Ever since the aughts, when bartenders trained their sights on creating newfangled classics rather than merely resurrecting Golden Age formulas, a technique known as Mr. Potato Head has been the driving force behind original cocktail creation. As the name implies, the method relies on a plug-and-play philosophy in which bartenders can simply swap an ingredient in an existing formula with another similar ingredient, and tada! a new drink is born. But what happens when the ingredient one hopes to incorporate has no flavor equal?
For centuries, the world of spirits and liqueurs has divided itself into categories based on a set of criteria grounded in some combination of raw materials, production methods, age and location. In more recent years, however, a number of products have hit the market with no clear kinship. These products—among them, a liqueur from Mexico derived from ancestral corn, and a smoke–dried chile spirit distilled in Copenhagen—have caught the attention of adventurous drink-makers across the globe who are using these “free-form spirits,” as one producer labels them, to expand our collective palate.
As the trend for category-defying spirits only intensifies, we’ve rounded up a few of our favorites with insight into how to use each.
Based in Copenhagen, Denmark, Empirical bills itself as a “flavor company,” producing a range of spirits that famously defy classification. Their lineup includes a double-fermented koji spirit and a plum stone–flavored distillate as well as Ayuuk, a spirit made from Danish heritage wheat and pilsner malt, flavored with a dry-smoked chile called pasilla Mixe, sourced directly from the Sierra Norte range in Oaxaca, Mexico. “In many ways, Ayuuk tastes like where it comes from,” says co-founder Lars Williams, “As such, it shares a similar flavor profile to mezcal and will make a great flavor suggestion for any agave enthusiasts.” In fact, one of Empirical’s recommended applications is simply an Ayuuk Margarita, in which the chile-flavored spirit stands in—Mr. Potato Head–style—for tequila or mezcal. Alternatively, try topping it with ginger beer and a squeeze of fresh lime. [Buy]
With no end in sight for the current gin boom, a Scottish distillery called Sweetdram set out to create something different. The result is Escubac, a “botanical spirit” flavored with cardamom, citrus and nutmeg, to name a few elements, with one key omission—juniper, the calling card of gin. Bottled at a lower proof (34 percent), the not-quite-gin-not-quite-liqueur works especially well as a split base in classic builds, from the Martini to the Margarita. Nima Ansari, the longtime spirits buyer for New York’s Astor Wines & Spirits, recommends swapping it into a G&T format. “Use it for some extra depth in a classic highball,” he says. “You’ll be surprised by how seamlessly it works.” [Buy]
Chareau Aloe Vera Liqueur
Chareau Aloe Liqueur combines grape eau de vie flavored with muskmelon, lemon peel, spearmint, cucumber and fresh aloe vera juice for a product that the brand describes as “California agriculture in a bottle.” Inherently refreshing—like alcoholic spa water—it is a natural bedfellow to white spirits including tequila, gin and unaged rum. Bartender Christine Wiseman leans on the latter in her Papaya Salad Daiquiri, a tropical translation of the popular Thai snack, in which the umami notes of the “papaya salad cordial” are balanced by Chareau. “I love adding just a touch of Chareau to cocktails that already have a fresh and bright backbone,” says Wiseman. “[It] really adds that extra little treat to your cocktail.” [Buy]
Dimmi Liquore di Milano
Based on a 1930s-era vermouth recipe, the Milanese Dimmi (meaning “tell me” in Italian) was launched by Paolo and Antonio Sperone in 2005, and has since found its way onto a variety of prominent backbars across the United States. Crisp, floral and only slightly sweet, Dimmi’s appeal lies primarily in its versatility—equally capable of pairing with dark and light spirits—but most often complementing lighter spirits, like tequila, as in the Gambol and Snap, or pisco, as in the Chance Encounter, which showcases the liqueur’s stone fruit notes, alongside lemon and a splash of effervescent saison. Consider splitting the vermouth quotient of a Martini for a more fruit-forward rendition. [Buy]
Nixta Licor De Elote
Ancestral Abasolo corn distillate is blended with a clarified sweet mash of heirloom Cacahuazintle hominy for a product that is semisweet and, well, corny—in the best possible way. Bottled at 30 percent ABV, Nixta works best as a modifier and pairs particularly well with aged grain spirits like whiskey or rye, although it could just as easily stand in for the sweetener in a Oaxaca Old-Fashioned. In the colder months, Leslie Merinhoff-Kwasnieski of Matchbook Distilling likes spiking hot cocoa or Hot Toddy with it. “It’s goals kind of cozy,” she says. [Buy]