Mixing complex cocktails is a lovely way to showcase the diversity of spirit flavors, but you know what's also nice? Not mixing them. There are a slew of before- and after-dinner drinks like bittersweet amari, deep vermouths, and sprightly sherries that shine as solo acts and could easily become your go-to summer drink when served on the rocks or with a slice of orange. As it is, some of these bottles—seasoned with wormwood, quinine, and a witch's pantry of herbs and spices—already include upwards of 100 ingredients. For the home bartender, that means all you need to worry about is glassware, music, and the perfect ice cube. From 150-year-old Italian staples to new-school inventions, here are nine of our favorite alterna-drinks—no whiskey or gin required.
Name: Bittermens Commonwealth
Type: Aperitif from New Orleans, LA (21% ABV)
How to serve: On the rocks, or in place of tonic water
"This is one you're going to want to mix with something," a bartender advised me as I ordered a Commonwealth on ice. Of course, she didn't know about my tonic problem: My search for the ur-tonic, dry as seltzer and metallic as a mouthful of pocket change. My quest came to an end when I tried this tangy quinine aperitif, which has been around only since 2011 and bursts with the tartness of rhubarb pie. Sure, you can add gin if you like your tonic that way, but if you need it mainlined to the vein, this is your spirit.
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Name: La Cigarrera (or any manzanilla sherry)
Type: Fortified, oxidized wine from Sanlcar, Spain (15% ABV)
How to serve: Chilled, in a civilized little copita (tulip-shaped sherry glass)
The best way to discover sherry is to jump into the deep end. This swimming metaphor is particularly apt for briny manzanilla sherries, which are made seaside and pack enough saline kick to turn a dirty-martini swiller into an Andalucian sophisticado. There are nuances here, and they will reveal themselves in time, but start with La Cigarrera and a plate of cheese and olives, and let the prize of Spain's sea breeze wash over you in waves.
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Type: Aperitif from Sesto San Giovanni, Italy (11% ABV)
How to serve: Before noon and bleary-eyed
We all have friends who insist they hate Campari. Those stubborn drinkers who can't take its cough-syrup mix of acrid bitter and candy sweet. Help them see the light with Aperol, which is made by the same company and might as well be termed Campari Lite. At a mere 22 proof (about half of vodka), it was practically invented for brunch.
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Name: Fernet Branca
Type: Digestif from Milan, Italy (40% ABV)
How to serve: With a warning
From squid ink to licorice, the color black tends to scare eaters and drinkers, and this demon is no different. It smells like aspirin and tastes like Icy Hot. Somehow, it's equally at home on the rocks as it is in your bartender's shot glass.
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Name: Byrrh Grand Quinquina
Type: Aperitif from Thuir, France (18% ABV)
How to serve: Barely chilled, in grandma's china
There's a lot of bitterness on this drink list, and while the bottle's description promises more of the same, this quinine liqueur sits on the palatable end of the spectrum. Cinnamon and orange notes meet a base of red wine and unfermented grape juice, which lends a port-like, cherry sweetness. More than a drink you'd take home to Mother, it's one you could sip comfortably with grandma.
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Type: Digestif from Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic (38% ABV)
How to serve: Very cold in a shot glass, but try to sip
Remember Goldschläger? Sorry. Banish the thought of that liquid tear gas and turn instead to this refined, cinnamon-laced digestif from the Czech spa town of Karlovy Vary. Becherovka is a sweet salve, more often found in the ski lodge than poolside. The heady mix of baking spices makes for contemplative company on a quiet, nighttime porch sit.
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__Name: Bitter Truth EXR__
Type: Digestif from Munich, Germany (30% ABV)
How to serve: Mit schnitzel
This new-school, hybridized digestif starts off with the same raisin and port qualities you'll find in Byrrh or very sweet vermouths, but its syrupy sweetness is nipped in the bud by an alpine bite. If Cynar scares you and Fernet sends you running, start with this after-dinner drink.
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Type: Digestif from Milan, Italy (16.5% ABV)
How to serve: On ice with an orange twist, and in comfy Italian loafers (you, not the drink)
Hide the artichoke label and see if your guests can pinpoint the source of bitterness in this liqueur from the heavyweight end of the amaro spectrum. Unlikely. If anything, it will be reminiscent of Fernet Branca and should be reserved for folks bitter in palate and sweet in temperament.
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Type: Aperitif from Paris, France (20% ABV)
How to serve: With or without cigarettes
Made with gentian plant roots, this French brand of bitters—a saffron-hued aperitif--combines sweet and vegetal notes that quickly fade into a long, long bitterness. It was just reintroduced in the U.S. last year, allowing Francophiles to sip the stuff with their smokes as is the custom.
—Orr Shtuhl is the author of An Illustrated Guide to Cocktails (Penguin).
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