The current obsession with boundary-pushing cocktails and mixology has bartenders leaving no bottle unturned (or unopened) in the search for new ingredients and flavor combinations. Sometimes these innovations come not from the latest smooth-talking brand, but instead by dusting off neglected spirits of the past. Some are obscure, leaving even experienced drinkers to fire off an online search before ordering, while others are just misunderstood. What’s most important though is that they add new complexities and tastes to today’s cocktails. Here are some of the best old-school bottles of booze that are finding their way back into bartenders’ arsenal.
When it comes to French brandy, the smooth and refined Cognac gets all the attention. It’s the perennial favorite of U.S. bartenders mixing up classics like Sazeracs and Sidecars. Recently though, bartenders have been gravitating toward Armagnac, a somewhat less-polished French brandy. Armagnac is distilled from a greater variety of grapes than Cognac is, and it also only requires one round of distillation, meaning the end spirit retains more character and flavor. That’s a big plus when you’re making drinks. The aging requirements are lower as well.
Benedictine was founded in France in 1863 as a creation of Alexandre Le Grand. Some stories say that it was taken from an earlier recipe from Benedictine monks in the early 16th century. The brand is now owned by Bacardi and is seeing more placement in bars and cocktail menus. Benedictine is an almost syrupy, herbal and sweet liquor that comes in at 40% ABV. The closely-guarded recipe has 27 components, giving more than enough angles to shine in drinks.
As its name suggests, Chartreuse is made by Carthusian monks of France, as it has been for hundreds of years. The herbal spirit was first produced back in 1737 as a 138-proof medicinal beverage. The recipe was amended in 1764 to produce the more reasonable 110-proof (55% ABV) Green Chartreuse that’s on shelves today. The sweeter, milder Yellow Chartreuse (40% ABV) took shape in 1838. Green Chartreuse is made from 130 ingredients that give it a complex, earthy, and herbal flavor. Its high proof helps it stand up in cocktails, and it has a place in several standard drinks, including the Bijou and the Last Word. The lighter Yellow Chartreuse, by contrast, is ideal for sipping or for use in more subtle cocktails.
Drambuie is a blended Scotch whiskey that doesn’t enjoy the respect that other brands do. Its history can be traced back to 1746, but until recently, it was more associated with the back of liquor cabinets or simple coffee drinks than it was with serious mixology. Drambuie’s smooth whiskey taste is tempered by spices, honey, and herbs, making it an approachable and versatile cocktail ingredient. It became popular with the rise of the Rusty Nail, a blend of Drambuie and more straightforward blended Scotch, which gained notoriety in the 1960s. It’s appearing on menus again in a variety of ways, including new takes on coffee cocktails, punches and much more. It’s hard to find a liquor it doesn’t work well with.
Jagermeister was created in 1934 (its origins actually reach back further than that) and is usually found chilling—literally—behind the bar, waiting to be poured into shot glasses and downed by groups out for a good time. But the German digestif is good for more than just heavy-drinking partiers. Jagermeister is 35% ABV and made from 56 ingredients such as ginger, cardamom and star anise. The spirit’s earthy, herbal and licorice notes are off-putting to some, especially when it’s taken a shot. But the flavors work well in the right cocktails, whether it’s paired with another spirit like whiskey or ingredients like citrus or soda.