It wasn’t that long ago that rye and mezcal were viewed as exotic choices at your local watering hole—if said watering hole even stocked them. Now every bar worth its bitters stocks multiple versions of each.
But not to say that we’ve reached the outer limits of the spirits universe. Far from it, as bars continue to hunt for unique bottles and new categories—especially in D.C., where the liberal liquor laws allow bars to import just about anything they can find.
Below are six categories you should try (and maybe even brood over a bit) while you wait out Old Man Winter.
What it is: Apple brandy, distilled from cider in the north of France and aged in oak.
What it tastes like: Typically much more complex than American applejack, the apple flavors often fade into the background in favor of nuttiness, toffee, and even some rum-like funk.
Where to try it: Blue Duck Tavern, where you can get the city’s best apple pie along with your apple brandy.
What it is: An array of fruit brandies, sometimes barrel aged, popular in Eastern Europe and the Balkans.
What it tastes like: All depends on your flavor of choice, from quince to plum to apricot to pear. They’re fruity, but not often overtly sweet … and great for a cold winter night.
Where to try it: Ambar, the Balkan restaurant on Barracks Row, which stocks dozens of them, available in flights so you can try a few.
What it is: A Dutch style of gin that preceded the more common London Dry style.
What it tastes like: “Young” genever comes across like a rounder, slightly sweeter gin, while “old” genever, which sees some time in barrels, takes on a more whiskey-like quality.
Where to try it: Wisdom, the Capitol Hill cocktail spot with a thing for gin. They carry six bottlings, including Diep 9, the first Belgian spirit ever to be imported into the U.S.
What it is: A clear, grape-based brandy made in the mountains of Bolivia—and a new favorite among many bartenders.
What it tastes like: Remarkably complex for a clear spirit, you’ll find notes of flowers, herbs, and subtle fruit.
Where to try it: Slipstream on 14th Street.
What it is: Think of it as a Scandinavian take on gin—a neutral spirit flavored with botanicals.
What it tastes like: Nothing like gin, whose flavors are built around juniper and citrus. Here you’ll get hits of caraway, dill, and/or anise.
Where to try it: Eat the Rich, which has one of the most unique aquavits you’ll see: James River Distillery’s Øster Vit. The Richmond-based distillers steep the spirit in caraway, fennel, orange peel … and several pounds of oyster shells.
What it is: A clear spirit flavored with anise. It’s popular across the Middle East, but its name tends to change depending on where it’s made. Raki tends to come from Turkey, while Arak is Lebanese.
What it tastes like: If you’ve had Greek ouzo or even absinthe, you’re on the right track. It’s a big hit of licorice—and best diluted with water and ice.
Where to try it: Zaytinya, which carries a whole array of Eastern Mediterranean spirits.