5 Forgotten Spirits and How to Use Them
These elusive liquors will elevate happy hour to undiscovered heights.
One of the things that’s so great about booze is that you can make it out of damn near anything. There’s always something new to discover in the world of spirits: an old recipe gets rediscovered, a new recipe gets revisited, and so on. But drinks that your grandpa liked and you’ve never even heard of? It’s like a history lesson without the boring parts. And a higher alcohol content.
These bitter liqueurs never went out of fashion in Italy, but in the States, our preference toward sweetness has prevented this spirit from ever quite taking root. The whole category of amari is terrifically diverse: each amaro has its own recipe, and the spirit is distilled with anything from roots and berries to bark and herbs—even black truffles.
“It’s like making a tea, but making it in a spirit instead of in water,” explains Nick Korn of Silvertone in Boston.
Among the many amari, the carciofo may be the most unusual. While all amari have a bitter component, the bitterness in carciofo comes from its use of the artichoke flower. Yeah, that makes it an artichoke-flavored liqueur, and it’s just as perversely delicious as it sounds.
“The flavor of Cynar is an intense rich lushness, followed by this crazy wood finish, like you’re chewing on a popsicle stick,” Nick says, referencing one of the best (and most readily available) brands of carciofo on the market.
One great and familiar cocktail that gets beefed up with the addition of an artichoke brew? The classic Manhattan. “It’s already dry, aromatic, and spiced, so if you substitute some of the vermouth with Cynar, you’re adding depth,” Nick explains.
You know about absinthe and its semi-fictitious reputation as the crazy wild child of liquor land, but chartreuse, which also hails from France and shares the acid-green color scheme, actually has a much more secretive and strange history. The recipe was originally an Elixir of Long Life that was given to some Cathusian monks back in the 17th century. The recipe developed over time, it was secreted away during the French Revolution, and is currently mixed by only two monks who know the recipe for this herbal liqueur.
“The Carthusian Monks have kept the wonderful secret of what exactly is in chartreuse and why it tastes so amazing,” Armani Ramos of American Cut says. “It’s a liqueur that can be sipped before or after any meal. I love it in a cocktail like The Last Word.” A combination of chartreuse, gin, maraschino liqueur, and lime juice, this under-appreciated Prohibition-era cocktail is a great way to get into this vegetal, vibrant liqueur.
Crème de Violette
If you’re a fan of the classic cocktail culture that’s been revitalized in recent years, you should try out Crème de Violette. It’s the critical component of beautiful classic cocktail The Aviation, the only blue cocktail you should ever really drink (yeah, go ahead and pitch any curaçao you have lying around that isn’t colorless).
Rothman and Winter make a beautiful, brightly-colored Crème De Violette that tastes intensely and purely of violet petals — it’s not exactly intended for sipping on its own, but it’s gorgeous in a glass of Champagne or mixed into any number of vintage cocktails. Creme Yvette is similar and more layered, with equal parts violet and berry flavors. It’s a thicker liqueur, and less traditional, but just as good if you’re into a variation.
We’re pleased as rum punch that the tiki bar trend doesn’t look like it’s dying out anytime soon. If you want to make your own classic tiki cocktails at home, falernums are something you’ll want to stock.
“I love Velvet Falernum, a rum-based liqueur that has cloves, ginger, and lime zest. What Drambuie is to Scotch whisky, Velvet Falernum is to rum,” Brian Miller of Slowly Shirley tells us. “It’s based in rum, so it pairs beautifully with rum drinks.” In the same way that you make a Rusty Nail (one part Drambuie, a Scotch-based liqueur, to two parts Scotch), you can use Velvet Falernum in a rum beverage. It’s killer in a mai tai, rum swizzle, zombie…you get the idea.
If you are feeling extra DIY, you can even make the stuff yourself. “I’ve seen it done with key limes, and Paul Clarke’s Falernum #9 Recipe is excellent,” Brian says. We don’t disagree, but it’s a 24-hour-long process that involves roasting almonds and straining stuff through a cheesecloth…we’re not saying the process wouldn’t be worth it, we’re just saying that we’re more inclined to lounge around and let the liquor come to us.
Yeah, yeah, we know you’ve heard of vermouth. But chances are high that you’ve never tried it outside of a James Bond-inspired martini, and that you’ve had the same dusty bottle of Martini & Rossi open in the back of your bar for the past two years (no shade towards this venerable vermouth brand intended). The truth is, you’ve probably been using vermouth all wrong.
“If you ever go to Italy, there’s apertivo hour, and people are always drinking vermouth and soda. It’s a great combination,” says Pam Wiznitzer of Seamstress. But like any other wine you’ve ever drunk, it doesn’t taste great when it’s super old. “It has a longer shelf life than regular wine, but you’ve got about 2-3 weeks in your fridge before it’s not really good anymore,” Pam says. Yup, vermouth isn’t just something to swirl around your glass before drinking some gin, it’s actually an aromatized wine, and it’s perfectly sippable all by itself.
So throw out that ancient bottle and learn something from old-school Italians. How do you go about properly enjoying a vermouth? “Martini & Rossi Bianco is great—you can just enjoy it on the rocks. Or find some special ones. I’d recommend Noilly Prat Ambre, a white vermouth that is aged in barrels and then bottled. Also Cocchi Americano Rosa: it’s a rose vermouth and it’s beautiful. Just take a slice of grapefruit, give it a swirl, and sip. Or add a little bit of Campari and soda to it and make a spritz.”
Photos by Bert Hardy/Picture Post/Getty Images