No need to give up your Mezcal and moonshine, but these five lesser-known spirits deserve a spot in your rotation—especially now that bartenders around the country are starting to use them in imaginative, delicious cocktails. Here's where to find them, online or at a bar near you.
The Italian liqueur known as nocino was traditionally sipped as a digestif; now bars like San Francisco's The Alembic and Sacramento’s swank Grange are serving cocktails starring this bittersweet spirit, made with walnuts steeped in alcohol for a month or up to several years. At Grange, head bartender Ryan Seng creates killer drinks like the Winter Manhattan (pictured), a blend of house-made black walnut nocino, 12-year Scotch whisky and angostura bitters, all stirred and served up with an orange peel garnish. Want to try your hand at home? Score a bottle of nocino online.
2. Pineau des Charentes
Keep your eyes open for Pineau des Charentes, a blend of fermented grapes and Cognac that's starting to turn up on bar menus and shelves Stateside. Andiron Steak & Sea in Las Vegas and Arnaud's in New Orleans are featuring the French aperitif, and at Hunky Dory, a Houston pub, the house version of an Old Fashioned (pictured) combines Pineau des Charentes with aromatic orinoco bitters and VSOP Cognac, for a super-silky take on the classic cocktail. Photo credit: Kirsten Gilliam Photography
Baijiu (pronounced bye-joe), the biggest-selling spirit in China, is definitely an acquired taste, and it's slowly catching on in the U.S. The white liquor is made from fermented sorghum plants and from wheat that’s been left damp for a month to grow yeasts and fungi, then aged in earthenware vessels for up to 30 years to remove impurities. The end result is a funky-tasting but alluring sip that clocks in at a potent 50 to 60 percent alcohol. Get to know baijiu at home, preferably straight-up at room temperature, or try it in cocktails at New York’s Lumos, LA’s Peking Tavern, Orlando's Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar, or San Francisco's Hakkasan, where the Baijiu Margarita (pictured) combines the heady spirit with mezcal, lime juice, agave nectar, toasted cardamom and a green Chartreuse float. Photo courtesy of Hakkasan/Facebook
New York’s La Contenta specializes in Mexican agave-derived spirits, including bacanora, which has an earthier, more peppery and less smoky taste than most Mezcals. With the Paloma Nortena (pictured), bartender Rigo Cervantes puts his own spin on a classic Paloma, creating a smooth mix of bacanora, grapefruit juice, lime juice, agave nectar and slightly sweet Peychaud's bitters, topped with grapefruit soda. You can also find bacanora-based cocktails at La Biblioteca in Denver and El Vez in New York, as well as by the bottle online.
Meet sotol, a Mexican spirit that's becoming a bartender favorite for its rustic, nutty flavor, less-potent alcohol levels and easy blending. Buy it online, or find it at El Big Bad in Houston, Old Bus Tavern in San Francisco and Takoba in Austin, where the Hacienda de Chihuahua Sotol Reposado (pictured) blends the spirit with cherry heering, fresh orange and lime juices, and hopped grapefruit bitters.
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