A Tiny Tonic for Over-Indulgence

Last night, after I ate double burger with lettuce, tomato and jalapeños, I sat back on my sofa and gazed contentedly at the TV. For times like this—how can I say this without sounding like an ad?—I like to drink a tiny bottle of Underberg bitters.

This is bitters in the old sense: not a cocktail flavoring, but a digestive aid. The German single-serving 20 ml (just over a half ounce) bottles wrapped in brown paper are meant to be downed in one shot after a heavy meal to make it easier to digest your food. The flavor is herbal, not unlike some cocktail bitters or their cousins, Fernet and Amaro: a combination of cloves, cinnamon, mint, eucalyptus and who knows what else. It’s 88 proof (44 percent alcohol).

New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov wrote a few years ago that digestives “do not so much add to your level of intoxication as subtract from your feeling of fullness,” adding that Underberg “bestow[s] a pleasant, lively exclamation point to a fine meal.”

One of the reasons I like Underberg, aside from the packaging, is that it brings an element of ritual to the dinner table. This is what we do when we finish a meal. It’s like a little tonic for casual (and perhaps frequent) over-indulgence.

I like how Peter Meehan described it in the New York Times style magazine:

“The aftertaste lingers, present but not overwhelming, as a coating of nonspecific but blatantly medicinal herbal flavors slowly suffuses from the throat to the lungs and eyes. Relief is immediate.

Then there’s the Underberg bottle, with its octagonal neck and natural paper printed with textured and lustrously glossy ink. The green cap is printed with a red crest, one of a number of symbols and signatures of the brand that give it the lure of a secret Masonic society beverage, not a Spuds MacKenzie-worthy party one.”

Meehan gives a link to an old Underberg ad. It’s freaky, but it taught me that the proper way to drink the product is not straight from the bottle, but it a tiny stemmed glass.

In New York, you can find Underberg at various places (I’ve never seen it in liquor stores though) for between $5 and $10 for a three pack, including Kalustyan’s, Dean & Deluca, the Park Slope Co-op, and Zabar’s.

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