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Craft cocktail menus present a dizzying vocabulary if you're unfamiliar with the overwhelming variety of liqueurs and liquors behind the bar. We've picked five of our favorites that are now common additions to local cocktail lists, and demystified them for your enjoyment.

Absinthe

click to enlarge Absinthe - ILLUSTRATION BY STEVE OLIVA
  • Illustration by Steve Oliva
  • Absinthe

The green fairy isn't exactly flitting all over the place, but you can glimpse the flutter of its wings if you know where to look. Our favorite spot to quaff absinthe until we feel like mad French painters is Counting House at 21c Museum Hotel. Counting House serves Lucid Absinthe Supérieure, the first absinthe with real wormwood essence—which, again, doesn't make you trip, but is certainly a mild poison essential to the unique flavor behind the high-alcohol kick—to be made available in the U.S. after a ban that had stood since Prohibition was lifted in 2007. We take it neat (Lucid is bottled pre-diluted, so, sadly, there's no ritual pour over a sugar cube on a slotted spoon), which tastes like a whole bag of licorice jellybeans in a small glass, or in Counting House's tasty Sazerac. Bartender Mitch Mitchell makes his a bit less sweet than some places do, with a couple of ounces of rye (we recommend Bulleit), a quarter-ounce of simple syrup, a few dashes of Peychaud's Bitters, and just a spritz of absinthe. If you're in the mood for something at once familiar and exotic, basically like an Old Fashioned with an anise kicker, follow the green fairy to this accessible, sophisticated bevvy. Brian Howe

Mezcal

Begin by debunking any myths you may believe about mezcal. It is not tequila, and it is not all smoky. The complexities of mezcal are rooted in the region's terroir—mezcal is made in eight regions of Mexico, but Oaxaca is considered the epicenter—and how the maguey (an agave plant) is cultivated. Marshall Davis, owner of Raleigh's Gallo Pelón, explains the varietals as being different in the same way wines are. Each grape bears a unique taste; each barrel ages through different temperatures, time, and flavors. "You can't drink a chardonnay and declare 'I don't like wine' when you've only tried that one," Davis says.

click to enlarge Mezcal - ILLUSTRATION BY STEVE OLIVA
  • Illustration by Steve Oliva
  • Mezcal

In Mexico, he adds, you sip the drink straight, all day and all night. But for a bar to work in North Carolina—and to have a little fun—Gallo Pelón sells mezcal neat and thrown into a stellar list of cocktails. The Leather Jacket is a popular feature, mixing a blend of three mezcals (espadin, cuishe, tobala) with the rhubarb-and-cardamom-focused Zucca amaro and a hint of sweet Spanish vermouth. But the kicker? Shell-on salted peanuts that highlight the smokiness of the Mexican liquor with a touch of North Carolina terroir. Victoria Bouloubasis

Japanese whiskey

click to enlarge Japanese Whiskey - ILLUSTRATION BY STEVE OLIVA
  • Illustration by Steve Oliva
  • Japanese Whiskey

Newly trending in the South, Japanese whiskey varieties are becoming the go-to for modern Asian restaurants leveling up their bar game. And for good reason: they keep edging out the Scottish standards in global competitions. There is a separate category for Japanese whiskey at the World Whiskies Awards and, in 2016, Suntory Hibiki 21 won the award for World's Best Blended Whiskey for the third time since 2010. Still, the hearty, scotch-like Japanese whiskey is relatively difficult to find in the U.S. Mike Caulo, bartender at Dashi's upstairs izakaya in Durham, says that he asks customers willing to try it if they like scotch. A nod will get you a Suntory Hakushu served neat, with a splash of water if you're so inclined. It's smoky and peaty, but not as sweet as a rye whiskey. The Nikka Coffey Grain is better for beginners, with a more full-bodied bourbon persuasion. For a cocktail, Caulo recommends Dashi's Smoky Bobby, a play on a Manhattan or a Rob Roy. The bitters enhance the natural sweetness of the alcohol, perfect for winter. ­Victoria Bouloubasis

St-Germain

click to enlarge St-Germain - ILLUSTRATION BY STEVE OLIVA
  • Illustration by Steve Oliva
  • St-Germain

With notes of pear, peach, and lychee, St-Germain is a light, fruity, and sweet (but not saccharine) liqueur made from macerated elderflowers grown in the French Alps. They bloom through a brief four to six weeks in the springtime and are then distilled into a secret family recipe created by Robert J. Cooper. (Considered a young pioneer in the cocktail world, Cooper died in 2016 at age thirty-nine.) St-Germain tastes as fun, nuanced, and dramatic as the way it's created, and can pair gracefully with white and dark spirits alike. Pros call it the "bartender's ketchup"—it goes with everything. While it can and should be enjoyed neat, the powers of St-Germain are utterly transformative, making any cocktail brighter and flirtier without being overwhelming. A splash in a flute of sparkling wine is cause for celebration; better yet, allow the floral, hint-of-citrus sweetness to add depth to a mimosa or Bellini. It's an inspired substitute for simple syrup, so add a spritz to gin and tonics to make the boozy classic more approachable for novice drinkers and more multilayered for the pros. Use the same strategy for EFFEN Cucumber Vodka and soda water topped with a dash or two of jalapeño bitters for a refreshing drink with a bite. ­—Kim Lan Grout

Amaro

Not to be confused with the better known amaretto, amaro includes in its big Italian family fernet, vermouth, and carciofo (cynar), along with dozens of other styles. We could spend all day organizing the kingdom, phylum, and class of bittersweet and herbal amari, as they are that nuanced, but suffice it to say that amaro is versatile enough to stand on its own (neat) or complementing other spirits in a complex mixed drink, oftentimes upping the flavor ante on tried-and-true bar staples like Manhattans and Old Fashioneds.

click to enlarge Amaro - ILLUSTRATION BY STEVE OLIVA
  • Illustration by Steve Oliva
  • Amaro

Made by mashing dozens of fruits, flowers, herbs, roots, and bark into alcohol, throwing in some sugar syrup, and allowing the mix to age, amaro knows no flavor bounds and can range in ABV from 16 percent to 40 percent. It's easy to pair with a variety of alcohols. Amari, often used as a digestif, are enjoyed all over the world and are growing in popularity in the States. Germany's Jägermeister, France's Chartreuse, and Italy's popular Campari can arguably be considered amari, too. Our recommendation: equal parts gin, Cynar, and Aperol, garnished with an orange peel. Kim Lan Grout

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