Whether because they’re an exceptionally great value, they add a certain something to cocktails or drinkers just haven’t discovered them yet, there are lots of underrated bottles on the shelves of your local liquor store. And any bartender worth his or her salt has one or two of these that more customers should know about. I asked half a dozen of the best from around the country about their most underrated spirits and got some truly unexpected picks. From a forgotten Israeli liqueur to a brand-new Mexican spirit, here are some bottles you shouldn’t overlook.
KAREN GRILL, LOS ANGELES
Salers Aperitif ($25)
As the general manager at Sassafras, a New Orleans-styled saloon in Hollywood that serves up impeccable craft cocktails to as many as 400 thirsty guests a night, Karen Grill is on top of the latest drinks trends. And her pick is this French liqueur, made with gentian, the bitter root that contributes to classic mixological ingredients including Aperol and Angostura Bitters. It’s nice and earthy, but less in-your-face-bitter than Campari. “I really enjoy its floral and subtle bitter qualities added to a Negroni or used in a Spritz with white wine,” Grill says.
GABE ORTA, MIAMI
Metaxa 5 Stars ($23)
The cocktail scene in Miami is centered around hotel bars, and it got some serious vindication at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards when The Broken Shaker at Miami Beach’s Freedhand Hotel was named Best American Hotel Bar. Co-owner Gabe Orta looks to an unexpected place for his pick: Greece. “One spirit I never see enough behind the bar is Metaxa,” he says. The Greek liqueur is a mix of brandy, muscat wine, rose petals and Mediterranean botanicals aged in French oak, creating a sweeter and more floral cousin to cognac. Orta uses it in place of brandy or whiskey. “It adds one more layer of flavor to classic cocktails. I like it in an Old Fashioned or Vieux Carré,” he says.
ANU APTE, SEATTLE
Novo Fogo Cachaça ($30)
Anu Apte is a big fan of South America: When asked about her most underrated spirit, the owner of legendary Seattle watering hole Rob Roy couldn’t decide between the unaged Peruvian/Chilean brandy pisco and the Brazilian sugar-cane spirit cachaça. She ultimately settled on Novo Fogo, which has lots of vegetal and peppery notes. “They currently have four different expressions along with yearly special releases, and I love them all,” she says. “The Silver makes an exceptional Caipirinha, while the Barrel-Aged, Chameleon and Tanager are all fantastic for spirit-forward or juicy cocktails.”
DAVID KAPLAN, NEW YORK/LOS ANGELES
Sotol Por Siempre ($40)
“We’re really excited for a great sotol to appear on the market,” says David Kaplan, co-owner of a bar empire including several of the nation’s best: Death & Company and Nitecap in New York, Honeycut and The Walker Inn in Los Angeles, The Rose in Jackson, Wyo., and more. A cousin of tequila, sotol is made in northern Mexico from a plant called the desert spoon, and along with other “alternative” agave spirits like mezcal and bacanora, it’s starting to get lots of attention lately. Imported by the same company that brought the wonderful Giffard liqueurs to the States, Por Siempre is a brand-new sotol bottling just starting to roll out nationwide. Kaplan likes to use it in place of all or part of the tequila in most any kind of cocktail in order to add some complexity.
JEFF “BEACHBUM” BERRY, NEW ORLEANS
If you’re Jewish, your parents probably have a dusty bottle of Sabra, a chocolate-orange liqueur made in Israel, deep in the back of a cabinet somewhere. But if not, you’ve probably never heard of the stuff. So why is tiki legend Jeff “Beachbum” Berry stocking it at his new bar Latitude 29? “It’s sui generis: No other brand puts that combination in one bottle,” he says. “It’s rich but not that sweet, and it does very interesting things in cocktails.” Berry uses Sabra in a low-proof cocktail with sherry, pineapple juice and sweet vermouth called the U.S.S. Wondrich.
LAUREN MOTE, VANCOUVER
Långbord Akvavit (CAD$45) and Okanagan Aquavitus (CAD$35)
“I enjoy cocktails that stimulate the appetite, and I can think of very few spirits that make me hungry as soon as I smell it—aquavit is that spirit for me,” says Lauren Mote, proprietress of Uva Wine & Cocktail Bar, co-creator of Bittered Sling Bitters and the 2015 Canadian national champion in the prestigious Diageo World Class competition. And her best picks for the caraway-flavored spirit are local. “Specifically, I love the expressions we are making in Western Canada. The flavor has more in common with big, bold aquavit expressions, rather than shy and lightly augmented neutral spirits.” Unfortunately, neither Långbord nor Okanagan Aquavitus are available in the US (yet), so you’ll have to pick some up next time you cross the northern border.
Jason Horn is Playboy.com’s spirits columnist. He lives in Los Angeles and you can follow him on Twitter @messyepicure.
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