Sip, don’t mix: 5 spirits to savor from around the world
Wine may get all the attention for character, aroma, and structure, but distilled spirits can be just as complex and regionally beloved. Like wine, spirits, such as tequila, whisky, and rum, are also impacted by terroir and the aging process. And, as any traveler knows, there’s no better way to break down cultural barriers than by sharing a bottle of the local liquor.
Like beer or wine, liquor starts with fermentation. The difference is that excess water is removed through distillation, which gives liquor its greater alcohol content. While wine is seldom stronger than 15% ABV, spirits are rarely less than 30%, and 40% is more common. Liquor is the drink of the (drunk) gods.
So let’s dial up the proof and look at the wide and wonderful world of distilled spirits. Here are five worth savoring sip by sip—not in a single shot.
Laphroaig distillery on Islay, Scotland
1. Laphroaig 10 Year Old
In my opinion—and as an Irishman I have a lot of opinions on whiskey—the best in the world is Green Spot. If you're absolutely insistent that your whiskey be spelled without the “e,” we need to look across the Irish Sea to Scotland.
Whisk(e)y has the broadest flavor profile of any spirit, and I could write an entire article on Scotch whisky alone. But for this short list, I've selected Laphroaig 10 Year Old. Laphroaig, pronounced "la-froyg," is a classic Scotch single malt from Islay, an island off the west coast of Scotland. The name in the original Scot’s Gaelic means “the beautiful hollow by the broad bay.”
Ian Hunter developed the recipe 75 years ago and it hasn’t changed since. The malted barley is dried over an Islay peat fire giving it the smokiest, peatiest flavor around. It's been compared to drinking a campfire (in a good way).
Distilling the drink is only the first step in the process. Like other aged spirits, whiskey is stored in wooden barrels for months, or often years, which adds flavor and depth to the drink. The longer the raw spirit remains stored in the barrels, the more characteristics it takes on. The wood they’re made from, whether they’re charred, what other drink has been stored in them before and many other factors all affect how the final drink tastes.
In making Laphroaig, the distillers don’t use just any old barrels. Instead, they use carefully chosen old barrels. The current batch of 10 Year Old is being aged in casks from a source familiar to many readers: Maker’s Mark Bourbon, who send nearly 16,000 barrels across the Atlantic every year.
Bottles of Havana Club Añejo 7 Años at the Havana Club museum
2. Havana Club Añejo 7 Años
Rum is a wonderful spirit that, shamefully, outside of the Caribbean is rarely drunk straight up. Trying to sip on a bottle of Bacardi is a recipe for a bad night and an even worse hangover. White rum is meant to be mixed.
Turn, however, to an aged Cuban dark rum and it's a different story. Dark rum, like whiskey, is aged in wooden barrels that impart distinct flavors onto the spirits within. While two white rums will be difficult to tell apart, anyone with a tongue can taste the difference between dark rums.
One of the best is the seven year old Havana Club Añejo 7 Años. Sweet and caramely, the rum tastes strongly of the molasses it's made from. Pour into a tumbler, possibly with a single ice cube, sit back, and channel your inner Hemingway as you sip away.
Living in Europe, I'm fortunately able to acquire Cuban rums with ease. American readers will have to wait a few months or else consider a short trip south of the border to pick up a bottle of Havana Club Añejo 7 Años. When the rum's this good, it's worth it.
Russian vodka is best enjoyed ice cold.
3. Tovaritch! Premium Russian Vodka
Vodka is as Russian as furry hats and cold winters, so looking anywhere else for a spirit to include on this list would have been heretical. Like rum, vodka is all-too-often mixed with puréed fruit. While there's a time and a place for cocktails, there's also something to be said for enjoying it as the Russians do. Ice cold and neat.
While vodka can be made from almost any grain (or even potatoes), most good ones use rye or wheat. Rather than being aged in barrels, vodka is passed through different filters to remove the impurities that give other spirits their flavor.
Although Russian vodka went through a rough patch following the collapse of the Soviet Union, it's been firmly ascendant in the last few years. Tovaritch! Premium Russian Vodka is one of the leading lights.
The mark of a good vodka isn't so much that it has a strong taste, but that what little taste remains is smooth and neutral. Tovaritch! delivers on every count as the brand's host of international awards attest.
Despite Vladimir Putin's Ukrainian ambitions, Tovaritch! hasn't been embargoed anywhere yet. Grab it fast though—who knows how long that state of affairs will remain.
Baijiu billboard in Dalian, China
4. Kweichow Moutai
Baiju, the national drink of China, is the biggest selling spirit in the world with $23 billion worth of the stuff sold each year. For decades, it's been almost impossible to find outside of Asia, but the drink is starting to make its way westward.
Produced at a higher proof—typically 50-60% ABV—and made mainly from sorghum, Baiju tastes completely different to any Western spirit. It has a far more savory flavour. Cheap baiju has given many a backpacker a horrendous hangover on a jaunt through China, so it's best to stick with the high-quality stuff.
The gold standard is Kweichow Moutai, an earthy number with cocoa notes produced by the Chinese government. Finding it isn't easy, but it can be done. A few bars in the U.S. are beginning to serve it, and it's a feature on some Chinese restaurant’s drink menus. If you see a distinctive red and white bottle with pride of place on the shelf behind the counter, you're in luck.
When drinking high-quality tequila, skip the lime and salt.
5. Chinaco Añejo
As fun as it can be to knock back cheap tequila slammers, it's certainly not the best way to enjoy the much maligned spirit. Like all the spirits on this list, neat is really the only option. Like rum, tequila comes in a few different varieties: blancos, respados, and anejos.
Blancos tequilas are unaged and taste the strongest of agave. They’re perfect for including in cocktails but the rawness of their flavor makes them difficult to drink straight. Respado and añejo tequilas are aged in oak barrels—often old bourbon ones. Respados are aged for less than a year and añejos for between one and three years. They're meant to be sipped, not knocked back after you lick salt from your hand. The longer they’re aged in wooden barrels the more flavor they gain (and the less likely you are to try and drink them through your eye at two in the morning).
Just as France has different wine regions, Mexico has different tequila regions and two tequilas distilled 100 miles apart can taste completely different. The award winning Chinaco Añejo, from the Tamaulipas region, is a perfect introduction to the world of good tequilas. Aged for thirty months, Chinaco Añejo combines the taste of agave with subtle fruit and smoke flavors. Pouring it down your gullet in a single toss will cause you to miss 90% of the flavor.