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The wonderful world of spirits transcends the traditional bottles of whisky, bourbon, gin, tequila and cognac that we might already know of, and whose flavours we’re familiar with. Alongside these headliners, there’s a plethora of fascinating, highly tasty national spirits. Far from being simply a holiday fling, here we look at 10 local distilled beauties with which you should have a full-blown romance. Where possible, we’ve included links to where imported bottles can be bought in the UK.
An acquired taste, but think of aquavit like a gin, flavoured with herbs and spices from the local area, wherever in Scandinavia that may be. As with gin, each recipe is a closely guarded secret held by the distiller, with some subtle national variation between other Scandinavian producers. It always includes caraway as the main flavour (as juniper is in gin) and a mix of other herbs and spices, including cardamom, cumin, star anise, coriander, fennel and dill. The perfect serve is as a shot from the freezer alongside a beer, with a hearty, meat-based Viking meal.
What to buy: Linie Aquavit
This spirit has strong flavours of caraway and is then filled into ex-oloroso sherry casks, which adds hints of vanilla sweetness. These casks are then stored on the deck of a ship, and shipped twice across the equator. Quite the well-travelled spirit, perfect for pairing with cured meats.
Pisco is the national grape-based brandy of South America. The battle for ‘ownership’ of pisco is a tug of war between Peru and Chile, despite the former actually having a town of the same name. A clear spirit, it varies in flavour with the choice of grapes used having a huge effect on the overall style. It is best enjoyed in one of the greatest refreshing cocktails, the pisco sour, which itself is seeing a resurgence of popularity.
What to buy: Pisco 1615 Italia
The lighter, fruity, floral notes on offer here are down to the Italian grape variety, which gives fresh green apple, elderflower and citrus flavours. Read more on the Pisco 1615 website.
Available from Amathus (£38.30)
Distilled spirits are big business in China, a country with a particular thirst for Scotch and cognac. However, China does have its own home-grown spirit, called baijiu. Made from grains such as wheat, barley, sorghum and sometimes rice and beans, it is naturally fermented either in chambers under the ground, in clay pots or in a mix of the two. Taste-wise, it really has to be experienced to be understood. The flavours are herbal, slightly fruity and at times medicinal, coupled with a heavily fermented fruit and hay note. One key tasting note is soy sauce. Yes, indeed!
What to buy: Shui Jing Fang Wellbay
From the world’s oldest distillery (really, it’s in the Guinness Book of Records!) this is a baijiu that really packs in the flavour.
Soju (South Korea)
Probably the biggest selling spirit you’ve never heard of! The Korean brand Jinro (see below) is actually one of the world’s largest spirit brands, consumption of which is almost exclusively limited to South East Asia. Distilled from rice, grain and potatoes, soju is often a low ABV spirit and has a similar flavour profile to a weak vodka with perhaps a lightly fermented white wine note, coating the palate as it dries. Soju can be used to spice up fresh juice, or for that matter, any soft drink, which has made its appeal almost irresistible to its huge audience.
What to buy: Jinro Soju
Despite there being other brands, the sheer scale of Jinro makes it difficult to ignore, especially now it is being more widely exported. The eight flavours in Jinro make it perfect for mixing into long drinks over ice.
Feni (Goa, India)
In Goa, around 6,000 distilleries are known to exist, each producing different variations and quantities of this unusual spirit. Feni is derived by fermenting and distilling the juice from the cashew apple (not to be confused with the smaller, significantly harder cashew nut) and due to its unique flavours, the Goan distillers have successfully sought to have the spirit protected by Regional Indication. Feni is quite tart on the palate and despite having a slightly thin, spirity undertone, has a powerful, crisp, almost freshly cut green apple note, alongside a distinct nuttiness, which will take some getting used to if you’re trying the spirit for the first time.
What to buy: Cazulo Cashew Feni
Cazulo also produce feni made from coconut and both spirits deliver a distinctive, fruity, zesty taste, alongside a spirity, perfumed aroma. They work best as the base for a long refreshing drink over ice. Read more on the Cazulo website.
The national spirit of Japan, this white spirit is hugely popular in its native country but, unlike the international praise being heaped on whisky distilled in the country, has not really managed to extend its footprint beyond any of the four main islands of Japan. Often distilled from barley, rice, buckwheat or potatoes, it comes in two main forms: multiple distilled and single distilled. As much as the producers of shōchū will be keen to tell you that their product is NOT sake (it now outsells this better-known Japanese drink in Japan), it does have a similar flavour profile, giving off a sweet palate of dried flowers, with some seaweed, coastal notes and a fermented orchard fruit note to follow.
What to buy: Toyonaga Honkaku rice shōchū
This is made from organic rice and has a wonderfully balanced note of light citrus zest and fresh melon slices, which lead into a drier, spicy note, with slight heat prickles of fresh ginger.
Grappa is a true Italian delight. It is a spirit that wonderfully typifies the craft, care and attention to some of the nation’s favourite grape varieties and has started to develop an almost cult-like following amongst spirits connoisseurs worldwide. Grappa is Italy’s oldest spirit, with roots in the 14th century and the technique of distilling pomace (essentially the leftover skins and pips from wine production) has been practiced, refined and mastered by generations of family-run distilleries. Aromatic grapes such as Muscat and Gewürztraminer are popular with distillers for their wonderful fragrant fruity/floral balance but heavier varieties like Merlot, Amarone and Barolo give the spirit an enhanced dark fruitiness, rich in jammy sweetness, spice and tannic dryness.
What to buy: Capovilla Grappa di Barolo
The undisputed master of the grappa stills, Vittorio Capovilla is a man who truly understands the subtle nuances that occur when producing a top quality, artisanal spirit. This expression, made using the Barolo grape variety is very plummy and rich, with a subtle cherry note, coupled with some tannic dryness and notes of cinnamon on the finish.
This clear, aniseed flavoured liqueur, which is usually bottled with a high ABV, is hugely popular across the eastern Mediterranean. This liqourice-tinged spirit is usually derived from using grapes as its base. Lebanese Arak – or Lion’s Milk as it is known locally, is made from the grapes of the last harvests from late September, which are left to ferment in barrels for several weeks. The resulting mixture is then distilled several times and mixed with a small quantity of aniseed flavouring. Mixed with water, it obtains its uniquely cloudy or ‘louche’ appearance because of the essential oils found naturally in its heady flavouring. Expect a flavour profile similar to Turkish raki or Greek ouzo.
What to buy: Kefraya Arak
Produced by Kefraya, one of the oldest Lebanese wineries in the West Bekaa Valley, whose vines date back to 1951, this arak is an elegant spirit, distilled for four times from a base of Lebanese grapes. Despite retaining all the punch of a great arak, it has wonderfully balanced aromatic, spicy notes. Best drunk over ice, diluted with chilled water. Read more on the Kefraya site.
Rye whisky (Denmark)
If there’s one spirit that’s guaranteed to give a hip, on-trend bartender a hot flush, it’s rye whisky. This once niche spirit, with its peppery, spicy flavour, is now becoming a seriously cool cocktail ingredient and is also fantastic sipped over ice. Traditionally, rye whiskies have been the plaything of the US distillers, but in recent years, European craft producers have explored growing and distilling rye, with some excellent results, so much so that an undeniable style has emerged. Expect European rye whisky to become one of the next big trends on your favourite cocktail bar menu.
What to buy: Stauning Young Rye
Over in Denmark, the Stauning distillery has explored the complex spicy flavours of rye, maturing it in a variety of cask types, including brand new oak barrels – to stunning effect. Such is the popularity that the distillery has recently embarked on a huge expansion project, which will allow them to produce a greater volume of this highly complex, peppery whisky.
Once labelled the ‘enfant terrible’ of the spirits world, absinthe gets a really hard time and is banned from sale in several countries. This is mostly thanks to its ludicrously high strength and mythology surrounding one of its primary ingredients – grand wormwood, which, when consumed in generous quantities, is said to contain hallucinogenic properties. In fact, to obtain this supposed higher state of mind, one would have to drink enough to result in an alcoholic coma before ‘la fée vert’ (the green fairy, often used to illustrate the effect) ever appeared. Although its origins lie in Switzerland during the 18th century, many places have now started distilling their own absinthe, especially the US, resulting in a deliciously diverse spirit, which isn’t scary at all.
What to buy: St George Absinthe Verte
St George is largely responsible for the growth in craft distilling in the US, having established itself back in 1982. This absinthe was the first ‘legal’ US absinthe to be distilled in the US since the ban on producing the spirit was lifted in 2007. It’s hugely herbaceous, with a touch of delicate floral notes when water is added.
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This review was last updated in March 2018. If you have any questions, suggestions for future reviews or spot anything that has changed in price or availability please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Which spirits do you like to buy on your travels? We’d love to hear your tips for exotic snifters in the comments below…