Obscure booze: Amaro, Cachaça, Pisco & Pastis explained
Off-the-beaten path spirits you should have on your drinking radar
Words— Kate Dingwall
At this point in your life, you probably have amassed a solid knowledge of the spirits world: you know your way around a bottle of gin, you know the difference between bourbon and rye, and served up versus neat, and you know how to order a cocktail you like at a restaurant or bar. If you’re so inclined, you probably know how to whip up a few decent cocktails at home. But there are a few ingredients that put a few question marks above your head: A Martini can be vodka or gin-based, got that, but what is dry Vermouth, really? Amaro is that bitter thing in a Negroni? Manhattans may be your favourite whiskey drink, but it’s the sweet Vermouth that rounds out the flavours. But where else would you ever use sweet Vermouth? You don’t even really know what Pisco is, but Pisco Sours are delicious as hell.
Knowing these more mystifying spirits are the key to raising the bar in your imbibing game - no pun intended. Piscos, Cachacas, Vermouths; it will make you a stellar host and a lot more of a hotshot at cocktail hour. To help you deepen your spirits knowledge, we’ve laid out some of the lesser-known spirits that you’ll most commonly see on a cocktail menu. Plus, we’ve detailed what exactly they are, why you need to know them, when to order them, and how to pour them at home. While these spirits aren’t something you hear every day, these bottles are completely practical and available almost everywhere. Now you’re familiar with them, they’ll catch your eye on cocktail menus and on shelves.
What it is: a bitter Italian liquor for the flavour seeker
The first time you had an Amaro was probably an unpleasant experience. Translating quite literally into 'bitter', Amaros are viscously herbal, which makes sense considering the spirit comes to birth through the distillation of nothing but botanicals. The most noted Amaro that is probably on your radar, albeit if unknowingly, is Aperol (Aperol Spritzes anyone?).
Fernet Branca is another popular one, that boasts tobacco-heavy flavors and a deep black color. Fernet, while beloved by those with it’s acquired taste, is most commonly shot, and usually cringe-inducing. If you've had amaro before (or if you've had Fernet before) and have dubbed yourself not-a-fan, it's time to reconsider. The majority of amaro recipes are family secrets - passed down from nonna to Nonna for hundreds of years. Meaning, each one is distinctly different: Amaros can range from syrupy and medicinal to light and cherry-forward. Belly up to your local cocktail bar and ask your local barkeep to try a flight. Averna is one of the newbie-friendly types of Amaro: ask your local Italian joint for an Amaro on the rocks with a bit of orange to dip your feet in the world of Amaro.
What is it: A French fortified wine for more than martinis.
Everyone seems to have a bottle of Vermouth at home. Most likely, you bought it after watching a James Bond movie or having a really good martini at a bar with the hopes of replicating when you got home, and now it’s sitting collecting dust. To get to the basics, Vermouth is a fortified wine and tweaked with a variety of herbs and spices. There are two main categories of Vermouths: sweet (which is red) and dry (white is white). White is most famously the accoutrement to a good martini, while Sweet Vermouth is known for spicing up a Manhattan. Outside of Manhattans and Martinis though, Vermouth is a delicious aperitif on its own. Do as the French do and drink it with a few ice cubes and a hint of citrus. Et voila!
To get to the practical tips, if you're going to buy vermouth, keep it in the fridge. This will keep it fresher far longer. If you're coming to the end of its life and you've found you haven't made much of a dent, cook with it! After all, it is a fortified wine. Just remember it is fortified, so lighten your hand when pouring.
What it is: a summertime spirit perfect for fluffy Pisco sours or more crowd-wowing cocktails.
This is going to sound odd to you if you’re not familiar with the category, but Pisco is technically a brandy. The South American spirit has none of the inherent stuffiness of the brandies that are probably on your radar though - though still made of distilled grape juice (generally to 60 - 100 proof), Pisco is a clear spirit that lends itself perfectly to summertime imbibing. You’ll find two main Piscos on the market: Peruvian and Chilean. Peruvian Pisco laws run stricter: the liquid can’t be diluted and it must be made within specific distilling regions. On the flip side, Chileans are given more freedom, with no rules restricting the proof or how many times the spirit will run through the still. Technicalities aside, Pisco is perfect in a traditional Pisco sour (which is relatively easy to make at home and really impressive to break out as a party trick) or subbed out for Vodka in simple serves.
What it is: A Brazilian spirit made for spicing up your favourite classic drinks
First things first, Cachaça is pronounced kah-sha-sa. Brazil’s native spirit, it’s a quirky liquid made of ultra distilled sugar cane. Despite the sickly sweet taste you’re envisioning, Cachaça has the syrupy molasses taste and high alcohol content of Rum. While the spirit itself can be relatively unknown Stateside, integrating it to your home bar is not - the signature serve of Cachaça is in a Caipirinha.
Making a Caipirinha is easier than pronouncing its name (and just as fun as pronouncing Cachaça): it’s just Cachaça, muddled lime, and sugar. A Mint Julep, but more impressive. While you’ve got the bottle lying around, use it to spike a coffee, Brazilian style, or spike a Sangria with it.
Modifiers and liqueurs
As of lately, a fresh crop of new-school liqueurs and modifiers are making their way onto cocktail menus and into home bars. You’re probably familiar with St. Germain, the Elderflower-based liqueur known as bartenders ketchup for its ability to instantly elevate cocktails. It came to prominence back in 2007 and has barely left bars since. Nowadays, a new crop of modifiers has come to market. The most exciting: ITALICUS. The traditional Italian rosolio recipe is based from bergamot oranges, and subs out beautifully in Negronis, Martinis, and served solo with a healthy dose of soda water. Plus, the elegant turquoise bottle is more than deserving of a place on your home bar.
Pastis, ouzo, and the anise family
Pastis is one of those spirits that only seems to exist in French art deco posters and on the back of bars, seemingly collecting dust. The Anise-based French spirit is recognizable (Pernod is a Pastis, as is Ricard) but few folks know actually know what the hell to do with a bottle. Traditionally sipped on the rocks, Pastis can also sub out in place of Absinthe in cocktails. The Greeks offer Ouzo as their anise spirit, while the Turks offer Arak. Ouzo will probably transport you to doing shots at that Greek wedding you went to one time, but don’t sleep on sipping Arak with soda and a hint of Grapefruit juice.