I’m in the throes of opening a bar, y’all, and we’re getting down to the wire. Construction is wrapping, paint is drying, and we’re just about ready to line our shelves with your favorite mind-altering elixirs (and, perhaps, some you’ve never even heard of before!). Keep your eyes and ears peeled for news of soft and grand openings for NoraeBar in NuLu very soon! This means that, as of late, I’ve been spending lots of my time sampling products and curating menus and clinking glasses with liquor reps and distributors (it’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it). The plethora of products I’ve sampled is broad, vibrant and quite interesting. Some I’m excited to have learned about, and some I think I’ll leave off the liquor order. I’m here to detail a few interesting spirits varying from weird to wacky to wonderful that you may not be familiar with and whether I think you should give them a go next time you see them gracing a menu.
If you’re perusing a menu at, likely, a craft cocktail bar, and you see a libation boasting Ancho Reyes Chile Liqueur, order it immediately. The Mexican liqueur made from macerated ancho chiles in cane distillate is subtle yet fiery, and it is divine paired with agave spirits and even whiskies (and more) in cocktails. Ancho Reyes, which is available in classic and Verde, has become a bartender’s favorite in the last few years, garnering popularity among creators after its release in 2014 and for good reason. It’s delightful to play around with in recipes, works well in classic and modern interpretations and adds nuance with smoke, spice and just a hint of sweetness. Add an ounce to your favorite classic margarita recipe in lieu of triple sec for a sublime kick.
Shochu is a Japanese spirit distilled from rice, barley, sweet potatoes and more. It is similar to, but not to be confused with, soju, which hails from Korea and is typically made from rice but can include additives, such as grapefruit and chamomile and sugar. Both are fairly low on the alcohol by volume scale, however, many shochus exceed 25%, and a large sub-category of shochus are single-distilled, or “honkaku,” and contain zero sugar. In my experience (just over the past few months: I’m no connoisseur), sojus are a bit easier on the palate, often intended to be consumed neat and are typically quite mild. Shochu can be a bit funkier, with umami, and often is considered an acquired taste, and it is even interesting to play around with in cocktails. Sweet potato shochu has been my favorite to explore thus far, with full body and a hint of that beautiful sweet/savory play on the tongue. Look for the Kagemusha Sweet Potato Shochu on a NuLu karaoke bar cocktail menu near you very soon (hint, hint!).
I’m going to go in a different direction for a moment. From sweet potato shochu to peanut butter whiskey, and somehow, I like them both! Either my palate casts a freakishly wide net, or I’m just a trash person, but one of my distributors gave me a taste of Skrewball, a peanut butter whiskey hailing from California that seemingly screams America! Through and through. I mean, our nation’s native spirit and the nostalgia of my childhood afternoon snack — what could go wrong? Truly, it is very, very sweet, and the nose screams PayDay bar doused in syrup, but you know what? As a shooter, it’s pretty damn tasty. I would pour this on ice cream and enjoy a boozy sundae of sorts. Most of my friends make fun of me for liking Skrewball. I can’t help it. I know, I hate myself, too.
Lastly, I hate to do this, because I’ve spent many a blissful fall day getting wine drunk and gallivanting through the pumpkin fields at Huber’s, but Starlight Distillery’s Blackberry Flavored Whiskey is a puckering sugar bomb with, apparently, no added sugar. One of my reps tasted me on this, as Greg and Ted Huber are trying to grow the spirits brand. They grow their own blackberries on site, which is nice, but that doesn’t make up for the overwhelming sweetness that lingers. Would I do it as a shooter? Sure. Would I add it to my menu or order it in a bar? Sadly, no. I’ll stick to blacking out on a pitcher of Huber’s sangria once a year.
Keep trying new things, friends.
You may end up finding your new, favorite cocktail additive, or you might be able to educate your friends on a unique spirit they may have never heard of, or you might end up tasting something dreadful and experiencing Claire Danes’ ugly cry face. Growth is a good thing, often even with our palates. Cheers! •