In the age of birthday cake flavored vodka and ant gin, it can seem like outlandish spirits are just a modern day fad. However, these new and often artificially flavored spirits aren’t the only bottles to offer otherworldly drinking experiences. There are traditional spirits from all over the world that pack some of the most unexpected flavors. From notes of rotting fruit and vinegar, to raw poultry, to artichokes, these left-of-center spirits should be on every adventurous drinker’s bucket list.
Smoked Salmon Vodka
Alaska Distillery proudly produces a smoked salmon-infused vodka. At first thought, it seems unnatural. Fish booze? But consider the long standing history of vodka in Russian and Eastern European cultures: It often accompanies pickled and smoked fish, as well as caviar, of course. So if you think about it, Alaska Distillery is just cutting out the middleman, combining the spirit and oily fish together in one gulp. Sipping on a richly flavored, smoked fish beverage might not be quite the same as chasing a spoonful of caviar with a shot of vodka, but this pink and fishy spirit is certainly worth a taste. Plus, it makes the best Bloody Marys of all time.
Cynar (pronounced chee-nar) is an artichoke liqueur (yes, artichoke, the leafy, spiky vegetable) from Italy, falling into the category of amari, or bitter liqueurs. It adds earthy and herbal flavors to cocktails, and it’s also great on its own, sipped as an aperitif or digestif. While Cynar has been a part of mainstream bar culture since the 1960s, its roots run deeper. The spirit was named for Cynar scolymus, the scientific name for artichoke, which in turn was named after Cynara, one of Zeus’s many unfortunate ex-lovers who he turned into an artichoke when she tried to elude his embrace. If you frequent craft cocktail bars, chances are you’ve already had Cynar in a drink or two—and maybe you’ve even had its higher proof brother, Cynar 70, which has a richer artichoke flavor and a more luxurious texture. If you haven’t, it’s time to give the thistle-infused spirit a try.
This expensive and rare type of mezcal is characterized by the inclusion of nuts, spices, fruits and, most surprisingly, raw meat—most often chicken, turkey, rabbit or iguana—in the distillation process (you’ll mostly find chicken and turkey variations this side of the border). The idea is that, as the meat steams in the still, the oils in the meat infuse into the vapor, adding flavor and texture to the final product. The meat also serves as a symbol: “Pechuga” translates to “breast,” and these types of mezcal are believed to be “of the heart,” and served during festivals and special occasions like birthdays, births, weddings and funerals.
Sweet Potato Shochu
Shochu is the most widely consumed distilled spirit within Japan. It can be made from many different bases, including rice, buckwheat, brown sugar, barley or something we Westerners are more accustomed to seeing topped with marshmallows: sweet potatoes. The final flavor of the spirit—which is typically sipped neat, on the rocks or mixed with fruit juice—depends on how much sweet potato goes into the base, as well as how many times it is distilled, how the fresh spirit is aged and how long it’s aged. Some finished products are sweet and earthy, just like roasted sweet potatoes. Sip some at Thanksgiving and never look back.
Saying baijiu is an acquired taste is a wild understatement. It is by far the world’s strangest, most oddly flavored spirit. The flavors range from tolerably funky to intoxicatingly pungent to straight up swampy, and are often described as putrid, rotten and sour. Sounds tasty, no? Even so, it is the most widely consumed spirit in the world. Made with a base of fermented rice, this Chinese spirit is sipped in small shots over the course of a meal. Paired with umami-packed foods, it’s a unique experience. Plus, drinking out of the traditional tiny, dollhouse-like glasses is just plain fun.