Alcoholic beverages thought to help with digestion have existed since the middle ages – or perhaps even earlier.
Monks and alchemists in Europe used herbs and spices to make drinks like Hippocras which were thought not only to have medicinal properties but also to be aphrodisiacs. King Louis XIV of France was known to be a fan.
Digestifs remain highly popular in France today. A tipple of calvados, cognac or armagnac after a hearty meal is seen as a luxurious way to help the digestive system.
At the other end are apéritifs (apéro) such as kir, white wine or pastis that are thought to sharpen the appetite before a meal.
But the science suggests that digestifs do little to aid digestion.
A 2010 scientific paper titled, ‘Effect on gastric function and symptoms of drinking wine, black tea, or schnapps with a Swiss cheese fondue’, found that consuming alcohol after a meal actually slows down the digestive system by up to 50 percent.
The reason for this is that alcohol blocks the secretion of gastrin – a hormone that that stimulates the release of gastric acid, which is a key component of the digestive process. The stronger the alcohol, the greater this blocking effect is.
Alcohol is also highly calorific. In consuming it, drinkers are adding to the overall amount of calories that the body has to digest.
The only physiological benefit of drinking a digestif after a meal is that alcohol is a vasodilator, meaning it opens up blood vessels and prevents muscles from tightening. This allows the stomach to expand and can bring a short-term feeling of relief if you have eaten too much food.
Whatever the science says, French people seem unlikely to stop drinking digestifs anytime soon.
“Digestifs maybe don’t have the digestive qualities that we attribute to them but the ritual means that they have a place. They allow us to stretch an evening on and have conversations, to relax, to chat, to laugh and to take our time,” writes sommelier Véronique Rivest.