Liquids: Nightcaps

Call me a Neanderthal, but I’ve always been amused that we call the year’s most romantic date (or, rather, forced-to-be-romantic date) Valentine’s Day, when the real celebration comes Valentine’s Night. That’s when most of the romance happens—or, at least, should, unless you’re having an interoffice affair that gives you daytime access to your mate. For some, I guess, it’s what happens during the day, too, that matters—like my wife, who expects to be awakened by the doorbell with a delivery of red roses. But if you look along traditional lines at this most Hallmark of holidays, we men are all supposed to be either cooking dinner for our loved ones or making reservations for what always turns out to be a rushed dinner at a crammed restaurant.

Either way, the endgame for men is universally the same: Make dinner or make reservations, then make romance. So there it is. I’ve said it. We have a goal, but, like any good boxing match, we know that going all 15 rounds is far more enjoyable than the typical Tyson one-round knockdown. (Any ear biting is absolutely your own business.)

The goal is pacing. We need to prolong the pleasure of the night, not just the grand finale. But beyond making dinner (or reserving it), what can we really do? A lot, actually. We can think about what we’re going to pour alongside dinner and, just as important, afterward. That means beyond the meal, but before the romance. It’s a perfect opportunity for some old-fashioned showing off—I mean courting—by way of pouring something fabulous that has to be sipped slowly for full effect.

Typically, the kinds of liquids you drink after dinner are classified as digestifs, elixirs that help you to digest the meal and make you feel lighter and refreshed. The problem with the classics, such as fiery grappas and other eaux de vie or bitter amari like Fernet-Branca, is that their high alcohol or medicinal tastes scare away all but those with the strongest of stomachs. There are, however, plenty of alternatives in the after-dinner category. Here are my picks, categorized according to your postprandial mood.

If all goes as planned that evening, your endorphins will give you all the energy you need. So in lieu of coffee, consider a coffee-flavored liqueur such as Kahlúa Especial or Café Bohême, made with French coffee, vodka, Tahitian vanilla, and crème. For the nuttiness of coffee without the caffeine, there’s Frangelico, Licor 43, or Disaronno Originale amaretto. All of these, incidentally, are terrific over vanilla ice cream, too.

This, of all nights, is one when full-on French-style romance is possible. France perfected the after-dinner, pre-amour moment a few centuries ago by way of Cognac and, for those feeling a little more rustic, Armagnac. These are two powerful brandies that have nothing to do with the stuff you drank in high school. In other words, they are silky, rich, nutty, and flavorful. They run the gamut of prices, determined by age, but my solid favorites include Hennessy (splurge on Richard Hennessy), Rémy Martin (Louis XIII), HINE (Antique XO), Delamain (Très Vénérable), Courvoisier (XO Imperial), and Larressingle (XO Grand Réserve) Armagnac. Two Cognac alternatives I very much like are Grand Marnier Cuvée du Centenaire (100th anniversary blend) and a new product by Grand Marnier called Navan, an amalgam of Cognac and black vanilla beans from Madagascar.

Port may just be one of the all-time favorite post-meal drinks. Back when I was a bartender, it was the easiest after-dinner sale because it’s so easy to drink, given its dried fruit flavor, mellow alcohol level, and refreshing acidity. Dependable names to consider include Taylor’s, Fonseca, Croft, and Delaforce.

Scotch is most definitely an acquired taste, but you don’t need a cigar to enjoy it (though if you insist … ). Just like rum, the more it’s allowed to age, the more mellow scotch becomes, often surprising people who wouldn’t go near, say, a Rob Roy. Go near these and you’ll definitely get nearer to your Valentine: the Balvenie (PortWood 21-Year-Old), Glenfiddich (Ancient Reserve 18-Year-Old), Highland Park (18-Year-Old), the Macallan (Fine Oak 15-Year-Old), Laphroaig (10-Year-Old Cask Strength), and the Glendronach (12-Year-Old).

On the sweeter side, there are more than a few wines to consider. While I’ll never turn down a bottle of Sauternes, I tend to like it alongside foie gras or blue cheese. But for special occasions, when I want the wine to do the sweet-talking for me, I pour Dolce, an amazing late-harvest wine that is quite simply liquid gold. Despite its initial sweetness on the palate (think dried apricots, figs, and dates), it’s propped up by a kiss of acidity that makes your mouth water.