Serious Eats: Drinks
Booze From Abroad: 3 Unique International Spirits You Should Try
When it comes time to unwind, I usually reach for domestic drinks. Bourbon, American gins, and our amazing wealth of microbrewed beers are high on my list of go-to tipples. But every now and then I get adventurous, and yearn to explore an exotic destination. These 3 bottles offer a trip around the world—no passport required.
Country of Origin: Iceland
Claim to Fame: Nicknamed "Black Death" for its legendary kick
Although it is no longer the everyday sipper for most locals, this caraway flavored liquor is Iceland's signature spirit. Born from a fermented potato mash, it's quite similar to akvavit, and like akvavkit, it's best enjoyed straight from the freezer as a quick shot. This stuff is said to be the only way to chase the taste of local delicacy hákarl (ahem, fermented shark). Bottled at 80 proof (or in the case of the smaller sizes, an inexplicable 75 proof), it's definitely not for the faint of heart.
The clear spirit comes on strong, with rough alcoholic edges, but it's pleasantly creamy, and the caraway balances out the sweet starchy potato body nicely. While black label was added to discourage overconsumption, we think it actually makes the booze look pretty cool. If you're into akvavit, or need to get the taste of fermented fish out of your mouth, look no further.
White Lion VSOA
Country of Origin: Sri Lanka
Claim to Fame: It's the first arrack-style liquor to be imported to the USA
White Lion starts with a romantic image: Sri Lankan men balance on ropes 80 feet above the jungle floor, trekking from coconut tree to coconut tree for unopened blossoms brimming with nectar. After collection, the sap begins to naturally ferment due to its high sugar and yeast content, and it must be transported and distilled within 24 hours to lock in its delicate flavor. The result is a wonderfully distinct liquor, known locally as coconut arrack. White Lion VSOA is the first arrack-style liquor to be imported to the USA (it is not directly named arrack due to US labeling laws). (Note, Batavia Arrack is different stuff, made from sugarcane).
A dark caramel color, White Lion VSOA is somewhere between a funky rum and a fruity whiskey, but with none of the grain characteristics. There's an earthy bite up front, but then the tropical fruits notes balance it out, and there's definitely no mistaking the sweet nectar origin of the booze. It's utterly unique in my experience, and delightful. The cocktail possibilities are pretty endless, so the next time you can't make it down to the Indian Ocean, break out a bottle of the White Lion.
Country of Origin: South Africa
Claim to Fame: Elephants love marula fruit, people love marula liqueur
The marula fruit is a bit of an oddball—sweet yet tangy, creamy and nutty, with a citrus kick and a succulent texture—and that complexity makes for a fantastic base for booze. Amarula is made by fermenting the marula fruit into a fruit wine, which is then double distilled and aged for two years in oak. Finally, it's blended with fresh cream to create the world's #2 cream liqueur (behind Bailey's).
Like most cream liqueurs, it's a bit too sweet to take neat, but on the rocks it becomes a delicious easy sipper. This nutty liqueur has bitter spices up front: think cinnamon, cardamom, and allspice, balanced out by butterscotch and toffee sweetness, and it ends with a slight hint of alcohol carried away on a sea of cream.
This is dangerous stuff, especially if you have a predilection towards indulgent after-dinner drinks. The unusual spice flavors make it instantly distinguishable from its competitors.
What are your favorite drinks from faraway lands?
About the author: Andrew Strenio is a lover of all things potable. Since sneaking his grandmother's bourbon balls, he's moved on to touring distillers and sipping snifters. He works by day making documentary television and films for an independent production company in Brooklyn.
Disclosure: White Lion VSOA sample provided for review consideration.