When traveling, nothing helps you familiarize yourself with a culture more than eating and drinking your way through the local scene. Well, we’re not packing our bags and hitting the road anytime soon. But you can sip your way to a mini vacation by trying a range of local spirits. From Grecian Ouzo to terroir-driven Sotol, here are native spirits to enjoy from the world over.
Expect to sip Unicum in dimly-lit basement bars in Budapest’s nightlife district. Throughout the night, the distinctly rounded bottle will make its way into shot glasses, and drinkers will, subsequently, cringe as they shoot it back. The inky fruit brandy packs an herbal punch thanks to its secret blend of forty different herbs and spices. (Think of the flavors relative to a put-hair-on-your-chest Jagermeister cousin.)
Head to any town in Greece, and you will find this assertive anise-based spirit filling the glass of every diner and drinker you pass. The spirit is made locally (many people will have their own recipe) by distilling a grape base and flavoring with herbs along the way, generally wintergreen, mint, fennel, and anise. Most iterations will come in at a hotter proof and served in shot glasses and sipped. You can shoot it back, but try letting the bold anise flavors come out in small sips. Stateside, keep an eye out for brands like Metaxa and Ouzo 12 that crown American shelves.
Calvados is Normandy’s famed apple brandy, fermented from apples and distilled from cider compared to Cognac and Armagnac’s wine-based spirits. What results is a glowing amber spirit with complex notes of vanilla and a flirtation of apple. Similar to Brandy, Calvados has strict age levels: V.O. aged a minimum of 4 years and X.O. for six.
What is Arak? It’s hard to distill the spirit down to one definition as the drink is made in dozens of countries worldwide. There are no regulations, and the recipe varies wildly from location to location.
Arak originally comes from the Arabic word for sweat (many guess this is because it was initially made with date palm sap fermented in the hot sun). Now in Lebanon, Arak is commonly made with indigenous grapes infused with anise seed. Sip it with water, and the anise-forward spirit turns its signature milky white.
In Indonesian and Malaysia, Arak is generally distilled from coconut palm, sap, sugar cane, or red rice. It’s a pseudo-moonshine, on menus in bars and restaurants, but also swilled by home drinkers in giant jars. A key difference? In Indonesia and Malaysia, arak is spelled ‘arrack’ and skips the anise seed.
This Korean spirit is technically the most popular spirit globally, but it has only started taking off stateside in recent years. Some dub it Korean vodka, perhaps as it is a clear spirit distiller from rice or sweet potato, but Soju has a far tamer ABV, generally clocking in at 20%. Sip it neat, or add the lower-proof spirit to a low-ABV cocktail.
The Dutch drink is an early precursor to gin, made when Dutch sailors brought herbs and spices from around the world back to the ports, and workers started distilling through the ingredients to preserve them. Think of Jenever (or Genever) as gin’s country cousin—it’s malty and cereal-ly, rather than spicy and herbal like the gin you probably know. Genever fell away from American shelves after the World Wars, before brands like Bols, the biggest brand in North America and the oldest Genever company in the Netherlands, and Old Duff, a newer Genever made by American bartender Philip Duff, revived the category.
Sotol is akin to mezcal and tequila, but instead of being born from agave, the spirit is distilled specifically from the Desert Spoon plant. This spirit is explicitly made in the Northern states skirting Texas, Chihuahua, Coahuila, and Durango. While mezcal and tequila are having big moments stateside, Sotol has remained under the radar, with little interest outside the regional Sotol bubble. Consumers are starting to catch on, though, particularly as the desert spirit has unique terroir-driven flavors that depend on the province it was made.