Vodka. Whiskey. Rum. Gin. Tequila. Brandy.
The six very familiar names listed above serve as the world’s most popular distilled alcoholic beverages, also known as liquor or spirits.
All vary in their country of origin, color, taste, alcohol content and mixability. Whether it be a screwdriver (vodka/orange juice), rum and coke, gin and tonic—yeah, you get the point. This is the booze you know and love.
Ok, there is also Schnapps, and a bunch of other flavored liquors (known as liqueurs) like Southern Comfort, Kahlua and Amaretto. When it comes to straight, unflavored/sugarless spirits, however, the sacred six reigns supreme.
But what if we were to tell you there were...others? That’s right; while not household names in this country, there are several types of pure liquor in the world, which in some regions are more popular than any of the six spirits listed above.
Remember: always drink in moderation, for your safety and your health. Nonetheless, drinking liquor straight (neat or on the rocks) is a better dietary route than calorie-loaded cocktails or beers with empty carbs. Straight liquor is not devoid of those, obviously, but you should be drinking less of it, and at a slower pace.
Without further ado, here are three exotic, distilled beverages to shake up your nightlife repertoire.
Hails from: Holland
Similar to: Gin
The “national spirit of Holland,” jenever is, in essence, the origin of gin, as it is derives from the same juniper plant (Jenever is Dutch for juniper). In fact, in the early 19th century, Americans imported six times more jenever than gin, and a number of classic gin cocktails were made with this strongly alcoholic liquor. Jenever and tonic, anyone?
(Jenever became phased out in the Western world when English distillers subbed out the malt wine content, which forms the base of jenever, in favor of neutral alcohol and a heavier infusion of juniper berries. With that, traditional gin was born.)
The drink still dominates the Netherlands booze market, accounting for 25 percent of all distilled spirits sold. It comes in two forms, oude (old) and jonge (young), which differ in distilling process and taste. Jonge is more neutral like vodka and best served ice cold, while oude is known for its malty flavor, similar to whisky, and is typically served at room temperature.
For a traditional spin on jenever, chase an ice-cold shot of jonge with a nice frothy lager. In Flanders, Belgium (where jenever also has national ties) the combo is known as a headbutt (kopstoot). Bottoms up!
Hails from: Mexico
Similar to: Tequila
Who’s got the worm? Similar to gin and jenever, tequila owes its origins to mezcal; the original distilled spirit of Mexico, made from the mystical agave plant. Tequila, in its modern form, can be considered a form of mezcal, but is unique in that is made specifically from blue agave and is held to stricter standards in its distillation.
Present-day mezcal is still made the same way it was over 200 years ago, from the heart (piña) of the agave plant. While not as smooth as tequila, it still comes in white and golden forms, as well as aged mezcal, which is barreled for up to four years. Also, while it’s not nearly as popular as it’s Margarita-making spawn, mezcal is growing in popularity in the U.S. and abroad, evident by growing exports out of Mexico.
Back to the highly debated worm; there’s some heated debate over its presence in tequila bottles, however, mezcal brands are known to carry the creatures. The worm, which lives in the agave plant, is stored in the liquor, then drained, sorted and placed back in the bottle at the end of the process. If you are bold enough to bite into one, by all means.
Unlike tequila, mezcal is not meant for margarita mix, and is traditionally shot back. It has a stinging, some would say acquired taste, so have your lime wedges ready. Mezcal has been considered an aphrodisiac, but not a hallucinogen, despite its similar sounding name to mescaline. If you want to get really old school, pour a shot out on the ground as an offering to the Mayahuel – goddess of agave and the fertility of Earth. Amén.
Hails from: Brazil
Similar to: Rum
The most popular distilled alcoholic beverage in Brazil, cachaça is made from fermented sugarcane juice. Known as Brazilian rum, cachaça differs in that it is made from fresh sugarcane juice (fermented and distilled), while rum is most commonly made with molasses.
In fact, when rum started making its way through Europe in the 17th century, Portugal named its form of the drink aguardente, and soon enough, it became known as cachaça. Understandably, the spirit made its way to the New World in Brazil, where 1.3 billion liters are now produced annually. Unlike jenever and mezcal, however, the spirit is not a major import elsewhere, as only one percent of the production is exported out of Brazil.
Similar to rum, cachaça also comes in unaged (white) and aged (golden) versions, while the dark “premium” variety is commonly drunk straight. In Brazil and other parts of the world, cachaça is most commonly used in tropical cocktails. Caipirinha, which is—you guessed it—Brazil’s national cocktail, is made with cachaça, raw sugar and lime, poured over ice in an old-fashioned glass.
(Fun fact: Caipirinha is the diminutive version of the word caipira, which basically means redneck in Portuguese. So next time you’re at a Brazilian bar, ask for a little redneck!)