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This article was published 11/4/2019 (449 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Most of us have some go-to liqueurs and spirits at home in a cupboard or liquor cabinet for our favourite highballs, cocktails or drams.
But every once in a while, an oddball bottle of something or other ends up sneaking its way in. Maybe a party guest brought something strange, or perhaps a recipe required a specific spirit and you’ve been stuck with leftovers.
With that in mind, a handful of Free Press staffers scoured their collections for these bottles of oddball booze. A dozen different bottles of varying origins and provenance (and shape, size and colour) and potential use were questionable at best.
To help figure out what to do with the stuff — be it sipping on its own, crafting cocktails or dumping it down the drain — the expertise of bartender Nicole Cote was called upon. Cote has worked as a bartender in Winnipeg for eight years, the last five of which have had a cocktail focus at spots such as Albert Street Cocktail Co., and Langside Grocery. These days she can be found mixing all manner of drinks at Pizzeria Gusto and Forth.
I enlisted Free Press arts/food/etc. writer (and cocktail enthusiast) Jill Wilson to come with me to meet Cote at Forth, oddball booze in tow, to see what she could whip up with our drinkable dregs. Here are the winners, losers and everything in between...
Chambord (France), 23 per cent alcohol by volume (ABV)
What it is: A fruit-based liqueur produced in France’s Loire Valley and modelled after a drink made during the late 17th century, Chambord is made from raspberries and blackberries, Madagascar vanilla, Moroccan citrus peel, honey and cognac.
Source/age: Was passed along to Free Press music writer Erin Lebar by her nana; the bottle is least 10 years old.
The verdict: "Normally it’s a bit more vibrant colour-wise," Cote says of the Chambord, which has faded from a deep red to a more brownish hue. "But as long as there’s no crystallization it should be fine." I concur with Jill that the Chambord tastes a bit "port-y" on its own.
Cote opts to make a Kir Royale; she pours a teaspoon of Chambord into a coupe glass, tops it with sparkling wine and garnishes with lemon zest. (Those who don’t like fizz could do a straight-up Kir using still a lighter, fresh white wine.) It’s simple and delicious, and some subtle raspberry notes come through. "The colour is a bit disappointing, but it’s not bad," Cote says.
Bols Blue (The Netherlands), 21 per cent ABV
What it is: A web search indicates Bols Blue is distilled from a blend of herbs as well as sweet red oranges, curacao oranges and kinnow oranges. Yet... it looks like windshield-washer fluid or barbicide.
Source/age: Purchased by Free Press associate editor Stacey Thidrickson in 2013 to make Breaking Bad-themed cocktails to drink while watching the series finale.
The verdict: "Everyone seems to have some version of this," Cote says. Wilson can confirm: "My parents had two giant bottles of it and I don’t know why; I can’t recall either of them ever drinking anything with it."
Cote decides to riff on the Corpse Reviver #2 cocktail, instead making the cleverly named Corpse Reviver Number Blue. She combines 1 ounce of gin, 1 oz Bols Blue (in place of Cointreau), 1 oz of Lillet Blanc (white vermouth can also be used), 1 oz of lemon juice, then shakes things up and serves in a coupe glass — with an absinthe rinse, no less.
The result is the best cocktail of the day. It’s a beautiful blue colour, smells like cherry blossoms and fresh oranges, and retains that fruity Curaçao flavour.
F.X. de Beukelaer Elixir d’Anvers (Belgium), 37 per cent ABV
What it is: A mixture of 32 plants and herbs mixed with pure alcohol and soaked in copper pot still, slow distilled, mixed with alcohol, soft water and sugar. It was originally used as a digestive.
Source/age: Wilson purchased this small bottle of bright yellow liquid in Belgium in 2016 after a night of "merrymaking."
The verdict: Cote and I aren’t familiar with the Elixir d’Anvers before tasting it on its own — heck, Wilson barely remembers much about it. "That’s really nice," says Cote. "It would be great in a stirred cocktail with gin or genever, or maybe a rye would be nice too. It’s the right amount of botanicals and sweetness that you could go either way."
For our purposes Cote goes in the gin direction, mixing a half-ounce of the Elixir d’Anvers with 1½ oz gin, ¼ oz aperol and some orange bitters. It ramps up the lovely botanical notes while adding a nice underlying sweet citrus note.
Sauval V.S.O.P. Armagnac (France), 40 per cent ABV
What it is: A spirit distilled in the Armagnac region in Gascony in southwest France. Similar to Cognac, it’s distilled from Baco, Colombard, Folle Blanche and Ugni Blanc grapes.
Source/age: I bought this bottle at Fenton’s Wine Merchants when they first opened their second-floor cognac/grape-based spirits many years ago.
The verdict: This wasn’t the best Armagnac when it was purchased, and it’s not gotten any better, meaning I won’t be pouring it into a snifter and savouring it on its own. "It’s kind of oxidized — the flavours have become slightly compromised," says Cote. "Think sherry notes: dates, raisins, a bit of nuttiness. There’s a bit of sourness to it as well."
Generally speaking, Armagnac can be subbed into any cocktail featuring Cognac. "If this was in better shape, I’d say a classic Sazerac would be great," says Cote. "With something like this I’d probably suggest doing something like a vieux carré or a Manhattan."
Cote goes for the vieux carré, which consists of rye, vermouth, Benedictine, bitters and Cognac — or in this case Armagnac. And the result was completely delicious.
DuBleuet (Quebec), 15.5 per cent ABV
What it is: A "blueberry alcoholic beverage," says the label on the unopened bottle, made from fermented wild blueberries, herbs and spices. Practically nothing shows up in online searches. The name suggests it’s inspired by Dubonnet.
Source/age: "I got the bottle about seven years ago from a friend of mine that quit drinking and cleaned out his liquor cabinet," says Wilson. "I have no idea how long it had been in his hands before that."
The verdict: On its own, Cote says the DuBleuet "also reminds me a bit of sherry, like an amontillado but without all the nuttiness and with no finish." Adds Wilson, "There’s an herbal, kind of weird thing going on... and then it just goes away."
Cote attempts a drink with rye and bitters, but the DuBleuet’s flavours disappear completely. Her next idea: mix it to taste with Grace’s Island Soda ginger beer and serve it on the rocks. "I love the colour of this," says Wilson. "And you can still taste the DuBleuet. I don’t mind that at all." The spice and fruity contrast with the herbal notes keep things fresh and fun. "It’s a nice patio drink," says Cote.
Glayva liqueur (Scotland), 35 per cent ABV
What it is: A blend of Scottish whiskies as well as select spices including cinnamon, honey, almonds and tangerines.
Source/age: I got this as a sample about eight or nine years ago.
The verdict: "It’s soapy, more floral than I expected it to be," Cote says, adding that it reminds her of a Drambuie. I pick up quite a bit of sweetness; Cote suggests using it in something like a Manhattan in place of sweet vermouth: 1½ oz rye, ¾ oz Glayva, with "maybe some lemon, maybe some bitters... whatever you have kicking around."
Potter’s Creme de Menthe (Canada), 28 per cent ABV
What it is: Grain alcohol, mint and some sort of colouring that makes it bright green.
Source/age: Passed along to Thidrickson by her parents; the age of the bottle is unknown, although Potter Distilleries in Langley, B.C., hasn’t existed since 2005.
The verdict: "This smells like nothing; it’s probably not something you want to be drinking," Cote notes. Smelling and tasting a newer version of crème de menthe from behind the bar confirms the Potter’s is way over the hill.
However, Cote suggests making a branca menta with the fresh stuff, going half-and-half with crème de menthe and Fernet Branca, an Italian digestive (herbaceous, slightly bitter amaros such as Montenegro or Cynar could be used instead). Served over ice, the bitter and minty notes of the concoction are deliciously vibrant.
McGuinness Cherry Whisky liquor (Canada), 15 per cent ABV
What it is: The internet says "sweet cherry flavour blended with whisky," the back label says "water, sugar/glucose-fructose, alcohol, whisky, natural/artificial flavours, citric acid and colour."
Source/age: Thidrickson purchased this a few years ago for soaking cherries to go in old fashioneds.
The verdict: A cursory sniff of the product is less than positive. "It smells like the fluoride my dentist uses," Wilson notes. "You get dark fruits, but it also smells so synthetic," says Cote. I add that it smells like an old black forest cake.
Tasting it on its own confirms that if it were ever a decent product, that time has come and gone. Cote passes on making a cocktail with the McGuinness, noting that it could be incorporated it into a Manhattan or a blood and sand (with blood orange juice, sweet vermouth and scotch). A recipe on the bottle’s back label, meanwhile, suggests the "cherry pop" featuring 1½ oz of the McGuinness with 4 oz of cola or ginger ale.
Bols Creme de Bananes (the Netherlands), 17 per cent ABV
While many higher-alcohol spirits will do fine stored in a cupboard or cabinet, those bottles with lower alcohol levels (15-20-ish range) such as sherry, vermouth or port should be refrigerated after opening or used sooner rather than later.
These types of products tend to last for weeks after they’re opened (rather than indefinitely like a gin, whisky or rum), and flavours will either start mellowing or taking on an oxidative note.
Cream liqueurs such as Baileys are shelf stable before they’re opened, but once opened should be refrigerated and used within 6-10 months of opening.
When deciding where to store your stash, make sure you pick a cupboard, closet or cabinet that’s dark, relatively cool and free from excess vibration.
What it is: A bright, clear yellow banana-flavoured liqueur that brings flavours of the titular fruit as well as vanilla and almond notes as well as a few herbs and spices.
Source/age: Passed along to Thidrickson by her parents, age unknown.
The verdict: The bottle nearly empty, what liquid remains is deep yellow in colour, but brings virtually no banana notes aromatically. Wilson says the smell is "like cough medicine;" I picked up some cotton-candy aromas.
Flavour-wise it just tastes like sugar water — even the alcohol isn’t really discernable. "If the flavour is essentially gone, dump it," Cote says, adding, "I was going to make you ‘rock stars’ — half rye, and half banana liqueur. They’re disgusting, but people love them — you just shoot them back."
Cream liqueurs, 17 per cent ABV each
What they are: Some sort of alcohol mixed with cream and some other flavours or ingredients. We had two on hand — Amarula, a product from South Africa made using the distillate of the marula fruit and aged in oak for two years before being blended with cream; and the Vermeer Dutch chocolate cream liqueur from the Netherlands, made from cream, vodka and Dutch chocolate.
Source/age: I supplied the Amarula, which arrived at the Free Press as a sample in late 2018; Thidrickson supplied the Vermeer, another bottle passed along to her by her parents.
The verdict: Cote skips making cocktails with both of them. "The general rule with cream liqueurs is to use them six to 10 months after they’ve been opened," she explains, "and once they’ve been opened they should be refrigerated." Oops.
Cote notes that cream liqueurs can be used fairly interchangeably in paralyzer-type cocktails, in an espresso-type martini or just sipped on over ice — provided they’ve been properly stored (read: refrigerated) after opening. Which, again, these hadn’t.
Berentzen Plum Schnapps (Germany), 20 per cent ABV
What it is: Schnapps made from plums, of course.
Source/age: Wilson’s liquor cabinet, also passed on from her friend who quit drinking (who is now drinking again); age of bottle unknown.
The clear bottle shows a creepy brownish liquid. The dried, crusty brown goop around the cap of the bottle had sealed the cap shut, which meant we couldn’t get the thing open. Nobody was disappointed.
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