Photo by Megan Leigh Barnard

Spirited Away

Living in Ohio is frustrating for booze enthusiasts.

We are what is called a “control state,” meaning the Ohio government decides what liquor is available to be sold in stores. For the last decade, this has meant bartenders have felt the pang of longing for many ingredients that are widely available in other states. Obscure or challenging spirits, the ones that often play well in cocktails – like bitter Italian Amari, deeply complex French herbal liqueurs, malty Dutch-style gin, and smoky Mexican mescal – have been unavailable in Ohio until the last couple of years. Now they are slowly trickling through the border, but with limits on quantity and selection.

As craft cocktails become ubiquitous and Ohio palates open up, demand is slowly increasing for these abstruse spirits, and we are starting to see some of the increase in demand result in more exciting bottle selection gracing our liquor store shelves. Here are two new revelatory acquisitions for heartland bartenders:

Dolin Genepi

We’ve been fortunate enough to have Green Chartreuse in Ohio for a long time now (the more mild Yellow Chartreuse is a bit of a white whale for Ohio bartenders). Green Chartreuse is an herbal liqueur, made with over 100 herbs and spices, most of which are unknown (legend has it, only two monks know the recipe at any given time). Its original recipe dates back 400 years, and it is named after its distinct glowing green hue. It is strong – 110 proof – and frustratingly expensive at nearly $60 a bottle, but absolutely indispensable for a good bar. It is a versatile ingredient in popular and essential cocktails like The Last Word (equal parts gin, maraschino, lime, and Chartreuse), The Bijou (gin, sweet vermouth, Green Chartreuse), and the Champs-Elysees (brandy, Green Chartreuse, lemon) – drinks that have only been possible with a bottle of the green stuff. That has changed, fortunately, with the introduction of Dolin Genepi to the state.

Genepi is a type of herbal spirit, similar to absinthe, and like a younger cousin to Green Chartreuse. What it lacks in strength and complexity next to Chartreuse (it has much less alcohol and doesn’t quite have the same lingering finish), it more than makes up for with its price tag: by nearly half.

This is wonderful news, both for bars and cocktail enthusiasts who keep a home bar. Drinks like The Last Word work wonderfully with Genepi, and its lightness actually opens up the cocktail to take on more gin flavor. Just as one can make a Manhattan with different vermouths, now smart and thrifty drinkers can make The Last Word with different herbal liqueurs, at a reasonable price.

Genepi Last Word

3/4 oz. gin

3/4 oz. Luxardo maraschino

3/4 oz. Dolin Genepi

3/4 oz. lime juice

Averna Amaro

Amaro is an Italian digestif, traditionally drank after dinner to aid digestion, and made by seeping or infusing herbs, spices, and citrus rinds into neutral spirits or wine. There are innumerable amari made in Italy, and a good number of them are imported to the U.S. Its distinctive herbal bitterness is offset by a syrupy sweetness, rendering it approachable for novice drinkers. It is similar to Fernet Branca, but not nearly as bracingly bitter. If Fernet is the uncle who tousles your hair and points out the stain on your shirt before giving you flack for being single, amaro is the aunt who hugs you, always has a gift for you, and praises your independence.

While we’ve had amaro in Ohio, we’ve never quite had one as versatile and drinkable on its own as Averna. At 58 proof, it reminds you that it’s booze, but does so with a gentle tap on your palate rather than the whallop packed by some 80 proof hooch. The finish is sublime: orange, grapefruit, jasmine, floral blossom, quinine, and a complex, enchanting sweetness that lingers long after it has begun settling the stomach. A touch of it in a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned is highly recommended, and it pairs incredibly well with other spirits. For a good Averna cocktail, the Black Manhattan is a great place to start:

Black Manhatten

2 oz. rye whiskey

1 oz. Averna Amaro

2 dashes Angostura bitters

Stir and strain