Flavored spirits are often seen as the clip-on tie of the liquor world: lazy, cheap and not terribly convincing. Why would you buy an artificially flavored lemon vodka, purists ask, when you could steep some peels in a bottle for an hour and create something that recalls a lemon grove rather than Lemon Pledge?
The pre-history of doctored spirits is murky, but it’s likely they arose to mask the off flavors of ill-made liquor—some hero discovering that throwing a vanilla pod or caraway seeds or a chopped-up pineapple into a bottle of whatever made it taste better. Producers also figured out that ethanol was an efficient solvent, and could capture and preserve the oils and essences of citrus peels, berries, tropical fruits and other flavorful natural products. (Gin is arguably the proto-flavored vodka, but was created chiefly for medicinal reasons.)
With the rise of sophisticated flavor labs, however, food chemists found ways to reproduce flavors, both natural and artificial, with more ease and less expense; flavored spirits subsequently took off. Absolut vodka launched its Absolut Peppar in 1986, followed two years later by Absolut Citron. The latter’s rise was stratospheric, fueled in part by the popularity of the Cosmopolitan. The rest of the liquor industry chased along like puppies, producing all manner of flavored this and that. In 1995, the New York Times reported, drolly, “Now, the Many Flavors of Vodka, the Flavorless Spirit.” In 1996, Stolichnaya rolled out six vodka flavors, chasing after what Georgi Baramidze, one of Russia’s leading vodka experts, then called “fashion products for export.”
As will happen, the trend got out of hand. Producers eventually realized they were cannibalizing themselves, and started dialing back. Absolut announced that it would cease introducing new flavors of vodka after its Absolut Cilantro, in 2013, but got back in the game earlier this year with its new Absolut Lime, crafted for the vodka soda drinker who wanted to avoid the tedious labor of squeezing a lime wedge. Still, the brand is planning to winnow its focus down to about 10 flavors, from its current line of 17, to compete in what is still a healthy market. After hitting a plateau, flavors saw an uptick, with some 800,000 additional cases of flavored vodka sold nationwide last year over 2015.
Out of dim, Hobbit-like warrens around the country, craft distillers have also began looking for ways to capitalize on the enduring trend—embracing novel and regional flavors that aren’t cooked up in a lab. That’s led to a sub-boom of craft attempts in recent years.
After sampling a number flavored products at a recent spirits competition (among them: Dr. Stoner’s Fresh Herb Vodka, which smells exactly like a Colorado dispensary), I found that flavored spirits could be divided into two categories when it comes to taste: those whose family tree appears to contain an actual farmer, and those who apparently descended from the Jolly Rancher.
For the most part, the Jolly Rancher flavors predominated at the judging—they offer the cheap, one-note, bright pop of flavor that rapidly loses its luster. But several stood out for having the subtle complexity and depth of real fruit. That’s encouraging. Combine them with a few products released by more established producers (see Stiggins’, below) and you’ve got a decent selection of classy four-in-hands over the clip-ons. Here, a look at who’s leading the pack.
The Game Changer
Stiggins’ Fancy Plantation Pineapple Rum
Pineapple is among the most elusive of flavors—when ripe, it’s indescribably full and lush and sweet. But makers of “pineapple” candy have never been especially successful at capturing that. Which is why Stiggins’ rum was such a game changer—it managed to capture the ripeness and bigness of pineapple in a bottle. (It’s made by infusing dark rum with Queen Victoria pineapple fruit and rind.)
Stiggins’ was created by Alexandre Gabriel with the help of historical spirit savant David Wondrich. It was named after Reverend Stiggins, who fancied a pineapple-infused rum in Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers, and was originally made up as a one-time bottling for Tales of the Cocktail. Vaguely militant fans insisted it be produced commercially—and so it was.
Stiggins’ has been a bit hit with the mixology mafia ever since, brightening just about anything it touches. It mixes well with lime for variations on Daiquiris, swizzles and tiki drinks, and is well suited for exploring more modern concoctions.
- Price: $32
- ABV: 40 percent
New York Distilling Company Mister Katz’s Rock & Rye
It’s amazing that so many spirits have disappeared over time, but even more amazing that entire categories have slipped away. One of these is “rock and rye,” which for decades one could find on the backbar of just about any worthy establishment in America. Touted as a curative, it was essentially rye whiskey—often cheap and rough—flavored with rock candy or rock candy syrup and citrus to soften raggedy edges.
In the case of the Mister Katz’s Rock & Rye, those flavors come from sour cherries, cinnamon and a touch of citrus, all of which whisper rather than shout. It’s made by Allen Katz and crew at New York Distilling Company in Brooklyn (the spirit is named in honor of Katz’s father, not himself), and can be deployed in a number of ways: as a bottled cocktail (just pour over ice) or as a mixing ingredient that adds a lush, extra layer to drinks. For an intriguing Manhattan variation, add a bit of vermouth and chill on ice.
- Price: $29
- ABV: 32.5
Red Brick Craft Distillery From the Woods Black Birch
I grew up drinking a locally made birch beer during summer trips to Maine, and one sip of this new flavored spirit put me right back there.
Distillers Brian Forrest and Zach Cohen of Red Brick Craft Distillery in Philadelphia make Black Birch on a 150-gallon still from a base of demerara sugar and honey, with black birch bark added during the fermentation for flavoring. It’s then aged in small barrels that formerly contained whiskey for 11 months. The first sip comes as a surprise—it’s crisp and dry, yet full of flavor, bursting with the taste of the Northeast forest.
The tricky part is finding it. The distillery produced only 180 bottles to start, while focusing mostly on whiskey. They recently ramped up production of the birch again, and it should be more widely available later this year.
- Price: $55
- ABV: 41 percent
The Modern Alchemist
Ballotin Original Chocolate
Purists hate seeing whiskey debased with strange flavors. But flavored whiskies are here to stay. (Why? One word: Fireball. Five more words: Four million cases sold annually.) Encouraging if not celebrating those who do it right benefits everyone.
Ballotin whiskey launched in 2015, consecrating the entirely rational marriage between whiskey and chocolate. It’s the creation of partners Jeff Stum, Robert Aubry and Paul Tuell, two of whom formerly worked at Brown-Forman, one of the world’s largest spirits companies. The trio sourced a traditional whiskey (no grain neutral spirits involved), and tried a number of chocolate iterations before rolling our four chocolate candy flavors: Original Chocolate, Bourbon Ball, Chocolate Mint and Caramel Turtle. (I wouldn’t disagree with those who believe that one would’ve been enough.)
Ballotin Original Chocolate is flavored with a combo of chocolate solids, vanilla and nut oils developed by Flavorman, a flavor laboratory and small-scale bottler in Louisville. It’s bottled at a much lower proof than a standard whiskey, so bartenders opt to use it more like a sweetener and flavor accent than as a base spirit. “Instead of simple syrup, use Ballotin in your Old-Fashioned,” suggests co-founder Tuell—which is not the worst idea you’ll have heard today. It’s currently available in about 10 states, with a half-dozen more in the pipeline.
- Price: $26
- ABV: 30 percent