Spirit Cheat Sheet

Pointers for decoding the modern cocktail menu.

We’ve all been there: sitting at a bar, staring at a craft-cocktail list that might as well have been written in a foreign language. Sure, you know what gin is, or whiskey, but what in the world is amaro, punt e mes, or aquavit?

Much as menus throughout Seattle now seem to require reference materials just to order dinner, cocktail lists are similarly complicated. Here’s a cheat sheet to help you confidently order a newfangled summer cocktail that’s just to your taste.


What it is: An aged, herbal, bittersweet liqueur from Italy (where “amaro” means “bitter”).

Where you’ve seen it: Popping up in ever-increasing quantities on cocktail menus, as more and more different amaros are being imported to Seattle.

What’s it taste like? Amaros range wildly in flavor, from sweet and nutty (Averna) to almost undrinkably herbaceous (Sibilla), but they generally have a syrupy richness that makes them more digestif than aperitif.

Try this: Sun Liquor’s Model Airplane features Averna amaro in a playful take on the Boulevardier. The amaro brings a richness that no sweet vermouth could achieve.

Angostura bitters

What it is: A bitters from Trinidad and Tobago.

Where you’ve seen it: Being dashed into just about every whiskey-based cocktail on the planet, from a Manhattan to an Old Fashioned to a Bittered Sling.

What’s it taste like? It’s impossible to say. It tastes like Angostura bitters. Also, you probably wouldn’t want to taste it on its own, because they’re called bitters for a reason.

Try this: The Angostura-and-bourbon-soaked bar nuts at Canon. Preferably paired with a Manhattan.


What it is: A Scandinavian infused spirit.

Where you’ve seen it: Next to the plate of lutefisk your relatives made you eat.

What’s it taste like? Caraway seed and dill are the two most prevalent flavors in most aquavits. Cardamom, cumin, anise, and fennel seed are also used.

Try this: The Aquavit Fizz at Rob Roy, which combines the spirit with cherry Heering, egg white, and brut rosé wine to give it a rich yet refreshing body.


What it is: An Italian aperitif.

Where you’ve seen it: Classically, in a Negroni, but you’ll find it just about anywhere on a cocktail list, paired with just about any spirit from gin to vodka to rye whiskey to tequila.

What’s it taste like? Bittersweet orange peel, with a healthy dose of roots and herbs.

Try this: The Old Pal, which mixes rye whiskey, Campari, and dry vermouth. The spice of the rye matches nicely with the herbal notes in the Campari, while the dry vermouth keeps the drink nicely balanced.


What it is: An Italian amaro (bitter liqueur).

Where you’ve seen it: Being drunk by bartenders, cooks, and servers city-wide.

What’s it taste like? Minty, herbaceous death. Seriously, Fernet is not for the faint of heart.

Try this: The Toronto, a mixture of Canadian whiskey, Fernet, and simple syrup. For a more patriotic version, substitute American rye whiskey and up the ante with an orange liqueur, like Cointreau, Grand Marnier, or even triple sec.


What it is: A French vermouth (fortified wine infused with herbs and botanicals).

Where you’ve seen it: Remember that other cocktail James Bond orders? The Vesper? Yeah, it has Lillet in it. Also, you might see older folks drinking it on the rocks.

What’s it taste like? Citrus peel and quinine, the stuff that gives tonic water its flavor.

Try this: The Corpse Reviver #2: gin, Cointreau, Lillet, lemon juice, and a drop of absinthe. It’ll start your night off right!

Pimm’s No. 1

What it is: A British infused gin.

Where you’ve seen it: The Pimm’s Cup (Pimm’s, lemonade, soda water, cucumber) is the most common application.

What’s it taste like? Spicy, citrusy gin.

Try this: The Tequila Cup: equal parts Pimm’s and reposado tequila, soda water, lime juice, and a bit of simple syrup.


What it is: A French sweet liqueur.

Where you’ve seen it: Added to just about every conceivable cocktail. It’s not nicknamed “Bartender’s Ketchup” for nothing.

What’s it taste like? Elderflowers, whatever those taste like. Basically, sweet white flowers.

Try this: Serafina’s Elisir del Fiore features St~Germain, gin, and lemon juice, with a float of sparkling wine. It’s the perfect French 75 variant for a hot summer day.


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