It’s been a long day in a new city. The sun is going down, you’ve found a fantastic little bar, and all you want to do is to try the local spirit. However, you have no idea what it is. Don’t worry, you’re not the only one who has stuck to the familiar while travelling. We love trying new cuisines, but we get a little bit freaked out when it comes to the strong stuff. Forewarned is forearmed, so educate yourself on the many spirits available in the world, including those you won’t easily find in the United States.
As a disclaimer: These spirits are not widely available in the US in your everyday, neighbourhood bar. There will likely be (very cool) bars in America that serve them — but it’s still better to try them in their countries of origin where you can get the full cultural context.
1. Wiśniówka in Poland
If you’ve been to Poland, you may well have sampled Wiśniówka without even knowing it. A shot glass of this strong, cherry-flavored liqueur — created by soaking cherries in vodka or another neutral spirit — sometimes appears on your table after you finish a massive meal of pierogies and Wiener Schnitzel. It’ll help calm your stomach, and warm you from the inside out during Poland’s bitterly cold winter.
2. Rakija in Croatia
This fruit brandy, popular throughout the Balkans, is used to celebrate pretty much any occasion in Croatia — whether that’s a national holiday or just making it through the work week. The best Rajika is almost always homemade, so try to befriend a local Croatian who might be willing to share their so-called medicinal brew with you. If you stay at a locally-owned guest home or hostel, you’re more than likely to be offered a glass or two.
3. Brennivín in Iceland
A stiff drink in Iceland isn’t just a nice to have, it’s a necessity come winter. Brennivín is a caraway and cumin spiced spirit, which until the 1980s was the most popular drink in Iceland — even if its local colloquial name of the “Black Death” is mildly off-putting. Brennivín has popped up in a few bars in the US recently, but you should still add it to your must-do-in-Iceland list. It might even help you spot some of those famous Icelandic elves.
4. Soju in South Korea
This clear, odorless (but somehow sweet) rice liquor is commonly drunk in South Korea. It’s usually drunk straight, with food, but you can find the occasional Soju cocktail. This is one drink you may be able to find in a Korean bar in the US, but given its massive popularity overseas, it’s still relatively unknown in America. That popularity may stem from the fact that it lacks the afterburn of vodka — and goes down a lot more smoothly. However, it’s pretty darn potent, as the #blackoutkorea hashtag demonstrates.
5. Baijiu in China
If you’re into the good old-fashioned burn, Baiju is your new BFF. The world’s highest selling spirit, the words ‘paint stripper’ come to mind when downing a shot glass of baijiu, which is distilled from sorghum, rice, corn, or other grains. It’s hard to miss the burning sensation when drinking, and most foreigners struggle with the taste — and their ability to remain upright — after consuming. Remember, even if people refer to it as a wine, don’t go drinking it by the cupful. A baiju hangover is the world’s worst hangover –no contest.
6. Träkál in Chile
A newcomer to the spirit world, Träkál is a triple-distilled liquor that is brewed from Patagonian pears, herbs, berries and apples. It’s not quite gin, and it’s not quite whiskey, but it’s a delicious new (and unprecedented) drink – the concept being so unique, the authorities didn’t even know how to classify it. While it’s certainly a rarity in America, you can sample this unique brew at a select few bars in Colorado.
7. Yogurito in Japan
Ah Japan, you never cease to disappoint. Yogurito is a yogurt based spirit which is, oddly, brewed in Holland, bottled in France, and shipped to Japan. If you can overlook the amount of carbon miles associated with each bottle, you might want to try this strange drink, traditionally mixed with orange or pineapple juice. Just don’t count on it for your daily calcium intake. Suntory officials have made it very clear that “Yogurito is made from yogurt and tastes like yogurt, but is not yogurt. We cannot say that it’s healthy.”
8. Unicum in Hungary
This rather unfortunately named liquor has a long history in Hungary. First created in 1790 and normally drunk as a digestif, the recipe of 40-something herbs and spices is a closely guarded secret. Be prepared for a bitter taste – that cross on the bottle, indicating its medicinal qualities, isn’t just there for show. While you can get a similar drink, Zwack, in the US, the original recipe is only brewed in Hungary, so take a trip if you want to try the real deal.
9. Arak in Lebanon (and many other places)
Flavored with star anise, this liquor is not only popular in Lebanon, but also consumed in Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Turkey. It is normally served with water, and when the two liquids mix, it takes on a milky color – hence its nickname throughout the Middle East, the milk of lions. The preparation of your drink is a bit of a ceremony, as it must be poured in a particularly order – ice first, liquor poured over – to prevent an oily layer forming on top. It’s also another spirit packing a powerful punch, so sample in moderation. Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia make their own variety, often homemade and frequently served in restaurants.