7 Sips – Strange cocktail ingredients

So, you’ve taken my advice and decided to tip your toe into the craft liquor end of the pool.  Good for you!  To get started, you’ve Yelped a local establishment that serves cocktails and craft liquor. Don’t forget, a craft cocktail isn’t necessarily made with a craft liquor, so make sure to read the menu and call for a craft liquor instead, if they have it.  The easiest way to is to ask your bartender what they’d suggest that’s craft. If you nor your bartender are familiar with what’s craft behind the bar, shoot me a tweet or a pic on Instagram – I might be able to help! And really – the guy or girl behind the bar is an expert – trust their judgment, and I’m sure you’ll end up with a tasty libation!

In a cocktail, the variance in flavor across the bourbon or rye spectrum could change the the taste of the cocktail a bit. I’d say more so for rum. The craft rums I’ve had are quite a bit different than the ones with pirates and legendary sea monsters.  And vodka – a craft vodka is likely to improve your drink, not detract.  So what strange cocktail ingredients might be in your glass with your liquor?  Let’s find out!

1. Malört – If you’re in the Windy City, check out Malört.  What is it, you say? It’s originally a Swedish concoction, its main ingredient is wormwood (yes, the same stuff as absinthe). Supposedly a good folk remedy for indigestion: but you first need to be able to drink it. Jeppson’s Malört can be found in Chicago bars, where the bartenders think of it as a mascot. And since it’s Chicago, their mascot isn’t going to be something sweet like St. Germain – oh no, it’s going to be punch-you-in-the-face bitter.  Give it a try – who knows, maybe you’re the 1 in 49 that Jeppson’s says will like it.  Or maybe not.

Photo by Longshots Photography

Photo by Longshots Photography

2. Bitters – Let’s stick with the bitter theme for a second and go to bitters.  Originally another “cure-all” or digestive, bitters are herbs and other plants in a high-proof alcohol base.  There are a ton of flavors, with new ones popping up every day. Angostura is the one that is probably the most commonly known, that imparts a bit of a red color to your drink and, to me, has a bit of a cinnamon flavor. Think of bitters as seasoning for your drink, like a dash of Worchestershire (what the hell is in that, anyway?!). There are fruit based bitters (orange, grapefruit), veggies, flowers and coffee, to name a few.  It’s just a matter of what cocktail you’re mixing up, but I’ve found that most of them are better with a dash of bitters. Say you buy a bottle of whiskey that’s just so-so, and you want a drink – but not necessarily a cocktail. I’ve found a dash of orange bitters (and a squeeze of a fresh orange, if you have one) makes any whiskey much more palatable. No shaker, no fancy equipment – a glass, an ice cube or 2 and you’re off!

3. Cynar – Another one on the bitter side of things, let me introduce you to Cynar, an Italian digestive made from artichokes. I can say I’ve seen it at my local store, but haven’t been brave enough to buy a whole  bottle yet.  I love artichokes, in a variety of ways, but bitter isn’t my strong suit when it comes to cocktails. It’s often paired with lemon, just like fresh artichokes. Because of the chemical compound cynarin, that is believed to make things taste sweet (try drinking a glass of plain water after eating fresh artichokes, it works!), it’s supposedly an interesting addition to cocktails. Some mixologists suggest substituting it for Campari, another super bitter liqueur, in a Negroni or Boulevardier.

4. Fernet Branca – who knew the Italians were so bitter? Say hello to my little friend, Fernet Branca. Fernet is a type of amaro, a bitter aromatic spirit. It’s another digestive, but honestly, it’s tough to drink straight, no matter what powers it supposedly provides.  I’ve tried the mint-flavored version (since that’s what my friendly mixologist at Craft & Commerce was about to put in my drink, I asked to try it).  I’ll say it tasted like a high octane version of Scope, a bit herbal at first, but mostly just minty after. Fernet Branca is named for the lady that originally invented it, Maria Scala – who married a Branca and the rest is (bitter) history.

5. Bénédictine -Leaving the bitter Italians behind, let’s check out the French. Another liqueur that comes to us from the annals of time, Bénédictine was invented by a guy named Alexandre Le Grand in 19th century France. While the story goes that monks in Normandy made it, apparently Le Grand made that story up, to increase his sales. Regardless of its slightly shady start , the recipe for Bénédictine is closely guarded to this day: it’s purported that only 3 people know the recipe at any given time (is  one of them Duke from Bush’s baked beans? Ok, now I’m amusing myself).The liqueur has a distinctive herbal taste, and is also mixed with brandy (sold as B&B) to cut some of the sweet of Bénédictine. It’s an interesting taste, though not something I’d go out of my way to buy again. The bottle is easily recognizable – it has an elaborate red seal on the front, along with “DOM” (Deo Optimo Maximo – “To god, most good, most great”) on the label.

6. Grenadine – Basically the French word for pomegranate (grenade), grenadine is a syrup made from pomegranates. A little sweet, a little tart, grenadine is usually the bright red color you see floating on top of a drink like a Tequila Sunrise or more commonly, a Shirley Temple.

7. Egg whites – On craft cocktail menus, I’m seeing more and more drinks made with egg white.  The cocktails are shaken, which makes the egg white foam a bit and thickens the feel of the drink on your tongue.  Personally, I’m not super fond of eggs anyway, but it does make for an interesting texture.

See, those weren’t so strange after all. Ok, maybe they were.  I know when I first came across them, I certainly thought they were odd, so I wanted to share with you!  What are the strangest things you’ve come across in your favorite bars or stores? Leave a comment and let’s chat!  For more interesting craft cocktail hacks, check out Craft Cocktails at Home: Offbeat Techniques, Contemporary Crowd-Pleasers, and Classics Hacked with Science. Cheers!

About Jeanne Runkle

Jeanne Runkle currently lives in San Diego, and is a certified bartender and craft liquor expert. Her specialty is the brown stuff, whether it's bourbon, rye or good old American whiskey. She can sometimes be found stalking the aisles of a liquor store near you, answering your random whiskey questions.

Speak Your Mind


Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.

Grab the button!