For travelers who seek connection with others and the pleasure of local flavors, being stuck at home in isolation can be especially difficult.
Around the country, though, people are finding social connection by hosting virtual happy hours on platforms like Zoom.
What better excuse, then, to travel vicariously through the spirits in your bar cart?
Stay home, but drink globally with international spirits that put a twist on your usual refreshments. Many of them can be enjoyed neat or on the rocks (a reminder to keep things simple right now), though all of them work well in easy-to-make cocktails with ingredients that you likely already have on hand.
It’s important to note that these spirits are typically easy to find at most local liquor stores. Many liquor stores right now are offering curbside pickup, and depending on where you live you might be able to use a delivery service like Drizly. If you can grab a bottle of Angostura bitters, even better.
To encourage sensible shopping during an economically and logistically challenging time, the drinks suggested use ingredients that are typically kitchen staples and are simple to pick up (or order) on your next major grocery store run.
Below are five international spirits to imbibe during your next virtual happy hour (or weekday, at-home brunch, since there are no longer any rules).
Amaro, which translates to bitter, is an Italian category of liqueurs. There are several amari with varying levels of bitterness.
If you’re new to the world of amari, you might want to start with Amaro Nonino Quintessentia. Made by the Nonino family in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of Italy, this amaro, made with herb-infused grappa, is considered by bar experts to be one of the most drinkable.
“It has really pretty notes of bitter orange and some vanilla and some caramel and some baking spice and some herbaceousness,” says Sean Umstead, owner of the bar Kingfisher Bar in Durham, North Carolina. He also loves that it’s not overbearingly bitter.
Thomas Moore, divisional bar training manager of Lettuce Entertain You Restaurants in Chicago, says that Amaro Nonino is essentially a cocktail in a bottle in terms of complexity and nuance. All you need to do is pour some over ice in a tumbler, add a splash of soda and a twist of orange and sip it.
Japanese whisky was first crafted in the 1920s after Masataka Taketsuru became smitten with Scotch while living in Scotland.
These days, Japanese whiskies still emulate Scotch by primarily using malted barley and aging in a variety of wooden barrels. Certain brands are hard to find and expensive, but Suntory Whisky Toki is pretty accessible.
“It starts off with a lot of orchard fruits and then kind of comes in on the back end with some of those darker vanilla and lightly oaky notes,” says Umstead. The easiest, and best, way to enjoy it is in a Japanese highball: one ounce of Toki to four ounces of soda water. Lemon peel garnish optional.
If finding Suntory Toki is too difficult, there’s always Scotch.
Mercedes O’Brien, bar manager of Atlanta’s Cold Beer, suggests the Great King Street line from Scottish whisky brand Compass Box. “Scotch is always going to play well with either things that complement or contrast it.” To complement the barley and malt notes, try pairing it with ginger in a drink.
A French liqueur that’s been around half a millennium, Benedictine is a digestif made with nearly 30 herbs. While the exact herbal blend is a secret (legend has it, it was created by a Benedictine monk), there is angelica, hyssop and lemon balm in it.
Moore suggests using it in a Monte Carlo, a play on an Old Fashioned that’s two ounces of rye whisky, a half ounce of Benedictine and a couple of dashes of Angostura bitters.
“It elevates that Old Fashioned template and gives it a little bit of herbal complexity,” says Moore.
A Mexican spirit made from agave and a cousin to tequila (which is made solely from the blue agave plant), mezcal is known for its smoky flavor profile.
Despite its smokiness, though, both O’Brien and Umstead agree it’s an incredibly versatile spirit. The roasted agave flavors lend themselves nicely to cocktails that call for brown liquors, while its floral, vegetal notes work in cocktails that call for spirits like gin and vodka.
If you’re new to mezcal, try starting with Banhez or Los Vecinos. Neither is overwhelmingly smoky, making them easy to drink on their own.
Moore likes using mezcal in place of gin in a Negroni. Add one ounce of mezcal, one ounce of Campari, one ounce sweet Vermouth to a shaker filled with ice, shake and strain into an ice-filled Old Fashioned glass. Garnish with an orange slice if you have an orange handy.
It’s always a good idea to have a bottle of rum on hand. Made from sugarcane, all rums have an inherent sweetness about them. The darker the rum, the longer it’s been aged and the more robust its flavor profile.
A trip to the beach is out of the question right now, but you can channel those tropical vibes through a rum tipple enjoyed on your couch.
“If I was going to pick up some rum at the store, I would get an overproof rum,” Umstead says, referring to rum bottled at over 100 proof. “Plantation O.F.T.D. is readily available in many places. It’s a 69% aged rum. It’s overproof and it’s Jamaican and it’s funky and punchy. A little bit goes a long way.”
Try it in a riff on a Dark and Stormy, with ginger beer and lime.
A lighter alternative is Banks Five Island rum, a blend of rums from Trinidad, Jamaica, Guyana, Barbados and Java. Drink it in a classic daiquiri.
O’Brien makes hers by combining a half ounce rich simple syrup (two cups of sugar to one cup of water, heated in a saucepan until the sugar dissolves), one ounce lime juice, and two ounces of white rum.
Lia Picard is an Atlanta-based journalist covering food and travel. Keep up with her adventures on Instagram.