The realm of beverage alcohol is endlessly fascinating; there’s always something to discover and learn. And as technology continues to evolve the way we communicate and interact with the world, those responsible for keeping pace with trends, market demands and introducing increasingly knowledgeable guests to “new” beverage categories have their work cut out for them.
Jeff Cioletti, author of The Year of Drinking Adventurously and founder of The Drinkable Globe, sought to help with this overwhelming but highly rewarding workload. His 2017 BAR at NRA Show presentation identified more than a dozen emerging spirits categories that you need to know in 2017 and beyond.
Some of these you may know, some may be new to you. A number of these spirits, whether you’re familiar with them or not, will require a good amount of effort and maximizing your distributor relationships to add to your inventory. Today’s demand by guests for the new, unique and rare makes all of the time and effort looking into these spirits worthwhile. After all, the unique and rare command top dollar.
Let’s take a look at 10 of the spirits you need to know now.
Over the past few years guests have taken great pains to let everyone know that they can’t get enough whiskey. Scotch, Irish whiskey, bourbon, American rye, high-end Canadian blends… All of these are in high demand, but what about whiskeys from other regions? French, Indian, Australian and New Zealand whiskey (or whisky, if you prefer) are finding footholds in the US market. Interestingly enough, while Japan introduces more blends (a necessity due to the insane demand for Japanese single malt whisky over the past several years), single malt production is picking up in other countries.
Irish single malts in particular should be on your radar. This may come as a surprise but single malt whiskey is actually the style that made Irish whiskey famous. It was the dominant style of whiskey made in the country until the mid-20th century. As it turns out, our so-called “noble experiment” is responsible for damaging Irish whiskey. Moonshiners and rotgut producers would make low-quality “whiskey,” slap a label on the bottle that identified it as Irish whiskey, and it was assumed all Irish whiskey was swill.
You also need to become aware of Poitín. This is high ABV, unaged Irish whiskey. This white whiskey is, at its core, Irish moonshine. Brands to research are Mad March Hare and Teeling Spirit of Dublin.
Whiskey is the spirited most commonly associated with the sprits renaissance in the United States. But the United Kingdom’s spirits renaissance is being led by gin. Guests and aficionados who love spirits and their history will be thankful if you begin stocking the Dutch forerunner to gin: genever.
Gin as we know it is actually an adaptation of genever created by the English, and it’s completely different. Whereas gins are made from neutral spirit, genever is made from malt wine. The flavor of malt wine comes through on the palate, and it is certainly what separates it from gin.
The inclusion of mezcal on this list should come as no surprise – this category has been experiencing quite a moment. However, you may not be aware of just how different mezcal is from tequila, beyond the smoky taste profile. Unlike tequila, Mezcal can be made from 30 different agave varietals, and 90% of this spirit is produced in Oaxaca. The smoky characteristic, by the way, comes from the production method: mezcals are made using underground charcoal-heated ovens.
The premium entrants of this category are the 100% agave versions, and aged mezcals (labeled “añejo,” one thing they do have in common with tequila) can be aged for 5 years or more.
There seems to be a lot of confusion swirling around rum and rhum agricole. Rum is made from either sugar cane juice or sugar cane byproducts, such as molasses; rhum agricole (the French term) is a style of rum and is distilled solely from sugar cane juice. To clarify the broad category of rum further, demerara rum is created by fermenting molasses.
The flavor profile of rhum agricole is overtly grassy, which is what separates it from the molasses-based rums. Rhum agricole is a traditional spirit in the French Caribbean, and the surge in popularity of tiki bars and cocktails has helped more people across the globe discover it.
Native to Bolivia, singani is distilled from Muscat of Alexandria grapes. It’s the elevation at which these grapes are grown – above 5,250 feet – that separates singani from pisco (beyond the grape varietal). This brandy is also distilled at high altitude, and the resulting liquid is floral, aromatic and earthy. One reason singani is starting to gain traction is the fact that it plays well as a replacement for many ingredients, such as rum, vodka and rye whiskey. You’ll want to look into Singani 63, the brand made famous recently by Steven Soderbergh.
You’ve no doubt at least heard whispers of the Scandinavian spirit called aquavit, a caraway- or dill-forward spirit that pairs well with pickled herring and works particularly well in a Bloody Mary. Aquavit producers have found that barrel-aging the spirit and putting it on a ship to cross the equator twice (yes, they’re really doing this) makes the flavor more distinct.
This spirit, which has its origins in Lebanon, Jordan and Israel, is most likely one of the oldest spirits known to man. Those interested in experimenting with arak should understand this spirit’s similarities to absinthe. Just like the (in)famous “green fairy” (“la fée verte” in French), arak has an anise flavor and clouds with just a touch of water.
Cioletti refers to shochu as the “sessionable spirit” due to the fact that, on average, most examples come in at 25% ABV. The most popular base for creating this Japanese spirit is sweet potato but it can also be made with rice, barley, brown sugar, sugar cane, soba, buckwheat, and nearly 50 other bases. The finest examples are distilled just once. Contrary to a prevailing misconception, shochu is not like vodka as it is not a neutral spirit. But perhaps the most important thing to understand is that shochu is not the same as soju.
This is Korea's national spirit, and it’s commonly confused with shochu (as mentioned above). Soju is typically distilled multiple times, has a low(ish) ABV, derives less character from its base, and is sweeter due to the level of sugar present. It is becoming increasingly popular to use soju for infusions. Interestingly, the highest volume spirit brand in the world is a soju: Jinro, from producer HiteJinro. The brand has been around since 1924.
If you were surprised to learn about Jinro’s status in the world of spirits, you may be shocked to learn that baijiu is the largest spirits category in the world; a massive 10,000 distilleries throughout China produce baijiu. This traditional Chinese beverage can be made from multiple base ingredients: sorghum (it used to be called sorghum wine, actually), standard rice, sticky rice, corn and wheat. The pronounced flavors of chocolate, sour pineapple and mushroom are a combination that takes some getting used to, and it’s important to note that it will overpower just about any other ingredient with which it is mixed. Still, baijiu has captured the attention of some bartenders who are obsessed with learning how to make cocktails with it.