Sometimes we get so caught up in the marvelous mixtures being served at our mighty local bars and lounges that we forget that the ingredients being mixed are often great by themselves, too. To narrow down what particular cocktail ingredients are worth trying solo, I asked a few local bar stars for suggestions in their own words. I also added one of my own.
Nik Virrey (Liberty)
From Dancing Pines Distillery, this is made with real black walnuts left to mellow with the bourbon for several months. The resulting flavor is delightful and sophisticated—it received 90 points from Wine Enthusiast and a 2012 Denver International Spirits competition Bronze medal. The first time I had it, it was so intense and tasty and foreign. I fell in love. I knew immediately what I wanted to do: a Black Walnut Old Fashioned. It was comically notable that as I verbalized the idea, Keith (Liberty’s co-owner) voiced the same idea—consequently, it’s now on our spring menu. But this liqueur is very versatile and decadent alone on a solid-sized ice cube. It’s worth a couple of encounters, and I dare you not to enjoy the black liquid frequently after the first try.
Bryn Lumsden (Vessel; Vito’s)
Port's nutty cousin, this Spanish fortified wine ranges from dry and crisp (Fino) to rich and more viscous (Oloroso). Amontillado falls in between. All sherry has a trademark nutty finish that will make anyone an enthusiast. Sherry is gaining popularity but is still relatively underappreciated, which makes it very affordable. Great sherry still costs less than mediocre anything else. Lustau and Dry Sack (shown right) are wonderful brands. Fino sherry is an unmatched aperitif in addition to being my choice for any day-drinking occasion. Oloroso Sherry is exactly what you want after dinner, especially if you don't have room for desert. There’s no reason not to have a bottle or two in your home or at your bar. Fans of sherry may also enjoy a short story of revenge by Edgar Allen Poe entitled, "The Cask of Amontillado" wherein the narrator prey's on his enemy's fondness of wine to lure him to his ending.
Courtney Matzke (Rob Roy)
Rhum Agricole is distilled from fresh sugarcane juice and mostly used as a base ingredient for punches and cocktails involving several other elements. But it's often overlooked as an individual sipping spirit. It can be very intimidating to folks used to drinking regular molasses-based rum because of its typically raw, vegetal, earthy, and downright funky flavor. In my opinion, the raw twang is what gives the Rhum its character and what makes it such a great spirit to explore individually. A good way to transition towards drinking it straight would be to try it in a Ti'Punch which is made with Rhum Agricole, a bit of sugar, and a touch of lime oils and juice. It's kind of like the Martinique version of a standard bourbon old fashioned in which the base spirit is dolled up with a few extra ingredients, but still shines through as a prominent flavor in the drink. Rhum J.M is a great brand to start the exploring.
Kenaniah Bystrom (Essex)
The legendary Italian amaros are what I've been ordering at bars as of late. I like to sip on Amaros such as Averna, Nardini, and Cynar on a big rock of ice with an orange twist. I love the craftsmanship of these spirits because of their complexities and their medicinal qualities. They are essentially a cocktail in a bottle with all of the intricacies and nuances—they are the poetry of booze for me. And, coincidentally, one of my favorite things to mix with as well.
Gin, Scotch Liqueurs
Andrew Bohrer (Spirits Director, Vinum Importing)
I like drinking neat gin in the afternoon; I feel that very few modern gins taste good at room temp, but this is how you can really enjoy the subtle herbal flavors and what I like to think of as a “pastry dough sweetness.” The go-to gins for me are Plymouth, for its dreamsicle-like quality, and Hedge Trimmer from Sun Liquor because it smells like a spring day. I also like scotch-based liqueurs—Drambuie 15 and Dunkeld Atholl Brose are two amazing ones. Drambuie 15 is simply on a base of 15 year old scotch and it drinks like an amazing cocktail on its own or like something clearly from a fantasy novel that Vikings fought wars over. A brose is a traditional Scottish Rx for aches, pains, or general enjoyment. It consists of oatmeal, honey, scotch, herbs and spices, and Dunkled Atholl brose is spiked with eucalyptus to give it a bit of an amaro-like flavor.
A.J. (Seattle magazine, Spiked Punch)
It’s funny how many Manhattans get ordered with a particular bourbon, but with no care to the vermouth, because the sweet (or Italian) vermouth can make the drink. But outside of a famous moment in the movie Groundhog Day, we in the U.S. rarely drink sweet vermouth by itself. It Italy, you’ll find many enjoying it neat or on the rocks, with folks there touting favorite brands like we do favorite beers. This makes sense, as each has its own herbally flavor, with varying degrees of sweet- and bitterness, going well before or after a meal. To prove my point, try a flight of sweet vermouths, starting with the patriarch of the line, Carpano Antica, then moving through other Italian hits Punt e’ Mes and Cocchi di Torino.