The beverage industry moves quickly and spirits that were once considered obscure or under-the-radar suddenly dominate cocktail trends for years. It wasn’t long ago that mezcal was considered a hipster oddity. Now you’ll find mezcal drinks on nearly every cocktail bar’s menu. More recently the world of Italian amaro has become the fascination of many drinkers with the negroni, spritz, and other classic bitter cocktails seeing a resurgence. Still, the world is a vast place and there are many hyper-local spirits that manage to fly under the radar, at least in our part of the world. And while some are more of an interesting novelty than something we’d really recommend enjoying on a regular basis, there are a select few that we think should be a regular feature on your bar cart.
So, we’ve rounded up some of the best obscure spirits and liquors that you can buy and enjoy right now. These are spirits that genuinely taste great and could feature in some popular cocktails. While vermouth might have once been considered an under-the-radar drink option, it’s popular enough not to feature on this list. And the rise of amaro has meant that it’s not particularly obscure anymore.
There’s a decent chance you might know some or even all of these liquors. But, we’re sure there are plenty of folks for whom these would be a brand new revelation. Enjoy in good health!
The 10 Best Under-the-Radar Spirits
I know I said that we weren’t going to include amaro in this list but I’m making an exception for Nocino, which some would say falls under the Italian amaro umbrella. That being said, Nocino is under-the-radar enough that there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of this. Hailing from the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, Nocino is a liqueur made from walnuts steeped in a high alcohol spirit base (the same way you’d make limoncello). In fact, there are some recipes for DIY Nocino that you can try making at home. Nocino’s flavor profile makes it a little tough to work into existing cocktails but it makes a stellar after-dinner digestivo.
Our Pick: Il Mallo Nocino
Another spirit closely related to the bitter amaro category, Fernet is an Italian digestivo made from a variety of botanicals and spices. The result is a boozy, bracing spirit with a strong medicinal flavor profile. It’s one of my favorite beverages and has been steadily growing in popularity in the states beyond just the bartender’s handshake. While it remains a cult favorite among beverage industry folks, it is immensely popular in other countries, particularly Argentina, where it’s mostly mixed with Coca-Cola. Fernet Branca has become the industry standard but Brooklyn amaro maker Faccia Brutto makes my favorite Fernet. Enjoy on its own with an espresso after dinner or sip on a Fernet & Coke to get the party started.
Our Pick: Faccia Brutto Fernet Pianta
Often simply called Brazilian rum, Cachaça is a spirit made from distilled sugarcane juice. Like rum, it is sold both unaged or aged, usually up to three years. However, rum is typically made from molasses, a by-product from boiling sugarcane juice while Cachaça uses raw sugarcane. Cachaça can only be made in Brazil and is one of the country’s most widely consumed spirits. Exports are fairly low but we’ve seen it start to pop up at cocktail bars in tropical drinks, particularly the Caipirinha. The flavor profile ranges dramatically but you can expect some notes similar to rum as well as some fruitier, more dynamic flavor characteristics.
Our Pick: Leblon Cachaça
Outside its home country of Mexico, chile liqueur is very difficult to find. Thankfully, Ancho Reyes arrived on the scene in the mid-2010s bringing their spicy elixir to the states. So, Ancho Reyes isn’t actually the name of the product but it has become really the only option for consuming chile liqueur. The brand based its products on a 1927 recipe from Puebla, Mexico using dried and smoked poblano peppers. Ancho Reyes can be enjoyed as a shot or it’s used in many cocktails where spiciness is a welcome addition like margaritas or other tequila drinks. Plus, it can make for a unique riff on classic cocktails like the negroni, old fashioned, and more.
Our Pick: Ancho Reyes Chili Liquor
Gin is among the most well-known spirits in the United States. But, Genever, which in fact predates gin, has remained very much under-the-radar here in the USA. Genever, which is the Dutch word for juniper, originated in The Netherlands in the 15th century and has remained a traditional drink in both Belgium and The Netherlands with bars dedicated to the botanical liquor. Like gin, Genever indeed features juniper, but unlike gin that isn’t necessarily the dominant or most prominent flavor component. Genever is distilled from malt wine, not a neutral spirit like gin, and can be sold as either oude (old) and jonge (young). However the old and young designations don’t in fact refer to barrel-aging but to the distillation process. Jonge genever contains no more than 15% malt wine while oude genever must contain at least 15% malt wine. The flavor profile is much more complex than standard gin and varies wildly between jonge, which is much more neutral, and oude which can acquire a more whiskey-like flavor.
Our Pick: Old Duff Genever
Of all the spirits on this list, Pacharan I believe is the only one I haven’t seen out in the wild. So consider this an insider scoop. In fact, my grandfather brought back bottles from Spain for my father who shared a little with me several years ago. Since then, it’s become my family’s favorite after-dinner drink. Patxaran, or Pacharan, is a traditional liqueur from the Basque Country and is made from the berries of sloe, a flowering plant. Other herbs and spices like cinnamon or anise are often added and the end product is a dark red/brown liqueur with a unique berry and spice flavor profile. I enjoy it on the rocks but it’s also very good neat.
Our Pick: Zoco Pacharan
As with many of the inclusions on this list, Underberg’s growth in popularity can be attributed to its cult status. The craft beer world is enamored with this strange bitter digestif and that love has started to gain some mainstream attention. Underberg’s recipe is a closely guarded secret so all that is known only is that it’s made from a blend of 43 spices and herbs and is bottled at 44% ABV. However, thanks to an FDA ruling, it’s judged to be a food product, similar to cocktail bitters. So, you can in fact buy a case of Underberg on Amazon. Underberg’s flavor profile is fairly similar to that of Fernet in that it’s distinctly bitter with a cooling sensation. While you could pour it out into a glass, we’d recommend twisting off the cap and drinking it straight up.
Our Pick: Underberg
Aquavit is a Scandanavian spirit distilled from grain or potatoes and, like gin, flavored with botanicals although the dominant flavor must be caraway and/or dill. Historically, Aquavit was enjoyed during large festive gatherings and was a significant part of Nordic drinking culture. The way it is served differs between countries whether it be chilled and enjoyed as an apertif, a shot, a digestif, or with other mixers. You can find either clear un-aged Aquavit or aged Aquavit which has a golden color.
Our Pick: Brennivin Icelandic Aquavit
Mirto hails from the Italian island of Sardinia and is a liqueur made from the berries and/or leaves of the myrtle plant. As a result, its flavor profile is very similar to the aforementioned Pacharan with spicy, fruity, berry notes. Sadly, Mirto has not gained in popularity outside of Italy so finding a bottle might prove tough. But, it’s a delicious digestivo.
Our Pick: Bresca Dorado Mirto di Sardegna
Not to be confused with Soju, which hails from Korea, Shochu is a Japanese distilled beverage made from any number of agricultural products including, but not limited to, rice, potatoes, buckwheat, or buckwheat. While it might appear similar to sake, another Japanese alcoholic beverage, Shochu has a vastly different flavor profile. It’s often described as earthy with more subtle fruit or tea notes. It can be used in cocktails or enjoyed either on the rocks or straight up.
Our Pick: iichiko Shochu Saiten