For the past decade, South American spirits have been expanding their presence in American bars, shops and homes. At the same time, pisco, cachaça, rum, and Central American siblings like mezcal, tequila and sotol have been moving beyond classics like Pisco Punch, the Caipirinha and the Margarita as creative bartenders increasingly look to showcase these imports on a larger scale, even dedicating entire menus and backbars to the range of spirits from our neighbors to the south. Bars like Leyenda and BlackTail in New York, Boleo, Estereo and El Che in Chicago, Nixta in St. Louis and Alma in Baltimore are all following this path.
“In this industry we’re constantly looking for big, bold, exciting and nuanced flavors,” says Leyenda‘s Ivy Mix. “Kind of like the cultures they come from, Latin spirits have these characteristics.”
At Leyenda, Mix stocks a variety of rhum agricole, mezcal and pisco alongside bacanora and a handful of international brandies. The cocktail menu travels beyond classics with recipes like the pisco-based Pisces Rising and the Shotgun Wedding, an exotic blend of tea-infused singani, cachaça, vanilla, lime, coconut milk and sherry, served with a float of Mexican fernet and nutmeg.
In Chicago, bars like Estereo focus exclusively on Latin spirits with simple, dialed-in cocktails for each spirit listed on the menu, and at Boleo, a more in-depth list features both South American classics alongside modern creations. Head bartender Jess Lambert calls their approach a “criss-cross between classic Chicago-style drinks and those with South American influences.” Drinks like the house Chilcano represent tradition. The pisco-based drink is one of the most popular beverages in Peru, and Lambert rotates the featured flavors depending on what fresh fruits are available in Chicago each season. Meanwhile, the house Old Fashioned flips the script, pushing the boundaries of the classic formula with Brazilian cachaça, sherry, cold-brew demerara syrup, orange and Angostura bitters.
Lambert agrees with Mix’s view that part of the rising interest in these spirits has to do with bartenders looking for interesting flavors to work with, but she also cites availability. “We’re getting more access to spirits that we didn’t get before,” she says. She also credits cocktail enthusiasts, who have become more knowledgable about cocktail ingredients and styles, inspiring them to seek out new adventures in drinking.
As this growing interest continues to drive demand, Mix and Lambert expect to see a wider array of imports and even more exciting cocktail options. Mix cites singani—a grape-based spirit from Bolivia—as one to watch. “I’m a fan of big flavors, and some singani is very floral and fruit forward, while some others are mineral. It comes from the muscat grape, so the quality of distillate and the terroir of where in Bolivia the grapes are from really separates them from one another.”
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