Far and Away: Exotic Spirits

What’s exotic? Every spirit you never heard of. But that doesn’t necessarily make it rare or unusual.

Many “exotic” drinks have thousands of years of tradition behind them and a huge native audience. With the cocktail revolution going full bore, American mixologists are scouring the world to find and integrate new (to them) liquors to a consumers thirsty for novelty.

We have found a few spirits from around the globe that seem on the cusp of crossing over into the adventuresome mainstream. Here are six that should be on your radar.

Made in China: Baijiu

Peking Coffee_1

Peking Tavern in Losa Angeles offers a few baijiu cocktails, such as the Peking Coffee, made with baijiu, coffee and horchata.

Baijiu is one of the most-consumed beverage alcohols in the world, yet it’s relatively unknown in the U.S.—so far. Fermented from sorghum and occasionally other grains, and distilled to a high proof (40% to 60%), baijiu has been enjoyed in China for thousands of years. Price and quality range from cheap and abrasive to highly expensive and much sought-after.

The clear liquor is an acquired taste. Baijiu is often classified by “fragrance,” with aroma and taste ranging from light and fruity to umami and funky.

“As far as we know, we were the first restaurant/bar to introduce baijiu to mainstream America when we opened in 2013, and the first to create cocktails with it,” says Andrew Chiu, co-owner of the Peking Tavern. The Los Angeles gastropub bills itself as the “Home of the Bai Jiu Cocktail.”

A cousin from Beijing first introduced Chiu to the spirit. He realized its potential while he was working in China’s capital in 1994 and saw how baijiu was an integral part of the restaurant and bar scene there.

Peking Tavern serves authentic Northern Chinese street food and home cooking; the restaurant’s eclectic vibe inspired by old hutongs or alleyways of Beijing as well as vintage Hollywood’s idea of old Chinatown. “We sell several brands of baijiu, from the inexpensive favorite Red Star Erguotou to Moutai—which is my favorite to sip neat, but it’s very pricy,” Chiu says. The other brands include Shui Jing Fang and HKB.

The sorghum spirit is usually consumed in shots, either at room temperature, which is traditional, or with ice. A fresh celery juice chaser is paired with shots to cleanse the palate.

Peking Tavern’s menu includes a few baijiu cocktails, created by LA mixologist Cari Hah, such as the Wong Chiu Punch (baijiu, hibiscus and lemon juice) and the Peking Coffee (baijiu, coffee and horchata). The Beijing Boiler pairs a Yanjing beer from Beijing with a chilled shot of Erguotou baijiu. Baijiu cocktails average $10, and shots start at $5 and go up to $28 for the Moutai.

A Tuesday promotion offers reduced pricing on cocktails, but hand-selling is key. “We tell our customers that baijiu has been widely consumed in China for literally thousands of years,” says Chiu. “It’s suitable for all occasions, however mostly seen served with a meal because the strong taste is very compatible with Chinese food.”

India Link: Feni

Feni is fermented and distilled from cashew apples, the fruit surrounding the cashew nut; it can also be made from sap of the coconut palm tree. The proprietary liquor comes only from Goa, the smallest and richest state in India, known for its beaches and laid-back atmosphere.

FeniDrinks

India House in Chicago recently added two cocktails made with feni: the Feni sunrise (left) and the Goan Colada.

Dating back to the 1700s, feni is a staple of Indian culture, but just recently exported to the U.S. The taste is smooth with citrus and tropical fruit accents. It was recently given a geographic indication of origin.

“Feni is to India as tequila is to Mexico,” explains Prabhat Jayara, whose family owns India House, a Chicago-based restaurant group with three units, and the new Bombay Chopsticks Indian-Chinese fusion concept.

India House recently began serving Spirit of India feni in its downtown Chicago location. Two cocktails that riff on classics show off the spirit’s versatility, the Feni Sunrise and the Goan Colada (priced at $12 each). The drinks help cool down the spiciness of the restaurant’s cuisine.

“The drinks are doing very well because our customers are looking for an authentic Indian experience,” says Jayara. Management originally thought feni would appeal to the Indian community, but the cashew fruit spirit has garnered interest among other customers, too.

“It’s great to have a liquor that is new and novel, especially in metropolitan Chicago where people are more adventurous,” Jayara says. The program is working so well that the company is rolling out feni to all of its restaurants.

It’s all Greek to Me: Tsipouro and Mastiha

Birthplace of Western civilization, home to the Acropolis and the Parthenon, Greece is well known for its wine. But a few indigenous spirits with long traditions there are now reaching American shores. For instance, tsipouro is a brandy made from pomace (the skins, seeds and stems leftover from the winemaking process), similar to Italy’s grappa. Much of the production comes from Thessaly, Epirus, Macedonia, the Mani Peninsula and the island of Crete. The clear tsipouro weighs in at 40% to 45% ABV. It is sometimes flavored with anise, and some versions are barrel aged.

Ink Bomb

The Ink Bomb at Death Ave Estiatorio & Zythopoieio in New York tints the Greek brandy tsipouro with squid ink and mixes it with fresh lime juice.

Mastiha, also called mastika, is a liqueur seasoned with mastic, a resin gathered from the mastic tree. The small evergreen tree is native to the Mediterranean region and traditionally grown on the island of Chios. It’s a clear liquid that turns milky when mixed with water.

“My first encounter with tsipouro was as a little eight-year-old at a family dinner, when I downed it thinking it was water,” recalls Stamatis Dimakis, bar manager/partner at Death Ave Estiatorio & Zythopoieio in New York. “Mastiha is unique, with amazing floral and grassy notes. When people taste mastiha, it blows their minds because it’s unlike anything they’ve ever tried before.”

Tsipouro, like a brandy, is generally enjoyed neat or on the rocks, according to Dimakis. But he has created a cocktail called the Ink Bomb, which tints tsipouro with squid ink and mixes it with fresh lime juice. “The drink looks dramatic, and the ink gives it a salty finish,” he says.

Mastiha is traditionally consumed after a meal as a palate cleanser or as a dessert cordial. For the summer, Dimakis plans to create a Greek Mojito with the spirit: “Mastiha upgrades the Mojito to something special.”

More familiar to Americans is ouzo, the anise-flavored Greek aperitif. At Death Ave, ouzo spikes strong Greek coffee, and Dimakis is concocting a watermelon-ouzo cocktail for summer.

“When I am behind the bar, my Greek accent really helps sell these drinks,” jokes Dimakis, who concedes the spirits do require a bit of explanation. And he believes incorporating them into cocktails is a good way to introduce the unfamiliar liqueurs.

Gun Bae (cheers!), Korea: Soju

Soju is a Korean national tradition. The low-alcohol (18% to 24%) spirit is fermented and distilled from rice as well as wheat, barley and sweet potato. Soju is similar to Japan’s shochu.

“Soju is one of the most underrated drinks out there,” says An Vo, owner of Dosi Restaurant and Soju Bar in Houston. “Soju’s popularity is picking up; it could be as popular as vodka.”

Dosi offers a number of soju-based cocktails ($12), such as Mai Korean Girl, made with orange- and pineapple-infused soju, cherry syrup and orange juice; and the Lychee-Berry Margarita, mixing raspberry-infused soju with lychee milk and fresh lime and lemon juices.

But most popular, Vo says, are the Sampler Shots ($12). Customers can choose any four house-infused soju flavors from as many as a dozen variations; a 700-ml. carafe of blended soju is priced at $20. The drinks menu also lists 375-ml. bottles of Chamisul classic soju and Chamisul fresh soju ($14 each).

Another traditional Korean beverage is makgeolli. Fermented from rice, makgeolli is sweet and milky with bubbly carbonation and low (6% to 8%) alcohol. Dosi serves it in the customary bowl for $14.

The drinks pair well with Dosi’s “street food” menu, especially jeon, traditional Korean savory pancakes made from a mixture of fresh ingredients in an egg-and-flour batter and pan fried to a crisp and chewy texture.

Dosi is a soju bar pioneer in Houston. A key strategy to boosting the spirit’s popularity is Soju Hour, a Happy Hour variation that runs 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. every day with a late-night version on weekends from 10 p.m. to midnight. During the Soju Hour, all soju cocktails and the Sampler Shots are half-price.

Vo plans to open another place soon—a bar rather than a restaurant—which would put more of an emphasis on soju, much like the traditional drinking establishments in Korea.

Beirut Baby: Arak

Arak is an aniseed-flavored spirit from the ancient levant, the drink of Lebanon and enjoyed throughout the eastern Mediterranean. Wine made from local grapes is distilled twice; aniseed is introduced during the second distillation. The clear liquor, which has an ABV of 40% to 60%, turns milky because of the immiscibility of anise oil and water.

"Cocktails and food pairings for Lebanese Taverna restaurants"

Lebanese Taverna’s Arak 75, a riff on the sparkling wine cocktail made with arak, jallab syrup and cardamom bitters.

“My dad used to tell me that they would drink arak when eating kibbeh nayeh (raw lamb tartar) so that the arak could kill any bacteria,” recalls Grace Abi-Najm Shea, vice president of the Arlington, VA-based Lebanese Taverna Group. “I’m not sure if it’s true, a Lebanese wives tale, or a good excuse to drink arak.”

In its six restaurants and four cafes, Lebanese Taverna serves Mediterranean cuisine and believes that a traditional mezze wouldn’t be complete without a taste of arak. More-traditional customers typically order arak on its own or mixed with a little water.

To entice newcomers, Lebanese Taverna offers cocktails such as the Arak Mule ($10) in which the Lebanese spirit stands in for vodka, and the Arak 75, a riff on the sparkling wine cocktail but with arak, jallab syrup and cardamom bitters.

“The typical American consumer isn’t accustomed to the anise, or ‘licorice’ flavor, so we incorporate arak cocktails, which are delicious and approachable even to the American palate,” says Chad Spangler, director of operations.

What’s next? Says president Dany Abi-Najm: “We will always be using traditional ingredients in new, exciting ways; but look out for a new drink using masthitha liqueur.”

Chicago’s Uber-Bitter: Malört

First distilled in Chicago in the early 1900s by Swedish immigrant Carl Jeppson, malört is a variation on the Swedish bitter bäsk brännvin. Malört translates as “wormwood,” and is notorious for its brutal taste. How brutal? Chicagoans talk about the “Malört grimace.”

The original Jeppson’s Malört brand has trademarked the name and moved production to Florida. But a few craft producers make a version of malört.

“Malört can most certainly be considered an exotic spirit because it delivers a unique flavor profile. Its aggressive personality is not one that is easily forgotten,” says Danny Shapiro, co-owner and bar manager of Scofflaw in Chicago.

The bar sells so much malört that it offers the spirit on tap, with draft shots priced $3. Regulars buy newbies a shot just to watch the look on their faces when they imbibe the super-bitter liquor. “It is an instant camaraderie builder,” says Shapiro.

Malört is a popular call for “Dealer’s Choice cocktails,” challenging Scofflaw’s bartenders to improvise a drink around that bitterness. Cocktails are $8.

“It fits into the theme at Scofflaw, because we see ourselves as a Chicago neighborhood place, and malört definitely holds a place within the hearts of our clientele,” says Shapiro.

The bar owner is skeptical about the spirit’s popularity expanding outside of Chicago, though he notes that malört is a favorite quaff among bartenders, who gift it to industry friends outside the city. “So it’s definitely making its way out there.”

Thomas Henry Strenk is a Brooklyn-based freelance beverage writer who will try any drink once, and most of them twice.

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