Broaden Your Bar (Past Whiskey) This Winter
It took long enough, but we're finally in the throes of winter. Serious winter. It's really darned cold out. When you need a bracing drink after trudging home through the snow, it can be tempting to just reach for that ol' faithful bottle of bourbon, tip a dram into a glass of rocks, and hunker down. But you'd be missing out. A whole, wide world of winter spirits (even gin) can warm your bones, and the latest cold snap is as good an excuse as any to give some new ones a try. Here are four alternatives that can pack punch and nuance till spring.
It's probably no surprise that Scandinavians have their very own warming liquor: aquavit. Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish aquavits vary slightly in style, but all share a core of grain or potato spirit that is then flavored with herbs. Caroway and dill are the main elements, giving it a good balance between spicy and perfumed flavors. Whether you opt for something lighter such as Gamle Ode's Dill Aquavit or a darker, barrel-aged bottle such as Vikre's Cognac-barrel-finished variety, aquavit is best sipped from a shot glass, either chilled or poured over a big hunk of ice with a lemon twist.
Tequila's heartier cousin is perfect for when margaritas sound more like a snowball to the face than a refreshing cocktail. I urge you to skip the traditional copita sipping glasses and reach for an extremely complex Mezcal such as one of Del Maguey's single-village varieties and drink it neat (or with a drop or two of water to open it up). An alternative is to use a more flexible variety like Ilegal Reposado and mix it with some Mole bitters and a funky vermouth (like Punt e Mes) for a less-old-fashioned Old Fashioned. Advanced level: Grab a bottle of pechuga, which is funky, almost carnal mezcal distilled with raw meat.
This one is divisive. Bad grappa is like jet fuel (or baijiu). Distilled from the bits left over from wine production, including grape skins, stems, seeds, and must (the juice from said grape detritus), grappa has a woody, vegetal taste. And because grappa is most often young or not aged at all, it lacks the benefit of a barrel's vanilla and caramel flavors to smooth out the edges. When made well, though, grappa can be exciting, with esthery tropical fruit flavors and a strong spicy finish. Most grappas are made by relatively small producers, so it's best to ask your local bottle shop for recommendations. Storica Nera from Domenis is pretty widely available and a good standby.
In warmer months, there's little better for cooling off than a Campari and soda or an Aperol Spritz , but amari (Italian bitter liqueurs) are even better for clearing out a chill. The summer varieties tend to be lower in alcohol, so you'll want something a little more potent and darker. (Think 35 percent to 50 percent alcohol, instead of 20 percent to 25 percent.) Artichoke-based Cynar's 70-proof version is new to the U.S. and is like a welcome punch in the teeth. No, it doesn't taste like artichokes.) The well-known Fernet Branca combines herbal flavors with a minty finish for the perfect wintry nightcap.