Welcome to Pick Your Poison, wherein the world’s best bartenders help stock your bar, one spirit at a time.
Once upon a time, booze-making was a highly regionalized trade. You got your whiskies from Scotland, your bourbons from Kentucky, and your tequilas from Mexico. But in recent years, things have changed — for the better.
Now you can get a great whisky from Japan. Or Colorado. Or Taiwan. And your south-of-the-border need not be limited to tequila: dig a little deeper, and you'll find some lesser-known Latin American spirits that become mainstays in your home bar.
Just ask Jeff Donahue and Wade McElroy, the minds behind esteemed Chicago-based watering holes such as Sportsman's Club and Orbit Room, as well as Leisure Activities, a hospitality group rightly dedicated to “the fine art of drinking.” The two also share a passion for Latin American spirits, a theme behind one of their latest projects, the Caribbean/Latin-American-themed Estereo.
"It's difficult to generalize, but Latin American spirits have long been a source of inspiration and excitement,” said the duo in an interview. "So many different cultures are represented through the art of their locally distilled spirits. The range of styles and types of spirits are as numerous and varied as the many nations and peoples that comprise the area."
Which, understandably, can make finding the right spirit from the region daunting for the home bartender. So we asked Donahue and McElroy to give us one great example of five different regional spirits. Their flavors and ingredients are all over the map, but as the duo notes, each will “add tremendous depth of character to your home bar ... and probably a few good stories.”
Mezcal (Mexico) | Mezcal Vago Ensamble En Barro
"Ensamble en Barro" translates to "blend of agaves distilled in clay pots." It’s a beautifully rustic and artisanal spirit. Tio Rey lives and grows agave in the most bio-diverse region of Oaxaca, Sola de Vega. Each release of their "Ensamble en Barro" is a completely different blend of agaves from Espadin, Coyote, Mexicano, Tobala, Arroqueno and more. Whatever agaves are optimally ripe for harvesting is what determines the makeup of the blend, so it's a new experience with every release.
Pisco (Peru) | Tabernero La Botija Acholado Pisco
Peruvian pisco is primed for a boom. Start here: Tabernero's Acholado pisco is a blend of two traditional Peruvian pisco grapes, Quebranta and Italia. It's long been a favorite for a pisco sour, and it’s delicious to sip on or experiment with in new cocktails.
Singani (Bolivia) | Singani 63
Acclaimed film director Stephen Soderbergh has helped bring singani to the American consciousness (and cocktail menus) with his release of Singani 63. (Editor’s note: See our Singani-themed bar crawl with Soderbergh here.) A close relative to pisco, singani is a grape brandy that is grown high in the Bolivian Andes mountains at over 1,600m (one mile) of elevation, made from only Muscat of Alexandria grapes and never blended. Translation: as a spirit category, it can exhibit the terroir, seasonality and expression of the producer as dynamically as any other Latin American spirit.
Aguardiente (Ecuador) | Zhumir
This unflavored sugarcane aguardiente of Ecuador is a rustic cousin of rum but known locally as zhumir. The producer Zhumir takes its name from the spirit style and is one of the house favorite options at Estereo — its bright yellow label is unmistakable. It may not have a ton of presence in our market yet, but its affordable price and rich flavor make this a go-to option for daiquiris, tropical cocktails and shots.
Rum (Mexico) | Paranubes
High in the mountains of Oaxaca, among coffee farmers and the dense fog of cloud forests, the fine folks at Vago have found a style of rum locally produced that is every bit as alluring and complex as the stunning mezcals for which the region's hills and valleys have become so well known. Quite simply one of the most exciting and satisfying new spirits out there.