Big booze is marching ever forward into the future of imbibing, with such on-trend concoctions as açai-infused liqueur and sriracha-flavored vodka. But small American distillers are instead looking to the past, drawing inspiration from long-forgotten elixirs from the Old World to tempt modern tipplers.
They first took note of bartenders around the country championing the bittersweet pleasures of traditional Italian amari, like Campari, Averna and Nonino — and French aperitifs like Lillet, Suze and Salers. Then came even bolder potions like inky fernet and medicinal malört, as well as sweet liquids like sloe gin. Instead of sipping these over ice or with tonic or however they may once have been imbibed back in Europe, American bartenders were mixing these mysterious brews into craft cocktails. Why not make our own? America’s microdistillers thought to themselves. And soon, American drinkers were introduced to local, small-batch versions of these historical spirits and liqueurs.
If you have an old-timey palate, but a passion for local booze, keep an eye out for these sweet, bitter and herbal elixirs inspired by Old World recipes, but made right here in the U.S. of A.:
1. Leopold Bros Fernet
American bartenders, especially those in the Bay Area, have embraced Fernet-Branca in a way that confounds even the count who bears the dark, brooding liquid’s name. Downing a shot of the intensely herbal liqueur somehow became a badge of honor among those behind the stick. For the rest of us, it’s a prized cocktail ingredient and the go-to digestivo when nothing else will do. Leopold Bros, a family-owned Colorado-based distillery, makes gin, vodka, whiskey, absinthe and several liqueurs, including a sharp, biting fernet. Said to contain more than 20 botanicals, spearmint and aloe give this homegrown fernet a cool menthol accent.
2. R. Franklin’s Original Recipe Bësk
For reasons shrouded in mystery and lore, Chicagoans are champions of malört. This aggressively bitter spirit is based on a Swedish concoction made with wormwood and designed to settle the stomach. The way Chicago bartenders and cocktail geeks exalt the stuff, you might call it Chicago’s fernet. Local distillery Letherbee, which makes a line of seasonal gins and an aged absinthe, also makes malört, although it recently was forced to change the product’s name to Bësk due to trademark issues. It’s sharp, earthy and plenty hot at 100 proof. Newbies should definitely approach with caution.
3. Breckenridge Bitters
Genepi is another bitter drink that makes use of alpine wormwood. The best-known version of it is Chartreuse, invented by Carthusian monks in the early 18th century. Colorado-based Breckenridge Distillery makes a genepi-inspired liqueur infused with a total of 16 botanicals altogether, including alpine herbs, roots and dried fruits, which give it a hint of sweetness. The aromatic, tea-colored liquid comes in a kooky double-handled bottle with a simple label that looks hand-drawn, lending to the old-timey feel of the product.
4. Greenhook Ginsmiths Beach Plum Gin Liqueur
Sloe gin is a sweet-tart liqueur that’s been made in England for more than a century from the sloe berry, a small dark fruit not unlike a plum that grows in the wilds of Europe on blackthorn trees. You can also find sloe berries in the U.S., but on Long Island, you’re much more likely to come across beach plums. Brooklyn-based Greenhook Ginsmiths came up with this sloe gin-like liqueur, made with local beach plums and organic Turbinado sugar. Use it to make an otherwise classic Sloe Gin Fizz.
5. Atsby Armadillo Cake Vermouth
With so much small-batch gin and whiskey being made in New York, Adam Ford decided there was a distinct lack of locally made vermouth to mix them with. Drawing his inspiration from the sweet vermouths of Italy and the dry vermouths of France, he came up with two vermouths that fell somewhere between the two extremes. Armadillo Cake is the not-too-sweet take on sweet vermouth, made with a blend of herbs, roots and barks, plus botanicals like cardamom, orange peel and Japanese shiitake for a complex, bittersweet and gently spiced result.
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