Unique Spirits, Part One

A bottle of Strega

We go to a lot of bars and we read a lot of cocktail menus. Despite our breadth of cocktail knowledge, we still often come upon creations with ingredients that are completely unfamiliar to us. If this happens to us, we assume it also happens to you. So, we wanted to dedicate a few articles to explaining some of the relatively obscure spirits and ingredients that you are likely to see on a cool craft cocktail menu.

When it comes to knowing the less common, more unique spirits that are available on the market, bartenders and mixologists are usually way ahead of the general public. Because innovation, creativity, and some element of delightful surprise are all goals of most mixologists, they are always on the lookout for that new and interesting ingredient they can incorporate into a cocktail.

Until recently, aquavit was one of those spirits that only hip, cutting-edge bartenders had heard of. Now, aquavit is growing quickly in popularity and can be found on the cocktail menus of many bars and restaurants around the world. And there are many other spirits that fall into that category, many of which you probably don’t know. Here are three relatively “unknown” or specialty spirits that are becoming more and more prevalent on specialty cocktail menus in the United States.

Strega

Often considered to be Italy’s answer to chartreuse, this herbal liqueur has been made since 1860 in Benevento, Italy. The unique spirit contains about 70 different herbal ingredients, including mint, fennel, cinnamon, juniper, cloves, anise, orris root, nutmeg, and saffron, which gives it its distinct yellow color. Bottled at 80 proof, this sweet liqueur is considered to be a digestif, but is commonly added to cocktails for its piney, minty, and licorice notes. Aged in oak before bottling and release, Strega can be used in cocktails alongside a wide variety of other spirits, including gin, tequila, rye whiskey, and cognac.

Sotol

A bottle of Sotol

As tequila and mezcal have taken center stage on many cocktail menus, other similar but lesser-known specialty spirits have attracted the attention of mixologists. Sotol, the official state spirit of Chihuahua, Mexico, is similar in many ways to tequila but—given its different base ingredient and unique production process—actually tastes quite different. For one thing, sotol is made from a wild indigenous plant (the sotol plant) that looks similar to an agave, but has narrower and finer leaves. It is often described as brighter, crisper, and more vegetal (grassy) than tequila. Some producers favor funkier, more vegetal flavors, even cultivating notes that some describe as “sweaty socks.” Unlike sotol, tequila is mostly farmed (not wild harvested) and is produced with a pot still. Sotol, by comparison, is distilled in a double column copper still. Like tequila, sotol is classified into three categories: Puro, Reposada, and Anejo.

Ancho Reyes

A bottle of Ancho Reyes

This spicy Mexican liqueur can be found on the bar shelves and specialty menus of most innovative cocktail establishments these days. First created in 1927, Ancho Reyes is a chili-infused unique spirit most akin to a spicy rum. To produce it, ancho chilis are macerated in a cane-based spirit for about six months, which creates a fiery, smoky, delicious elixir with a substantial kick. The majority of cocktail enthusiasts describe the prominent flavors in Ancho Reyes as tobacco, chocolate, caramel, vanilla, and cinnamon. Most bartenders and home mixologists put Ancho Reyes to good use by adding it to margaritas, mules, and other traditionally spicy cocktails.

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