Serve Your Friends Obscure Spirits

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By Chantal Martineau Posted October 21, 2015

Here, cocktail enthusiasts recommend the most exciting spirits that you’ve never heard of, plus why and how to drink them.

We all have our go-to drinks. There’s a certain comfort in having your cocktail order in your back pocket, carefully considered and consistently pleasing, ready to be trotted out at a moment’s notice. But routine can get dull. This year, shake things up (and impress your dinner guests) by experimenting with new and unfamiliar spirits, like China's baijiu, or Mexico's sotol, or Ireland's poitín—the precursor to the country's whiskey. To guide you on your journey, we rounded up a handful of impassioned enthusiasts for recommendations on the most exciting spirits that you’ve never heard of, plus why and how to drink them—cocktail recipes included.

Baijiu
Bartender Orson Salicetti first tasted baijiu when one of his regulars brought some back from the Beijing Olympics. Years later, he hopes to introduce the Chinese spirit to the world… or at least to New Yorkers. He opened Lumos, a bar dedicated entirely to baijiu, earlier this year. It’s a gamble: Baijiu is an acquired taste—the two most popular types are “sauce aroma” (as in soy) and “strong aroma.” Though virtually unknown outside China, it’s the most consumed spirit in the world by volume. At least 600 years old, baijiu is most commonly made from one or more of the following: rice, millet, wheat, barley and sorghum, fermented in underground mud pits and aged in earthenware jugs. Bottles range from $1 to thousands. Per Chinese tradition, a bottle is never left unfinished. Salicetti recommends infusing baijiu with dried fruits, such as dates, figs, cranberries and apricots. It also lends itself well to Asian flavors, like exotic fruits and sesame.

Sesame Colada
by Orson Salicetti, Lumos, New York City

1 1/2 ounces Hong-Kong Baijiu (a.k.a. HKB)
2 ounces grilled pineapple juice (peel and slice a pineapple, grill for 30 minutes, then blend and strain)
1 ounce mangosteen juice (use canned mangosteen in light syrup, take out seeds, blend and strain)
1 dessert spoon of white sesame paste
Black sesame seeds

Combine all ingredients except the sesame seeds in a shaker with ice. Shake vigorously and strain into a glass. Garnish with black sesame seeds.

Bacanora, Raicilla and Sotol
Tequila is no longer the only liquid export from Mexico. In recent years, bartenders have been raving about mezcal, the wilder, smoke-kissed agave spirit. Mixologist Alex Valencia of La Contenta in New York is taking his love of Mexican elixirs even further, concocting drinks with bacanora, an agave spirit from Sonora; raicilla, an agave spirit from Jalisco; and sotol, a spirit made from a different plant altogether. Sotol—"desert spoon," in English—is a distant cousin of agave native to Chihuahua, Durango and Coahuila. Bacanora works much like other mezcals in cocktails, playing off earthy and spicy notes; raicilla can be a challenge given its intense flavors, which range from tropical fruit to funky cheese. Sotol, however, is incredibly flexible, says Valencia. He loves how well it works in cocktails. Pineapple, jalapeño, fresh herbs—sotol can dance with them all.

Matador
by Alex Valencia, La Contenta, NYC

2 ounces Sotol Por Siempre
3/4 ounce lemon juice
3/4 ounce pineapple juice
1/2 ounce agave syrup
2 cilantro sprigs

Combine the ingredients in a shaker with ice. Shake hard, then double-strain and serve up in a cocktail glass.

Poitín
Irish whiskey is the fastest-growing spirit in the U.S., but few American enthusiasts have ever heard of poitín. This comes as a surprise to Dónal O’Gallachóir, one of the founders of Glendalough Distillery, who says every Irish person knows the spirit. Poitín is the precursor to Irish whiskey the way mezcal is the precursor to tequila, he explains. It was first documented in 584, banned in the 1660s and consumed illicitly until legalized in 1997. Distilled from malted barley and Irish sugar beet, it’s traditionally aged in virgin oak casks that once held dry goods. Because the barrels aren’t charred, the spirit ends up clear in the bottle. Poitín can also be aged in sherry casks, which impart a whiskey-like character and color to the spirit. In cocktails, the clear expressions of poitín tend to be shaken and the sherry cask–aged tends to be stirred, says O’Gallachóir.

St. Kevin
by Derek Almeida, Park Restaurant & Bar, Cambridge

1 ounce Glendalough Sherry Cask Poitín
1 ounce Rittenhouse Rye
1 Demerara sugar cube or 1 bar spoon of Demerara simple syrup
5 dashes Angostura bitters
5 dashes orange bitters

In a mixing glass, muddle the Demerara cube with the Angostura and orange bitters until dissolved. Add the poitín, rye, ice and stir. Strain into a rocks glass over ice.

Nordic Spirits
For years, Avery and Janet Glasser, founders of the successful bitters brand Bittermens, were routinely being gifted bitter elixirs from around the world. When friends brought them a wormwood-based aquavit from Sweden, they were intrigued. They delved into Nordic spirits and flavors, hoping to import the bitter aquavit, and became so enamored with the flavors that they ended up creating their own Nordic spirits brand. Since launching Bäska Snaps, they’ve introduced Solståndet, a malted aquavit, and Salmiakki Dala, a Nordic version of fernet. The pair say they tasted many a Nordic salted licorice candy in preparation for crafting their latest product, which came out just in time for the savory cocktail craze to hit.

Improved Chocolate Cocktail
by Brian Adee, Loa, New Orleans

1 1/2 ounces Solståndet malted aquavit
3/4 ounce carrot juice (microwave whole carrots for 6 minutes on high before juicing)
1/2 ounce Salmiakki Dala
1/4 ounce simple orgeat (equal parts almond milk and sugar, stirred until dissolved)
1/4 ounce coffee liqueur
Sprig of dill

Shake all ingredients with plenty of ice and double-strain into a coupe. Garnish with dill.

Pisco
Growing up in Peru, Johnny Schuler was only vaguely aware of his national spirit. Pisco, a clear grape brandy, dates from the 16th century, but its popularity had wavered over time. Schuler would eventually become a restaurateur and, given his astute palate, a wine taster. After judging a pisco competition, he was blown away by the spirit’s potential for complexity. He set out to make his own and reintroduce it to his fellow countrymen. He’s now the master distiller of Pisco Portón and a leading authority on the spirit. He spends his free time with bartenders around the world preaching the pisco gospel and welcoming guests to his distillery on the Pisco Trail. Here he’ll happily mix you up a Chilcano, a Peruvian refresher that mixes pisco and ginger beer. Schuler shares his own recipe for the popular drink:

Chilcano
by Johnny Schuler, Pisco Portón

2 ounces Pisco Portón
1 ounce fresh lime juice
2 dashes Angostura bitters
ginger beer or ale
slice of fresh ginger

Combine the first three ingredients in a highball over ice. Top up with ginger beer or ale and give a gentle stir. Garnish with a slice of fresh ginger.

Spanish Brandy
Instead of capping off your dinner party with a cognac or an armagnac, look to Spain for your after-dinner brandy. If you didn’t know that Spanish brandy was a thing, don’t worry. Nicolas Palazzi, founder of PM Spirits and a certifiable spirits geek, was only introduced to it several years ago on a sherry-tasting trip. He brought his hosts some cognac, which he imports, and they returned the kindness with a bottle of Brandy de Jerez. The first taste was a revelation. Often mass-produced and laced with additives, Spanish brandy has long suffered from a poor reputation; Palazzi decided to create a line of fine, unadulterated Spanish brandies. He began seeking out prime casks of it, and his latest lot of single-cask Navazos Palazzi Spanish Brandy, aged in used Amontillado casks, is hitting the market now.

F&W's new series reveals the best ways to maximize your food year through travel, wine, cooking, tech, style, events and experiences. Use #BESTFOODYEAR on Twitter and Instagram to tell us about the ones you want to try. We'll continue to share more tips with the hashtag throughout the year and want to hear about how you celebrate food every day, too.

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