Soju is South Korea's most popular spirit Soju is South Korea's most popular spirit Soju is South Korea's most popular spirit. (Photo: Graham Hills / Flickr)

Beyond whiskey: 7 exotic spirits worth a try

These lesser-known drinks offer flavors that yearn to be experienced.

Even casual cocktail drinkers are familiar with the most popular types of spirits. Every pub and nightclub keeps famous brands of whiskey, vodka, rum, scotch, gin and brandy within easy reach of its bartenders. These classic liquors are the base for many drinks, but are not the only options. In fact, in many parts of the world, bottles of bourbons and single malt scotch are nothing more than decorations or dust collectors, and the favorite local drinks are the first choice of each and every patron.

Though they might sound exotic to many, in their home countries, spirits like arak, slivovitz, feni and soju are imbibed on every occasion. It may be time to expand your liquor palate, and this list should help.


AbsintheAbsinthe is traditionally drunk with ice water and sugar. (Photo: Jeff Vier/Flickr)

Absinthe is a strong, anise-flavored spirit that is best known for its unconventional method of preparation. First, the transparent alcohol is poured in a glass. Then, a flat spoon with holes in it is balanced on the top of the glass, and a sugar cube is put on top of the spoon. Water is slowly dripped over the sugar. As the sweetened liquid makes contact with the absinthe, the drink begins to turn cloudy. Absinthe was actually outlawed in much of the world because it was thought to cause hallucinations. The chemical compound thujone is found in trace amounts in absinthe. In higher doses, thujone can indeed cause hallucinations. However, to get this effect, a person would have to drink huge quantities of absinthe and would most likely suffer from alcohol poisoning well before experiencing visions. Absinthe's reputation most likely comes from its high alcohol content. Even the weakest brands are 90 proof, or 45 percent alcohol content. Absinthe is no longer illegal, though thujone levels are still strictly regulated. Most people describe the drink as tasting like strong black licorice.


Brazilian spirit cachaçaBrazil has many varieties of cachaça. (Photo: Vi Neves/Flickr)

Cachaça is the national drink of Brazil. It is, by far, the most imbibed spirit in the Portuguese-speaking South American nation. Outside of Brazil, it is mainly used as a base ingredient in tropical cocktails, namely the caipirinha, a blend of cachaça, lime and sugar. Like rum, cachaça is made from sugar cane. However, rum usually uses molasses (a by-product of sugar refining) as its main ingredient. Cachaça is made from fresh sugar cane juice. Since the two sugar-based spirits do have a somewhat similar taste, some people have taken to calling cachaça "Brazilian rum." In fact, Brazil went as far as making an agreement with the U.S. to end the usage of the term "Brazilian rum" and to recognize cachaça as a uniquely Brazilian product. In return, Brazil agreed to recognize imported spirits like Tennessee whiskey as distinctly American products. 


Soju is traditionally made from rice or barleySoju is traditionally made from rice or barley. (Photo: Ryan Claussen/Flickr)

Soju is wildly popular in South Korea. The most purchased brand, Jinro, is sold more than any other spirit on earth. Though its numbers are not published annually, at last count, more than 60 million cases of Jinro were sold in a 12-month period. That is three times more than Smirnoff vodka, the next most popular choice. Traditionally, this transparent drink is made from rice or barley. However, some modern versions are made from sweet potatoes or tapioca root. Soju has a neutral taste, and some people compare it to vodka, but sweeter and less harsh. Traditional soju, used for special ceremonies, can be as strong as 90 proof, but most versions are less potent, averaging 40 proof, or 20 percent alcohol. Though it is imbibed on any and every occasion, certain practices are often observed in formal or even semi-formal settings in South Korea. It is polite to receive a cup of soju from the pourer with two hands (even if two hands are not needed to hold the cup). Sometimes, it is even considered polite to turn away from your drinking partners while you take a sip of soju. 


Arack Mabrouka, one of many arack (arak) brands from IsraelArack Mabrouka, one of many arack (arak) brands from Israel. (Photo: verbaska/Shutterstock)

Arak (sometimes Romanized as arack) is a favorite spirit across the Mediterranean region. Arak is made from grape alcohol, aniseed and water, but every country does it a little different. Like absinthe, arak is clear when it is first poured, but it becomes cloudy when mixed with water. Unlike absinthe, arak is usually consumed with a significant amount of water, usually in a 50-50 mixture. In Israel, most arak brands feature a strong anise taste, almost like licorice, and its strength is generally between 80 and 100 proof. Some brands of arak, including El Massaya and Razzouk from Lebanon, are so popular they can now be found in American liquor shops. Buyers can also look out for the Greek version, known as ouzo, or the Bulgarian variant called mastika.


Traditional feni still Some Goan feni producers use traditional distilling methods. (Photo: Nagarjun Kandukuru/Flickr)

Feni is produced in the state of Goa in India. Though a coconut version is available, the most traditional form of feni is made using cashew apples. While cashew nuts are exported around the world, the apples, which have an exceedingly short shelf life, must be used almost immediately after picking. Feni is produced all over Goa. Though large commercial operations exist, many people still get their feni from small mom-and-pop distillers who craft their product using traditional methods. Because of the non-centralized marketplace, the strength of feni varies. Most varieties are double or triple distilled and fall somewhere between 80 and 100 proof. Though presses are often used, it is still a tradition in some parts of Goa to stomp on the cashew apples after the seeds have been removed. This practice is similar to stomping on grapes at a winery. The best feni is said to still have an aroma and taste that is left over from the cashew apples. Because of its strength, it is often mixed with juice or lemon and soda water.


Amaro, an Italian digestifAmaro is mainly used as an after-meal digestif. (Photo: Stephen Woolverton/Wikimedia Commons)

Amaro is an Italian liqueur. The name, which means "bitter," gives an obvious clue to the overall flavor of this beverage. It is often described as tasting bittersweet and syrupy. There are a number of different brands of amaro, all produced in Italy. They are mainly used as an after-dinner drink that is meant to aid digestion. The most well-known type of amaro is Cynar, a drink made from artichoke and a dozen other plants and herbs. Other types of aramo are made from black truffles, rhubarb, fennel or walnuts. In Italy, the drink is often served neat in a small liqueur glass, which looks like a miniature wine glass. It's also acceptable to mix it with soda water or pour it over ice.


Slivovitz is a plum-based spirit from Eastern Europe. Slivovitz is a plum-based spirit from Eastern Europe. (Photo: Romana Klee/Flickr)

Slivovitz, often called slivovitsa, is a plum brandy found throughout Eastern Europe. The word "slivovitz" is based on the Serbian and Croatian name for a type of plum used to create the drink. Major producers in the Balkans and in Central European nations like the Czech Republic make commercial versions of slivovitz. In rural areas, many people make homemade slivovitz using makeshift stills made from old barrels. In the Czech Republic, this kind of home distilling is now illegal, though lightly regulated community-owned stills are a legal alternative. In Serbia, slivovitz is almost always a part of important events such as celebration of a birth or a wedding reception. The liquor is usually drunk neat because it is said that the flavor of the plums is at its most noticeable at room temperature. Like other types of brandy, slivovitz has a sweet edge. Because so many varieties exist, strengths vary wildly. However, most good slivovitz is between 80 and 100 proof, though homemade versions can be much stronger than that.


Photos and SlideshowsPhotos and Slideshows
Beyond whiskey: 7 exotic spirits worth a try
These lesser-known drinks offer flavors that yearn to be experienced.