The Founding Fathers of the United States set out to build a new nation on the radical principle that people should, for the most part, be able to do whatever the hell they want. And 241 years later, this country’s thriving craft distillers are operating on that same philosophy.
The explosion of small distilleries full of creative craftspeople around the country reflects the best intentions of the great American experiment: It’s a bunch of rebels doing whatever they want, ignoring old traditions to create something new and delicious. So in honor of the Fourth of July, here are a few rule-breaking all-American spirits you should try (all of which are available widely, or at least online for shipping to most states). Happy Independence Day!
DON CICCIO E FIGLI C3 CARCIOFO APERITIVO ($36)
Where better to start than the nation’s capital? Washington, D.C.’s Don Ciccio e Figli makes a variety of Italian-style amari, with plenty of old-country authenticity: Founder Francesco Amodeo’s grandfather ran a small distillery on the Amalfi Coast until it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1980. If you’re a Negroni lover, Don Ciccio’s C3 offers something deliciously different, getting its bitterness from a mix of artichoke, cardoon and grapefruit for an herbal, grassy amaro.
CORBIN CASH SWEET POTATO LIQUEUR ($38)
Pretty much every Thanksgiving table features some variation on a sweet potato dish that’s more dessert than side, featuring caramelized roots flavored with cinnamon and other warming spices, often topped with marshmallow fluff. This spirit is the liquid version of that experience, created by a California farmer whose family has been growing sweet potatoes for nearly a century. Corbin Cash’s liqueur is distilled from 100 percent sweet potatoes, then aged four years in American oak, sweetened with brown sugar and spiked with spices. Try it in place of spiced rum in a Dark & Stormy or in place of whiskey in a Manhattan.
HUDSON MAPLE CASK RYE WHISKEY ($55)
Hudson was one of the first brands out of the modern craft-whiskey boom to become popular nationwide, and it’s built its reputation on utilizing local ingredients from its home in New York’s Hudson Valley. In 2012, a local maple syrup producer asked for some used Hudson bourbon barrels to age his product, and the brand had the brilliant idea to finish some rye in the syrup-soaked barrels afterward. The spiciness of the whiskey and the mineral sweetness of the maple syrup combine to make this a spirit worth seeking out. (Cocktail-geek readers might object to my calling “independent” a brand that was just bought out by global liquor giant William Grant & Sons, but the fact remains that this is a unique, interesting and delicious American-made whiskey.)
COPPER & KINGS ZMAJ ABSINTHE ($60)
I’ve already called Copper & Kings a booze rebel for making brandy in the heart of bourbon country, but the distillery also makes several types of absinthe, and Zmaj is its most out-there bottling. Named for a dragon from Balkan folklore, the absinthe is aged in barrels made of wood from Serbian juniper trees. Between the complex fennel-and-citrus absinthe-botanical notes, the floral flavors of the muscat brandy used as the base, and the resinous, spicy character provided by the barrel, this spirit is definitely one you’ll want to sip solo (with a splash of water—it’s 130-proof).
CHAREAU CALIFORNIA ALOE LIQUEUR ($45)
California is the top agricultural state in the Union, producing the vast majority of the country’s crop of foods from almonds to broccoli. Chareau is an attempt to bottle the state’s bounty, flavoring a grape eau de vie with California-grown ingredients including muskmelon, spearmint, cucumber and aloe vera. The resulting spirit is subtle, uniting sweet and vegetal flavors in a way that’s similar to gin. Try swapping out half the gin in classic cocktails like the Gimlet or Martini for Chareau and you’ll be pleasantly surprised—or you can just mix it with club soda.
WESTLAND GARRYANA AMERICAN SINGLE MALT WHISKEY EDITION 2|1 ($125)
There are hundreds of species of oak tree on Earth, but only two are typically used for booze barrels: American oak, or Quercus alba, most common for whiskies of all kinds; and French oak, or Quercus robur, most common for wine. But pioneering Seattle single malt distillery Westland (which was also recently acquired, by Rémy Cointreau) wants to change that, and it’s creating a whole series of spirits aged in different species for its Native Oak Series. June marked the nationwide release of this first bottling in the series, and it used barrels made from Quercus garryana, an oak tree native to the Pacific Northwest, which lends a deeper coffee-molasses flavor to the whiskey than American oak would.
LOST SPIRITS NAVY 61 RUM ($43)
Lost Spirits founder Bryan Davis is basically the mad scientist of craft spirits: After extensive study of the complex chemistry of barrel-aging, he built a “reactor” that purports to create the same flavors as 20 years in oak in just six days. Plenty of charlatans have claimed to accelerate spirits aging before, but the awards and acclaim Lost Spirits has been pulling in for years now show that it might actually be onto something. Navy 61 Rum is the distillery’s most widely available product, a 132-proof spirit distilled from molasses and run through Davis’ patented process. It really does nail the funky complexity of a heavily aged rum and makes a gorgeous tiki cocktail.
MARTINE HONEYSUCKLE LIQUEUR ($30)
How’s this for an origin story? When Gary Kelleher was 16 years old, he took a boat trip from New York to Naples. Aboard ship, he met a woman named Martine and carried on a weeklong love affair, but never saw her again after arriving in Italy. Decades later—and after finding success in distilling as co-founder of Dripping Springs Vodka—Kelleher launched a liqueur named for the mystery woman early this year. It’s flavored with honeysuckle, a flower whose sweet nectar you might have tasted before if you grew up in the South. Released early this year, Martine is sort of a Texan twist on the wildly popular St-Germain Elderflower Liqueur, and its subtly floral sweetness goes similarly well with just about any ingredients in a cocktail.