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January’s 10 Awesome Bottles: Birch Tree Water, Minnesotan Gin, Craft Vermouth, and More!

It’s time to try something new.

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What to drink NOW!
What to drink NOW!
Alex Ulreich

The number of aperitif wines and liqueurs on the market continues to grow, and it seems like everyday there's a new "healthy" competitor to coconut water. Last summer tepache was a thing, and now, thanks to Bittermens, it's a 40 percent spirit. All that and more, below!


All Photos by Alex Ulreich.

1) Escubac ($28/375ml): Aperitif and digestif liquors are the rage, from amaro to vermouth and beyond. Enter Escubac, the first release from newly formed independent London-based distilling outfit, Sweetdram, in conjunction with Saumur, France's venerable Distillerie Combier (better known as the progenitor of Triple Sec). Sweetdram is looking to revive forgotten liquors from the past with a modern spin, partnering with a new distillery per release. Escubac, a honeyed, spicy-sweet elixir, is Sweetdram's initial move, based off an 18th century British cordial water (Royal Usquebaugh) that gained popularity in France where it was known as Escubac. The French aperitif liqueur is no longer in production, so Sweetdram decided it was time for a comeback. Their potion is made from a base of neutral sugar beet alcohol, infused with warm spices like clove, nutmeg, and cardamom, plus bitter orange and lemon peel. On the palate those spices aggressively spring to life, followed by milder notes of lemon and grapefruit. Try Escubac in cocktails, or simply add to sparkling water with or without tonic.

All Photos by Alex Ulreich.

2) Säpp ($3/10.2 ounces): What will be the next coconut water? Perhaps, birch tree water? This delicate, pleasantly tangy-tasting water is made from the sap discharged by birch trees in Finland and Ukraine during the spring. It's a popular beverage consumed in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe thanks to its high concentration of minerals like manganese and zinc. Säpp's version, which comes plain or infused with rosehips or nettle, contains just 10 calories per bottle and is 80 percent lower in sugar than coconut water. The drink itself isn't particularly sweet and doesn't exactly display a distinct flavor (it's almost reminiscent of yogurt whey), though it is highly thirst-quenching and refreshing.

3) Diep9 Young Genever ($30/750ml): Geneverthe predecessor to gin with roots in 13th century Flanders (now Belgium), which earned an AOC status in 2008can legally be distilled only in Belgium, the Netherlands, and some parts of France and Germany. There isn't a whole lot of genever imported into the U.S., though staples one will find at better bars are the Bols-branded bottles (from Holland). But another to seek out is Belgian-made Diep9, produced at Stokerij De Moor, a family-run distillery in Aalst, that dates back to 1910. Diep9 makes two two genever styles sold in traditional crock bottles: old and young. As compared to gin, genever carries a maltier flavor, in this case one characterized by citrus, subtle juniper, and a round, full mouthfeel. The bottle is perfect in cocktails, used in place of gin or vodka, or even sipped solo.

4) Byrrh ($21/750ml): Virginia's, a newish restaurant in New York City, serves an excellent winter libation named Ginger spice and everything nice. The cocktail is based on an aromatized aperitif wine called Byrrh, flavored with honey, ginger, and lemon. It's the ultimate prescription to fight a cold. Byrrh, created in France during the 19th century by brothers Pallade and Simon Violet, is still made today according to its original recipe, a blend of red wine and Muscat mistelle (unfermented grape juice plus alcohol), macerated with a variety of botanicals including quinquina, cacao, and bitter orange. This wine's sweetness is balanced by non-aggressive bitterness for an easy-drinking aperitif that fares just as well in cocktails as it does over rocks on its own.

5) Primitivo Quiles Vermouth Rojo ($20/1L): One of the region's oldest producers, since 1780, Primitivo Quileslocated in Alicante, Spainis behind this great, classic, and super affordable red vermouth. Made from the Monastrell grape, expect notes of dark fruit like cherries and blackberries, backed by leather, wood and tobacco. This mildly spicy fortified and oxidized wine begins sweet, but a mild bitterness balances the fruit, lingering on the finish. While this bottle would fare well in mixed drinks, it's even better solo.

6) Tami' Grillo ($15/750ml): Young Sicilian winemaker Arianna Occhipinti has, in the last decade, rapidly become a pivotal figure in the world of natural Italian wine. Under her namesake label she produces five renegade wines using the Frappato and Nero D'Avola grapes, each which epitomizes her style of effortless grace. And while these bottles can cost $28 to $42, Occhipinti's slightly newer label, Tami, channels the beauty of Occhipinti's aromatic approach at a more wallet-friendly price: $18 to $20. Occhipinti explains her more accessible Tami project as an experiment to prove that "... it's possible to make good, simple, natural wine in Sicily," and that "A big part of this project is also to give younger people an opportunity to try something simple but delicious..." Grillo offers an incredible value for a crisp, mineral-driven, yet floral wine that tastes of citrus and flowers.

7) Solveig Gin ($68/750ml): Minnesota's ingredient-conscious Far North Spirits is responsible for this beautiful bottle of 43.5 percent ABV gin that's made from 100 percent non-GMO rye and botanicals. In fact, the liquor is distilled from single-estate grown AC Hazlet Winter Rye off Far North's family farm (they produced 9,000 bottles last year), and founders Cheri Reese and Michael Swanson control the spirit's entire production process from seed to glass. They further employ a unique distillation method wherein each of the spirit's botanicals—inclusive of juniper, lavender, and thyme—are separately distilled then blended together for a more elegant, nuanced gin. (As compared to a regular gin where all botanicals are distilled together.) Perfumed with lavender and juniper on the nose, this herbal-nuanced spirit tastes of thyme and a hint of citrus, with a creamy body and brightening sweetness.

8) Ferrari Perlé Nero ($73/750ml): Keen on great bubbles that won't break the bank?While $70 plus dollars might feel like a bit of a splurge, as far as quality, this bottle far exceeds its price. Ferrari, made by the Lunelli family in Trentino, Italypart of the Trento DOC appellationis best known as a brand that delivers great value in relation to cost, making wines in the style of Champagne. Ferrari's entry level sparkling wine Brut starts at $25, and its premiere level wine Giulio Ferrari, tops out at $120. Perlé Nero is Ferrari's higher-end mid-level wine, one that competes in stores with brands like Bollinger and Perrier-Jouet. Not an annual release like Brut, Ferrari produces three to four vintages every decade, with about 5,000 bottles in each. Made via metodo classico, Perlé Nero is Pinor Noir-based (blanc de noirs in Champagne terms), with a rich, creamy body and notes of green apple and subtle bready yeast.

9) CideRoad Switchel ($10.50 for three 14 ounce bottles): From kombucha to shrubs to chef Andy Ricker's Pok Pok Som-branded line of drinking vinegars, tangy beverages are in. And looking to compete in this ever-crowded beverage space is CideRoad, with its organic switchel. Think of this stuff as the original Gatorade, an electrolyte-packed beverage made from apple cider vinegar, water, and ginger, sweetened with honey, molasses, maple syrup or sugar. It's what 19th century farmers drank for a quick upper while working, and now a few brands, like CideRoad, are resurrecting the stuff. With a sweet-sour and ginger-forward favor, switchel isn't dissimilar to kombucha, it just lacks the carbonation. CideRoad's refreshing rendition follows the aforementioned recipe of apple cider vinegar, maple syrup and ginger, and comes in two additional flavors: cherry and blueberry.

10) Bittermens Tepache ($50/750ml): Tepachethe classic spiced Mexican beverage made from fermented pineapple rinds plus sugaris no longer just a slowly-spreading speciality behind better North American bars. It's now ready for home cocktail enthusiasts thanks to lauded bitter and liqueur maker, Bittermans. Traditionally, tepache contains just a bit of alcohol and must be consumed within a few days, which is why Bittermans pumped up the volume, crating a 40 percent tepache-inspired pineapple liqueur (using a neutral grain spirit base) that won't sour on day six. And considering its ABV, this bottle, reminiscent of pineapple upsidedown cake, is surprisingly drinkable on its own. Just pour over rocks. What makes this liqueur so quaffable, though, is its balanced sweetness, which is never cloying. Expect cinnamon spice backed by notes of fresh pineapple.

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