So, we’re supposed to be world citizens, right? I can say that when it comes to booze, we’re really not.
Sure, we learned to love vodka, tequila, cognac and even mezcal—but we often avoid the spirits from other countries like the salad bar at Sizzler. There are some spirits we’ll never seem to get a taste for, no matter how many times we try them. However, after 17 years of bartending and occasionally managing bars, I’ve had a lot of stuff pushed on me over the years—and there are indeed some foreign spirits worth trying. Here are a few, even though the likelihood of ever seeing them on a drink list is slim.
Let’s start with aguardiente. I was talking to some Columbians the other day, and, of course, I did the whole, “Hey I’m a gringo, but I know something about Columbia!” thing: I brought up aguardiente. Also, yes, that was the inspiration for this column.
What is aguardiente? It’s a term that basically means “firewater”; more specifically, it’s an anise-forward clear spirit that tastes something like sambuca without the syrupy sugar. It’s also kind of like watered-down rum. I have woken up on a strange couch in East Boston more than once after drinking it, because once you order it at the bar, it tends to keep coming. Thankfully, it often comes with grapes and cucumbers and whatnot; once you try it with a salted, lime-juice-soaked slice of cucumber, you’ll be hooked, too. Some aguardiente comes sugar-free, although there really isn’t that much sugar in it, in any case. Either way, where you wake up will vary.
Now, what about a cocktail? I’ll be honest: I’m not sure what to do with it as a cocktail ingredient. It’s really thin, at just 29% alcohol, and anise is a tough sell. I would just keep it in the fridge—and keep some grapes with it. It’s a spirit that should be on your “must try” list, but don’t expect it to change your life. It’s just good fun.
Baijiu, what do we do with you? This is an ancient spirit from China, and I have a lot of respect for it—but, oof, it can be a tough one. Now, as with every liquor, there are levels of quality, and the ones I’ve tried have been created for the American palate—but it’s still rough. I had a regular back in the day with multiple businesses in China, and when I offered him my “cool new cocktail” featuring baijiu, he said something along the lines of, “I never want to drink another drop of that (redacted) ever again!”
That said, it’s a pretty interesting and varied spirit. It is usually made from sorghum, but can also have rice, corn or wheat as a base. It’s “dry-fermented,” meaning the grains are steamed and left to ferment without yeast, instead using an agent called “qu” (pronounced “chew”). Grappa is probably the best known “dry-fermented” Western spirit, and there are similarities. The chief similarity is the incredibly floral and intense nose, and that both spirits are considered good for digestion. The super tiny “goblets” used for consumption are adorable—and similar to grappa glasses. The flavor of baijiu is often compared to bubblegum, and from my limited wine knowledge, that is a product of carbonic fermentation.
How about a cocktail? Here’s my “Doctor Zaz,” from my first drink program, a lifetime ago. It’s a sazerac, basically, and the bubblegum is accentuated.
- 2 ounces of baijiu
- 5 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
- Half ounce of simple syrup
Stir; strain over rocks; garnish with a lemon swath and a piece of bubble gum.
Here’s a fun one: Batavia arrack. This early spirit, from Dutch Indonesia, was actually born before rum—back in the early 1600s! It’s made from red rice and molasses, and was a prominent base for early punch recipes. Rum showed up not long after and sent Batavia arrack to the proverbial glue factory, but it’s been made and used in the South Pacific ever since. I remember seeing this at a cool liquor store in Western Massachusetts way back in the day; I, of course, bought it—and had no idea what to do with it.
It, like baijiu, is very intense. It has a strong vegetal nose; you mezcal stans out there might enjoy it. This is another one I just usually shoot, but you can certainly substitute it for rum, or make a punch with it. It’s solid as a daiquiri, or a Hemingway daiquiri.
- 2 ounces of Batavia arrack
- 3/4 ounce of lime juice
- Half ounce of grapefruit juice
- Half ounce of simple syrup
- Quarter ounce of maraschino liquor
Shake; strain; serve up in a coupe with a cherry and lime.
Last, but not least, let’s talk about malört. Swedish immigrant Carl Jeppson came up with his own formulation in Chicago, and it’s pretty much consumed fanatically in Illinois more than in Sweden, as far as I hear. The name is Swedish for “wormwood,” and it’s a neutral grain spirit that will absolutely make you wish you hadn’t ordered it. Don’t believe me? Google “malört face.”
I once described this stuff as eating a whole tree, from roots to leaves to citrus peel. In other words, it’s nasty … and I freaking love it. It’s a bartender thing. We love the stuff that makes other people wince. If you can find a bottle (I have seen the Letherbee version of it locally, but not for some time), drink it cold and straight. You could certainly use it like Campari, too, but do so at your own risk. I had a cocktail made with it once that wasn’t too awful—but don’t say I didn’t warn you!
There is a whole world of spirits out there, and I just scratched the surface here; there are many under-loved hooches looking for a home. So go grab a bottle of one of them; wipe the dust off; and let the clerk at the liquor store warn you. Life is too short to just drink vodka, after all!