the neighborhood. 

Likewise, at Fiola in Washington, D.C., the Bitter New Yorker (Buffalo Trace bourbon, Averna, Campari, chocolate bitters) is often the preferred way of following Ossobuco tortellini. Yet it wasn’t so long ago that the term after-dinner drink raised eyebrows, conjuring images of dusty cordial bottles filled with pastel-hued liquids on the back bar and cloying, shoddily made Grasshoppers. Today’s postprandial quaff is far more desirable, dovetailing with a growing predilection for deeper, nuanced flavors.

The after-dinner selections have traditionally been stereotyped as sweet and syrupy, says Adam Orzechowski, bar manager of the New Orleans restaurant Trinity, so naturally, he explains, many Americans have long avoided the realm of after-dinner spirits and cocktails. “I think there was a lot of misinformation out there, and with the advent of this whole mixology movement, they just took a back seat,” he explains. “The modern trend is far more balanced, with more focus on pairings. Bitter, dry, and citrusy notes all help finish [the dining] experience.”

At Bar Frances, another New Orleans restaurant, bar manager Craig Seaman isn’t entirely convinced that the beguiling genre has made a full-on comeback, but he thinks the category is garnering more respect because of the availability of top-notch products. “It’s so far ahead of what was on the market 20 or 30 years ago,” he recalls. “Amaro [selections] have exploded; there are so many that you can’t fit them all on a back bar. There are better nut, spice, cream, and coffee liqueurs. If these were going to be the ingredients in after-dinner cocktails because they worked well with what was in the dessert, then we needed better quality. Now we have that.”

While Seaman points out that customers tend to gravitate to classics like Sambuca and Frangelico when capping off a meal, he is delighted when they seek out more unconventional offerings, whether it be a nip of Cognac or sherry. There are no specific concoctions at Bar Frances meant to stand in for dessert, but in general Seaman thinks “the creativity of bartenders has helped make guests take a second look at the menu. They may not have room for dessert, but maybe just one more cocktail.” 

Jenn Harvey, bar manager at the neighborhood bistro Temple Bar in Cambridge, Massachusetts, agrees. “A rising tide lifts all boats, so the resurgence of cocktail culture in general helps after-dinner drinks, especially with amaro gaining traction,” she says. Her customers love experimenting with the Italian digestif. Whiskey is an especially popular way to wind down after, say, a dinner of Salt & Pepper Calamari and Colorado lamb at Temple Bar. It features prominently in Turin Back Time, Harvey’s riff on the Boulevardier with Gran Classico and Tempus Fugit Crème de Cacao. “It has a lovely balance of bitter and chocolaty sweetness,” she points out. 

Her dessert cocktail menu is composed of only a quartet of options, but Harvey strives for each of them to hit a certain mark—whether sweet and creamy, bitter and herbal, citrusy and bright, or classic coffee. Harvey also likes to entice patrons with a few interesting, less-well-known spirits such as Seymour’s Boston Cream Liqueur from Boston Harbor Distillery, a rum and Vermont maple syrup–based elixir that is a locally made alternative to Baileys.

For those guests craving something more adventurous than a dessert wine, Orzechowski likes to steer them to Trinity’s Nightcaps menu, where they can contemplate the Cyn and Juice (Cynar, house-infused sage-orange juice, soda) or the float like Holy Java (Papa’s Pilar Blonde rum, Nocello, café mocha, espresso shot). “Guests have ordered that instead of a dessert because it satisfies a sweet craving and is booze-forward, too.”

From a decidedly utilitarian perspective, the after-dinner drink can be good for you, helping to ease digestion. “What would an epic meal be without the final bow? After-dinner drinks and spirits are often overlooked for their medicinal qualities of allowing the proper, effective, and intoxicating process of digestion to incur,” says Eric Alperin, partner at the Varnish in Los Angeles. “As a Frenchman having spent summers in Paris, the meal wasn’t over until the last bit of fromage had been cut and then re-covered with the cloth, followed by the decanter being placed on the table. Sometimes chocolate, a tart, or fruit accompanied, but there was always a few fingers’ worth of Cognac.”

“Even at the ripe young age of 12,” Alperin continues, “I was given a sip of that golden dram. It burned. I coughed, but I sure as hell wasn’t thinking about my overly full stomach anymore. Years pass, and one learns that the bracing quality of a swig of Cognac or amaro allows for tiny liquid soldiers to settle and carry your meal along the way.” 

Darnell Holguin, head bartender at Fifty Restaurant in New York City, finds “a lot of people are trying to forgo the sugar intensity often found in desserts, so they seek dessert in liquid form,” he says. “I love the idea of aiding digestion with a libation.” As a substitute for an excessively rich dessert, he might tap into the robust love for Scotch as a nightcap by encouraging his guests to spring for the Speyside Meadow.

In the past, says Harvey, after-dinner drinks were an afterthought, focusing solely on the “sweet stuff. Amaretto, coffee liqueurs, and Irish creams mixed together can weigh people down, especially after a meal,” she notes, adding that guests would now prefer to save their sugar intake for actual confections. 

This is why Seaman often recommends “an amaro to help jumpstart digestion. It’s the perfect end to a great meal, and you always feel a bit lighter afterwards.” If diners prefer not to embrace a drink so heavy on the bitters, then he might suggest a Madeira or Port “as a nice finish on the palate without having all the heat of a whiskey or Cognac. If [guests] are really on the fence, I’ll pour a taste for them to try to win them over with a new experience.”

After a meal of potato gratin and grilled Wagyu strip loin dressed with Bearnaise, chances are guests won’t be inclined to dig into a mound of pastry cream. Orzechowski uses this opportunity to explain why a cocktail is a more ideal send-off than a heavy dessert: “Guests will leave on a lighter note and without that overly full feeling.”