You have your favorite whiskeys or vodkas, but what about your go-to cherry bounce or beet spirit? Your beloved under-the-radar fennel spirit or out-of-the-box gins? These are eight American-born spirits from around the country that call on (and surprise) with unusual flavors.
Just launched in 2015, Oakland Spirits Company (OsCo) is the brainchild of Adam Nelson (who helped open neighboringTwo Mile Wines years back) and head distiller Tim Lynn, utilizing distilled grapes as the base for their gins and unaged brandies, like lemongrass or shiso brandy, sourcing only local NorCal ingredients. Their Sea gin is a briny treasure distilling hand-foraged nori (seaweed) from Sully Farms in Mendocino, showcasing coastal bay and sage with a touch of lemongrass. It’s the spirit of the Pacific in a glass.
Washington, D.C., treasure Don Ciccio & Figli is a “real deal” amaro distillery started by Amalfi Coast–born and –raised Francesco Amodeo, who models his amaro, nocino and liqueurs off family recipes going back to his great-grandfather and grandfather’s history of producing liqueurs since the 1800s in Italy. Amodeo’s fennel liqueur, finocchietto, is one of the best in the lineup. The flavors, you guessed it, are fresh and lively fennel, made even more robust with black licorice and anise, resulting in an aromatic, savory digestif.
In Grand Rapids, Mich., Long Road Distillers has already been distilling some of the best aquavit in the country, as well as gin, whiskey and beyond. Its Wendy Peppercorn vodka goes full flavor with pink peppercorn and not just the flavor of the pepper. From the first whiff, you can tell this vodka is distilled with fresh, real peppercorns because of its bold, spicy 101-proof flavor profile. With added notes of cinnamon, cherry and spice in distillation, it’s a vibrant winner that opens up new cocktail possibilities.
Just out this fall, Colonial-style cherry bounce is one of those “forgotten” American spirits that even Martha Washington had her own recipe for back in the 1700s. Tamworth Distilling founder Steven Grasse recently published the bookColonial Spirits: A Toast to Our Drunken History (Abrams, $24.95), which digs into this spirit and far more, just as his New Hampshire distillery released its own Sweet Lips cherry bounce. No, the flavors don’t run too sweet. This is tart booze-forward cherry with whispers of Tahitian vanilla and woody, spiced notes from its rye whiskey base.
We’re well familiar with Italian-style apéritifs. But one with a decidedly California bent? Who better to craft this kind of herbal liqueur than St. George Spirits? With a bold amount of bitter, Bruto Americano pulls on unusual flavors beyond its lush bitter (from gentian root), going citrusy with California-grown Seville oranges, echoes of sandalwood, cinnamon and NorCal balsam fir and Cascara sagrada (California buckthorn bark). It sings in Negronis, Americanos and other apéritif cocktail classics but works just as well on the rocks or with soda.
Located in Lansdale, Pa., Boardroom Spirits founder Zsuzsa Palotas and master distiller Atilla Kovacs hail from Hungary, a country known for superb wines. But palinka, a geographically protected spirit produced in Hungary and four provinces of Austria, is one of the country’s lesser-known drink legends, one Hungarian citizens are allowed to distill tax free. Typically made from apricots or plums, the spirit can be distilled with a range of fruits or vegetables. Boardroom is playing with carrot, apple and pear, but its clear, unaged beet palinka tastes as robustly earthy, rustic and fresh as the beets it’s distilled from.
In the sleepy Sonoma County town of Graton, Graton Distilling Co.’s gin starts first with a striking bottle, then delivers a gin where California (local citrus, Asian flavors) meets a classic London dry gin. Distiller Jeff Duckhorn distills gin with 12 botanicals, including more traditional juniper, coriander, orris root, cardamom and angelica root. But unique flavors pop out from the inclusion of locally grown Meyer lemon and Buddha’s hand citrus, galangal root, chamomile and peppermint in a vibrant, herbaceous whole.
Distilled in Nevada about an hour outside Reno, Frey Ranch is actually a ranch dating back to 1918, run by Ashley and Colby Frey with distiller Russell Wedlake. As a grain-to-glass operation, they grow their own crops on the estate, from alfalfa to wheat and barley, as they distill vodka, gin, absinthe and whiskey. Their gin (starting with their corn, rye, wheat and barley vodka base) starts with the traditional (juniper) but then heads toward the unusual flavors from estate-grown sagebrush grown on the ranch (quite different than sage), imparting herbal and green and black pepper notes to the gin.