When it comes to certain spirits, it really is better to give than to receive.
You know which ones I’m talking about. They’re scattered among your most frequent pours but are seldom called into action, even when the packaging screams for attention—slope-shouldered, with slick square stoppers; gilded orbs, like gifts of the Magi; literally friar-shaped; tall, skinny and shockingly yellow.
They hold rank along the back rows of our home bars and hunker down for the longest haul, making dust-shrouded eyes at us each time we approach. Personally, I’m pretty sure I’ve been fostering the same three-quarters-full amaretto since the height of the John Kerry swiftboating controversy. Our political landscape has changed so much since then, yet the bottle remains.
None of this stuff arrives with an easy-to-digest instruction manual. So what’s the right move when a product of this ilk enters your DIY cocktailing orbit? We’ve asked bartenders around the country well-versed in niche spirits and liqueurs to provide a little guidance when it comes to maxing out your most enigmatic potable presents.
Galliano is best known for its tall, pillar-esque bottle that’d look at home propping up an ancient Roman portico. Ancestrally Italian, the 85-proof liqueur counts over 30 herbs and botanicals among its makeup, but vanilla is by far the most prominent flavor, followed by quieter anise notes. Traditionally nipped neat as an after-dinner drink or combined with coffee, Galliano is also a key component in a few antiquated American cocktails, most notably the Harvey Wallbanger. But, a self-described ambassador of “besmirched spirits,” bartender Resa Mueller of Philadelphia’s LALO advocates for Galliano’s inclusion as a curveball in a number of classic drinks. “Cocktail-wise, it works in a lot of places that maraschino does,” says Mueller, noting that Galliano’s sweet, round character coaxes out similar notes found in an American whiskey, especially one you might lean on for a bourbon-based Improved Manhattan.
The first time I ever ordered a drink at a bar, I panicked and asked for an Amaretto Sour. I’d never had one, but even so I suspected that the swampy green thing I received wasn’t right. Indeed, Mueller knows you’ve got to use the right strategy when it comes to the effective use of “fluffy, nutty, SweeTart” Disaronno, the first name in almond-flavored Italian cordials. A 56-proof amaretto the color of amber, the sweet liqueur can be deployed as a subtle substitute in a number of recipes (replacing the Bénédictine in a Bobby Burns, for example). If you’d like to showcase it, however, Mueller’s Amaretto Sour is the ideal vehicle.
While you can find anise liqueurs throughout the Mediterranean, Italy’s take on the category might carry the most name recognition. Sambuca is typically consumed on its own, diluted with water or in a caffé corretto, where it’s combined with espresso. Instead of trying to temper Sambuca, Maxim Gerasimenko, a bartender at San Francisco’s Trick Dog, suggests harnessing its wintry potential. “Anise is a wonderful spice, and not only for its unmistakably welcoming aroma,” he says—it also works well with a multitude of flavors. Gerasimenko combines it with the bitter, sweet and bittersweet in his The ‘Buca Stops Here.
An 80-proof liqueur from Campania, Strega resembles other Italian digestivi like Galliano in appearance, but “The Witch,” as its name translates to in English, has its own spice-rack magic going on. (Benevento, the spirit’s city of origin, has birthed ample supernatural folklore, hence the spooky name.) Vanilla, fennel and saffron stand out among Strega’s 70-some-odd ingredients, but there’s a savory dynamic in play here via pepper and juniper. “It really helps a cocktail pop … [and] with the addition of saffron and vanilla flavors, it also becomes perfect for this time of year,” says Daniel Miller, beverage director of Washington, D.C.’s Fancy Radish, who deploys its seasonal characteristics in his gin-based Hope You Find Your Dad!
Sambuca and Strega are both used regularly in baking and cooking applications, and the same goes for the French liqueur Chambord. Mikki Kristola of The Varnish in Los Angeles likes to reduce the distinctive raspberry liqueur to drizzle over pancakes and also adds it to her brownie mix. But it has additional value in the home bar, beyond the requisite 1980s-era French Martini (vodka, Chambord and pineapple juice). As it’s unrepentantly sweet, you’re easily able to “swap out any simple syrup for Chambord,” says Kristola, who favors it with dark rum in the colder months, particularly in her Baya Baya, a rum sour topped with sparkling wine.
Styled like a pious man of the cloth, down to the ornate Dark Ages typeface and knotted rope belt, Frangelico is instantly recognizable on the shelf. But few are familiar with the friar’s actual utility in drinks. “At 40 percent sugar by weight, it’s obviously sweet,” says Sother Teague of Amor y Amargo. While the most recognizable flavor here is hazelnut, Teague also points out that the liqueur features “cocoa back notes and a little hint of dried berries… it’s tailor made for holiday imbibing.” Low in alcohol with a pancake syrup-like profile, Frangelico can easily be swapped into eggnog or coquito—just replace half of whichever spirit you’re using with it. It can also pull double duty in a stirred cocktail, simultaneously sweetening the drink and adding character, as in Teague’s Frangelico Old-Fashioned.