I Tried Four Bizarre Alcohols (and Liked Three of Them)

I call this adventure, “The bottle less taken” or perhaps, “Booze off the beaten path.” The world of alcohol stretches beyond whiskey, gin, rum, vodka, and tequila but most of us rarely venture out there. (I rarely venture past beer.) So I set up a challenge: try four unusual alcohols that I’d personally never heard of. 

Two of them come from Italy. One is from Scandinavia. The other is Irish. One is centuries old, one was invented in the 1950s. I was able to find two of them at my local liquor shop, one at the new alcohol mega mart, and one I had to buy online. Which is to say they’re all available should you want to try them.

There’s also a cocktail for each just in case. 

Aquavit 

Aquavit

Where does aquavit come from?

Scandinavia

What is aquavit?

Distilled from grain or potatoes, the clear spirit must get its flavor from either dill or caraway in order to be called aquavit. Many other herbs are added too, from citrus peels, to cumin to anise. It can be cask matured, lending it amber hues (caramel coloring is also allowed). According to the European Union, the spicy spirit must be at least 37.5% alcohol by volume and it must get the flavor of caraway or dill from distillation of the botanicals, instead of just adding essential oils. 

The history of aquavit

It’s the best-selling liquor in both Denmark and Norway and has been distilled in Scandinavia for centuries. Like most navite alcohols, aquavit began its life on farms where alcohol was made from what was on hand — as much to preserve part of the harvest as to make something delicious. Caraway and dill, both from the celery family, grow fast, don’t mind colder climates, and aren’t particular about the soil they grow in. These botanicals were likely everywhere on Scandinavian farms. 

What does aquavit taste like?

Picture a Scandinavian winter. The sun is low in the sky — some days it barely comes up at all. It’s cold and the ground is frozen. Back before Hemköp, people weren’t eating a lot of salads in December. Preserved meats and fish, breads, cheeses, hearty, fatty, rich foods kept you alive through the long dark. Aquavit is the perfect counter to all of that. 

Traditionally enjoyed after or with food, the crisp and bright flavor of aquavit cuts through the heaviness. Exhale after a sip of aquavit and you get a frosty breath-mint effect. Which isn’t to say it’s overly minty. On the tongue you get notes of anise and celery with subtle spearmint undertones. Mildly sweet and fresh, you can feel the aquavit kickstarting your digestion. 

The aquavit label I tried

In my search, Linie was the easiest brand to find. A caraway and anise flavored aquavit, Linie lays claim to being the oldest aquavit brand in the world. It gets its name from the Norwegian word linje, which means line, as in the equator. As the story goes, in the early 19th century some aquavit was shipped from Norway to the East Indies, where no one was interested in it. So it was shipped it back. 

Turns out, the rocking voyage and shifts in temperature improved the taste. So now every drop of Linie is put in used sherry casks,  put on cargo ships, and sailed from Oslo to Sydney and back again. It crosses the line of the equator twice, experiencing shifts in temp and humidity, along with constant motion.  

How to drink aquavit  

Serve it cold (I’m keeping my bottle in the freezer) in a small glass with a short stem, like a miniaturized wine glass (though a shot glass will do in a pinch). It’s an ideal pairing with a smørrebrød.

Aquavit in a cocktail

Try it in a Norwegian Wood, a recipe from award-winning bartender and author Jeffrey Morgenthaler, currently bar manager at two super hip bars in Portland, OR. His recommendation for an aquavit cocktail involves a little applejack and yellow chartreuse, among others, shaken with ice and served straight up in a cocktail cup with a twist of lemon.  Get the recipe

Poitín 

Poitin

Where does poitín come from?

Ireland

What is poitín?

You could call it Irish moonshine — it’s clear, strong, and was once the domain of outlaws. First produced in Irish monasteries as far back as the sixth century, poitín (say PUT-cheen) became an illicit spirit centuries later when British rule declared the alcohol illegal, and kept it illegal until 1997.  

Now the spirit, along with Irish Whiskey, is one of Ireland’s national liquors and regulated by Irish law. Rule one? Poitin must be made in Ireland. It has to be fermented and distilled from a minimum of two base ingredients which can be barley, sugar beet molasses, potatoes, and/or grains. At least half of those raw ingredients must come from Ireland. The spirit can also include indigenous plants (like berries, apples, mint) which can make up to ten percent of the mash. Exactly which raw materials used have to be indicated on the label. 

While the liquor can be held in barrels, it may not be aged. In fact, if poitín stays in a barrel longer than ten weeks, it’s no longer poitín. That means you’ll never see an aged poitin — if that’s what you want, get yourself an Irish whiskey. They say forgotten barrels of poitín gave birth to whiskey anyway.  

The history of poitín

In America, moonshiners are best known for flouting the laws of Prohibition — which lasted about fourteen years. The intrepid Irish souls making poitín scoffed at the law for more than three-hundred. In 1661 British law declared the spirit illegal, partly to force people to buy legal (and taxable) booze and partly to try and tame the independent, homemade nature of poitín’s production. 

Until 1997 poitín distillation was a clandestine act. Stills were fired up on cloudy and windy days when it was harder to detect the smoke. Recipes were passed down through generations, and because it was unregulated (obviously) the quality from one distiller to another ranged greatly — from a delicious “rare old mountain dew” to lethal and blinding swill.  

Sometime in the seventies, poitín was deemed legal to make in Ireland again — but only if they exported it out of the country. Then finally, just before the turn of the new millennium, distillers could apply for a licence to produce poitín for their fellow Irish once again. 

What does poitín taste like?

Strong. It is moonshine after all. (If you’re going to risk jail time for a beverage, you make that beverage strong.)  Though the poitín you’ll find today is in the reasonable 50% ABV range, it once ranged up to 90%. Yikes. 

When you first get a whiff of it, you might worry someone slipped you paint thinner. It stings the nostrils. Get past that, however and you’re pleasantly surprised by the mellow sweetness. It’s smooth with a bloom of fruit on your tongue. You get hits of green apple, sugar cookies, even a little watermelon. Underneath lies earthiness, possibly from the beet sugar, and notes of grape must. 

The finish is short — a piney freshness and then it’s gone. This is a liquor that hits hard and leaves you quickly. You’re left wondering if you’d like another go. Usually, yes.  

The poitín label I tried

I went with Glendalough Poitin from Glendalough distillery. The distillery makes its home south of Dublin in the glacial valley of the Wicklow Mountains. Probably better known for their whiskey and hand-foraged gin, they decided to put the same care into reviving Ireland’s original spirit. Their poitín is triple distilled in traditional copper pot stills — the kind scofflaw distillers would have used all those three hundred years — and the flavor is meant to be an authentic rendering of the spirit.  

How to drink poitín  

If you can take the fire, straight up in a fat rocks glass will let the vapors disperse a bit before you dive in. Quell the burn a little by adding an ice cube. Sip it slow. Thanks to the layers of flavors and mellow sweetness, it goes very nicely in a wide range of cocktails. Its versatility lies somewhere between go-with-anything vodka, and slightly more discerning gin. 

Poitín in a cocktail  

Try it in a Poteeni. In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, the Telegraph put together a few classic Irish cocktails from The Candlelight Club, London’s travelling speakeasy (that pops up in varying venues and is solely lit by candles). The Poteeni uses apple (juice and syrup) not only to tamp down the fire of the poitín, but also to complement the notes of apple and fruit in the spirit. Elderflower liqueur is in there too, because it’s a delightful thing to put in drinks. Get the recipe

Cynar 

Cynar

Where does Cynar come from?

Italy 

What is Cynar?

The name comes from the scientific name for artichoke, Cynara scolymus and from cynarin, the active compound found in artichoke leaves. Along with thirteen herbs, artichoke leaves is a major player in Cynar. It’s pronounced CHEE-nar, because in Italian the letter c followed by an i, e, or y is a soft ch sound (like ciao). Like fernet (below), Cynar is an amaro, an herby liqueur meant to help with digestion. Unlike fernet, Cynar is patented. Only the Campari Group (makers of Skyy, Wild Turkey, Grand Marnier) can whip up this artichoke bitter. 

Campari doesn’t go into detail on the distilled raw ingredients (it’s just called “alcohol base”) and the thirteen herbs are also a secret, but the thing we know it has, artichoke, contains a compound called cynarin that has liver protecting effects and the artichoke was also once considered an aphrodisiac — a fitting tidbit considering the drink’s inventor. 

The history of Cynar

Angelo Dalle Molle, born in 1908, was a firm believer in improving the quality of life. He invested in and founded numerous research institutes to advance artificial intelligence. He even had an electric car factory set up on his villa and produced about two hundred electric vehicles. All of this was funded by the proceeds from inventing a bitter, artichoke-based liqueur in the 1950s. 

As for the aphrodisiac component of Cynar, it worked for Dalle Molle. He married once, had it annulled, then went on to father six children by a number of different women (possibly six?). At the age of 90 he married once again, this time to his secretary who was 40 years his junior. 

Another fun fact: Cynar became popular after appearing on Italy’s Carosello show. In the middle of the last century, it was illegal to advertise during TV shows in Italy. So they came up with a show that was entirely ads. Carosello was a ten minute show featuring four sketches, each of which was selling a product, but couldn’t do so until the last thirty seconds. Millions of Italians tuned in to Carosello for twenty years. Italian movie star Ernesto Calindri appeared in a number of sketches promoting Cynar. People also liked the sketches in which a dude calmly sips his Cynar in the middle of (awesome mid-century) traffic.   

What does Cynar taste like?

Sweet vegetables. It’s viscous, syrupy almost. You taste mandarin orange, maraschino cherries, a touch of aspartame. But beneath the sweetness is a bitter, herbal quality, that makes Cynar savory at the same time. There are notes of asparagus and, yes, artichoke. The finish hits strong with umami flavors, soy sauce being one of them. It elicits a strong kombucha girl reaction. No! Well… No. But, ok. Yeah. But… No.  

The Cynar label I tried

The only one there is. Well, technically there are two. Campari also makes Cynar 70 (as in proof) but I went with the original 35 proof. 

How to drink Cynar  

It’s popularly mixed with cola. But to me, that’s just too sticky sweet. Mixing with tonic or soda makes for a nice refresher (squeeze some lemon in there). Drinking it straight at room temp gives you the full digestivo qualities, though be prepared for a roller coaster ride in your mouth. 

Cynar in a cocktail

Try it in La Alcachofa. Food & Wine came up with three different ways to enjoy this intriguing liquor. La Alcachofa is the intermediate version, and calls for just two ingredients, one of which is tequila. The grassy notes play off the Cynar and it’ll take you about 30 seconds to make. Get the recipe

Fernet 

Fernet

Where does fernet come from?

Italy. Later, Argentina. 

What is fernet?

Fernet (say it like Carol Burnett’s last name) is another herby digestif with a base of either neutral grain spirits or distilled wine. The herbs and botanicals vary with every maker and might include mint, saffron, aloe, rhubarb, hops, licorice, cardamom, rose petals, bitter roots, and even a tree bark mushroom — a given fernet might have upwards of twenty different botanicals (the most popular brand, Fernet-Branca has twenty-seven). After steeping in the herbs, the spirit is aged. Sometimes the fernet hangs out in barrels once used for sherry and chardonnay and sometimes it goes into brand new oak. Again, it’s all up to the producer. The EU doesn’t yet feel the need to regulate what gets called fernet. 

As a digestif, fernet is typically quaffed after eating, where it goes to work helping your food move on through the system. If, when you drink it, you identify an almost cough-syrupy note, your mouth and nose are not wrong. That medicinal feature is not just found in fernet’s flavor, it’s in its history too.

The history of fernet

Like many forms of booze (gin, beer, the Prohibition Era exemption that allowed six distilleries to make whiskey for “medicinal purposes”) fernet was once considered a cure for what ails you — particularly indigestion. One brand, Fernet-Branca, was even given to cholera patients in Milan circa mid 1800s and “proved to be remarkably successful”. Today it’s still touted as a hangover cure and pain reliever (granted, most alcohol does a pretty good job of killing pain).

Originally from Italy, fernet immigrated, along with millions of Italians, to Argentina during the great European immigration wave to Argentina around the turn of the 20th century.  Today, the country drinks three-quarters of the world’s fernet. The fernecola or fernet con cola (fernet plus Coke) is Argentina’s unofficial drink. And, mysteriously, it’s also crazy popular in San Francisco, where it’s usually imbibed as a shot. 

What does fernet taste like?

Everything. It is an extremely complex, fairly bitter liquor not meant for the unadventurous. It pours dark brown and viscous like a flat cola. And when you take a sip, it’s reminiscent of sugarless sarsaparilla. You get notes of peppermint, piney resin, tobacco, and wood flavors closer to cedar than oak. Chamomile (and possibly saffron) make up the undertones and the finish leaves a slight menthol numbing on the tongue. It’s a little like cough medicine that’s been aged in a humidor. 

Three of the four people I got to try it made an unpleasant face with their first sip and declined to take another. But I like it. Sipping it miniscule quantities, it’s wild to take a journey through the layers and layers of elements that make up the experience of fernet. 

The fernet label I tried

I went with the biggest, the original, Fernet-Branca. It’s the brand responsible for the existence of the liquor (both by inventing it and by keeping it alive with classy ad campaigns in the 60s and 80s). 

The exact recipe is a well-guarded secret. That’s not surprising as every brand keeps their recipe a secret. But Branca does reveal they use twenty-seven herbs, roots, and spices from five continents including “…Rhubarb from China, Gentian from France, Galanga from India or from Sri Lanka, Chamomile from Europe of Argentina.” They also use cinnamon, lindon, myrrh and saffron. 

There’s a stat bumping around out there that the brand uses the majority of the world’s saffron supply to make their fernet, but I couldn’t find any sources to back up that claim. Still, they make a lot of fernet and not every distillery goes around putting saffron in their stills, so they probably use more of the world’s most expensive herb than any other liquor maker out there.  

How to drink fernet  

As a digestif, it’s served at room temperature in a small glass. As a shot, it’s often chased with a ginger ale (possibly to get the most of that gut-soothing goodness). But because it is so bitter, and bitterly intense, fernet lends itself to mixed drinks beautifully. It can take the place of angostura or other bitters in drinks like a manhattan or in an old fashioned (below). 

Fernet in a cocktail

Try it in an Old Timber. The inclusion of rye, along with the orange oil are reminiscent of an old fashioned but the triple sec and and cinnamon stick take it in a different direction. The spiciness of the rye interplays nicely with the herbiness of the fernet while the orange and the triple sec mellows everything out. It’s very good. Just be careful — it’s more than just very good, an Old Timber is also entirely alcohol. This recipe calls for a less herby, less medicinal brand of fernet, but I liked the way the herbs got in there and shook the rye’s hand. Get the recipe 

The verdict

Aquavit has become a near-nightly thing for me. Poitín was a pleasant surprise that will find its way into many a cocktail around here (and once in a while I just like to sip a little). That fernet old fashioned is probaly my favorite mixed drink at the moment. And then there’s Cynar. I like its story. I’ll leave it at that.