For bartenders and drinkers alike, there’s some baggage to unload when it comes to drinking flavored spirits. The memories of Pinnacle Marshmallow vodka, Fireball, Stoli “O” and other artificially flavored spirits popularized in the 1990s and early aughts are still fresh enough to send chills down one’s spine. But, with premiumization reaching spirits across categories over the past two decades, it was only a matter of time until cocktail-worthy flavored spirits came to market.
“I think they are making a small comeback,” says Andrei Marcu, bar manager at Coupette in London. “Many of these spirits are flavored using natural ingredients with little to no sugar added, instead of artificial ones which previously dominated the market. For me, that is very attractive.” It’s a sentiment shared by Ray Tremblay, director of beverage at Coje Management Group in Boston, who denounces the “crazy flavors” of the past, such as cookie dough vodka, and praises refined products whose natural flavoring actually enhances them.
These higher-quality flavored spirits have given bartenders and home enthusiasts an alternative to creating their own infusions, which often lack consistency and quality from batch to batch compared with commercial products. “If you want to do something a little bit more flavorwise, or want to put a twist on a classic drink, flavored spirits are the way to go,” says Jorge Figueroa, beverage director at All Day Baby in Los Angeles. “They’re a great way of adding distinct flavors without compromising the alcohol content.”
But mixing with a flavored spirit should still be done in moderation. “In my opinion, less is more,” says Figueroa. “As long as you let that flavor be the star, flavored spirits can work in any type of cocktail—from Martinis to Piña Coladas.”
To sift through the ever-expanding category of flavored spirits, we surveyed bartenders from around the world to better understand which ones they turn to for cocktails, and why. Here are the top bottles they recommended.
Plantation Stiggins’ Fancy Pineapple Rum
“Plantation Pineapple is an all-time favorite,” says Rudi Merkin, assistant manager at Dutch Courage in Amsterdam. The rum was created as a tribute to the character Reverend Stiggins, from Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, whose favorite drink was pineapple rum.
Unlike many other flavored rums out there, Stiggins’ Fancy is made with a blend of two spirits: Plantation 3 Stars rum, which is infused with the rinds of Victoria pineapples then further distilled, and Plantation Original Dark rum, which is infused with pineapple flesh. The blend of the two infused rums creates a tropically flavored spirit with notes of pineapple, caramel, clove and baking spices. Merkin cites the depth of flavor, beyond just fresh pineapple, as the reason the spirit works so well in cocktails. “It’s sublime in a pineapple Daiquiri,” he says.
- Price: $30
- ABV: 40%
Absolut Vanilia Vodka
Given the meteoric rise of the Espresso Martini, and the enduring popularity of the Pornstar Martini, particularly in European bartending circles, it’s no surprise that vanilla-flavored vodka makes the list. Absolut is the go-to brand for two bartenders based in Grand Cayman: Johnson Wisdom Dogbey, head bartender at Union Grill & Bar, and Gregor Šauperl, bar manager at Bacaro.
“The sweetness and vanilla aroma of the spirit works beautifully in our [Espresso Martini] recipe, which is a more dessert-like version of the classic cocktail,” says Šauperl.
Absolut’s version is also the preferred product for the original Pornstar Martini, so it has solidified itself in cocktail history, just as the brand’s Absolut Citron is the citrus vodka for the Cosmopolitan.
- Price: $30
- ABV: 38%
SelvaRey Coconut Rum
That’s right: Bruno Mars has his own coconut rum, and, despite the stigma of celebrity-backed spirits, it’s apparently bartender approved. SelvaRey coconut is distilled in antique copper column stills in Pesé, Panama, where the two-year-old rum flavored with natural “coconut essence” is crafted by master blender Francisco “Don Pancho” Fernandez.
“SelvaRey is a nice upgrade from other coconut rums,” says Figueroa, of All Day Baby. “It’s great for amping up coconut flavor without having to use a lot of heavy coconut cream.” The spirit can also contribute coconut flavor to stirred drinks, without being too rich. At 30 percent ABV, SelvaRey coconut rum has a slightly lower proof than traditional rums, and is best used as a modifier in smaller doses to add tropical flavor to drinks. Remember: Less is more with big-flavored spirits.
- Price: $30
- ABV: 30%
Ketel One Botanical Peach & Orange Blossom Vodka
The love for the Ketel One Botanical range was undeniable among the surveyed bartenders. While each of the expressions makes a convincing case for inclusion, it’s the Peach & Orange Blossom version that was specifically touted for its mixability. “It gives a vodka drink that extra dimension, while still very much behaving like a vodka,” says Merkin. “I often use it mixed with grapefruit soda, and at 30 percent ABV, it’s also a good option for lower-ABV drinks.”
The botanical vodka is bursting with notes of candied white peaches and floral orange blossom. Each botanical essence is individually extracted and distilled, which yields a fresh, clean product that has a lush texture and vibrant flavor profile. The product shows endless versatility, elevating vodka-sodas as the base spirit or shining as a modifier in a spritz.
- Price: $30
- From: 30%
Sipsmith Zesty Orange Gin
The citrusy Sipsmith Zesty Orange pays homage to the classic London dry style. But in addition to Sipsmith’s standard botanicals, this expression dials up the orange flavor with an infusion of fresh and dried orange peels, combined with bergamot zest and leaves.
Sergio Leanza, owner of Funkidory in London, suggests using it in a wet, floral take on the Martini, or paired with chocolate or coffee. For example, Funkidory’s coffee Negroni combines the spirit with coffee liqueur for layered flavor. In addition to channeling the classic flavor pairing of orange and chocolate, the gin has a surprising note of warming cinnamon spice on the nose that makes it well-suited to the dessert-like serves.
- Price: $29
- ABV: 40%