By Bruce Collier
Pisco, Arak, Shochu, Goldwasser and Zubrowka may sound like the name of an ethnically diverse law firm, but it’s actually a list of off-the-beaten-path spirits. They come from South America, the Mideast, Europe and Japan. I bought all but one in Florida (Destin and Jacksonville), and had to order one from New York.
$24.99 for 750 ml
80 proof (40% ABV)
Pisco is Peruvian or Chilean brandy distilled from fermented grape juice. It was reportedly developed after the Spanish conquest of Peru, when Spaniards were looking for a local alternative to imported brandies from Spain. It’s distilled once, bottled at distilled proof (no dilution, as is done with whiskey), and must be aged in glass, stainless steel, or other material that doesn’t alter its physical, chemical or organic properties—no wood, specifically.
La Caravedo (from Peru) is a puro, made from one single varietal grape (Quebranta). I chilled it and drank it neat. The nose is fresh, herbal, with oyster-brine on the finish. As it loses the chill, the grape juice moves forward, to a sweet, fresh grape smell, then prunes and slivovitz. Tasted straight, it’s musty, sweet, with green grapes, melon, and canned lychee. I also tried it in a Chilcano (with ginger ale) and the grapiness and spice worked well together. If you like fruit, Pisco offers a virtual orchard.
$27.99 for 750 ml
100 proof (50% ABV)
This Lebanese spirit is distilled from grapes. I tasted it neat and also with water. Water makes it cloudy, like watery milk. The nose is predominantly sweet anise. Neat it’s very hot, strong, dry, herbal, fiery. With water it’s softened, milder, more grassy, with a slight bitter grapefruit peel and fresh fennel, much more refreshing and drinkable. Arak and water is traditionally drunk with food—“meze”—flavorful snacks like olives, cheese, pickles, hummus, Greek and Mediterranean-Middle Eastern fare. It sharpens the appetite, and is an ideal balance for oily fish, seafood, and grilled tidbits.
$26.99 for 750 ml
48 proof (24% ABV)
By some accounts, the Japanese consume more shochu than either sake or whiskey. This lower-proof spirit can be distilled from sweet potatoes, buckwheat, sesame, rice, et al.
Kaikouzu Imo is distilled from 84% sweet potato, 16% rice. I drank it straight, chilled from the refrigerator. The nose is similar to slivovitz or plum eau de vie. It’s smooth, low burn, with a slightly creamy texture and mouth feel. There’s a plummy (though dry) finish and lingering aftertaste. With more air, there’s a roasted-root or baked potato peel aroma, and a hint of lavender. Both flavor and aroma become more pronounced as it warms to room temperature.
$7.29 for 50 ml
80 proof (40% ABV)
Since 1598, Danziger Goldwasser has been a luxury drink of kings, popes, and emperors, including that epic carouser, Tsar Peter the Great. It was originally distilled in Danzig (now Gdańsk, Poland) but now is distilled in Norten- Hardenberg, Germany.
I have not been able to find out what makes up the spirit base, probably some grain. It’s colorless, with tiny flakes of 22-carat gold floating in it—hence its name and status. Gold was long believed to be good for health; modern science simply says that consuming small amounts won’t hurt. I tried this neat at room temperature.
There was no scent at first, then cinnamon, but mild. It has a syrupy body, with cinnamon and anise flavor, sweet but not overly sweet. Cinnamon remains on the aftertaste, like pastry flavoring. The gold has no taste, though I made sure to consume all of it. Tsar Peter would want that.
$22.99 for 750 ml
80 proof (40% ABV)
This brand, called Zu, is rye vodka, infused with buffalo grass. I tasted it chilled from the fridge. The color is barely greenish-yellow, like very weak green tea. On the nose there’s cured, almost fermented fruit—apples, golden raisins, sweet spice, rye, vanilla—and raisin bread.
The taste is full and sweet at first, with a savory background. There’s sage, and herbes de Provence. It’s fruity, with a peppery hot bite that quickly subsides. The aftertaste is lingering, unsweetened green apple peel. The Poles like it mixed with apple juice.
While not always available in American liquor stores, the above spirits are very popular in their home countries, and well worth seeking out and trying.