If you’re entertaining this holiday season, stock the bar—spirits are undergoing a resurgence. Indeed, the research company Mordor Intelligence predicts that the United States market will grow from $75.17 billion in 2023 to $96.03 billion by 2028.
“Popular culture has embraced the return of the cocktail with the rise of mixology over the past decade,” maintains Ellen Kassoff, who owns The Federal with her husband, chef Todd Gray.
The Rehoboth Beach restaurant has run a spirit dinner series for three years, and it isn’t the only one. The Hilton Wilmington/Christiana, Touch of Italy in Lewes and Hamilton’s on Main in Newark have held bourbon pairings.
A versatile liquor cabinet has six elemental spirits: brandy, gin, rum, tequila, vodka and whiskey. Within each are sub-categories. For instance, bourbon is a whiskey.
Keep this primer handy whether you’re entertaining at home or dining out. Spirits also make great gifts, and we asked David Govatos of Swigg to recommend one for each category.
Brandy: water of life
Distilled from wine or fruit, brandy was a 14th-century medicine dubbed l’eau de vie (water of life). Admittedly, its popularity has waned. “The category is dormant,” Govatos says. And that’s a shame, considering brandy boasts many of bourbon’s qualities, including soft caramel and fruit notes.
Cognac and Armagnac are from those French regions. Calvados, an apple brandy, is from Normandy, and the Italian grappa is produced using pomace, winemaking’s pulpy residue.
Since brandy improves with age, expect to pay less for very special (aged for at least two years) than you would for hors d’age, aged at least 30 years. VSOP stands for very special old pale aged four or more years.
Try a sidecar made with cognac, orange liqueur and lemon juice for a cocktail. You can also order the French 75 with cognac.
Gift idea: VS from Brisson, a fifth-generation cognac house. Sip it or mix it in a cocktail.
Gin: a spirited resurgence
Gin is the base for the classic martini, negroni, Tom Collins, and gin and tonic. The spirit originated in the 17th century and is distilled from grain mash. Some brands use potatoes or corn.
Botanicals, namely juniper berries, are introduced in the second distillation. The addition of herbs and spices creates a brand’s distinctive recipe. For instance, Dogfish Head’s Compelling Gin includes coriander, angelica root, black peppercorn, lemon peel, green cardamom, hibiscus, orris root, orange and lime peel, lime leaves and cinnamon.
Smyrna–based Painted Stave’s seven herbs include juniper, lavender, coriander, orris root, angelica root, lemon balm and sweet goldenrod, Delaware’s state herb.
Gin styles include London dry, the most prevalent. Think Beefeater and Tanqueray. New American gins like Aviation and Bluecoat have less juniper. “It’s a little more citrus-forward, and there might be more floral,” says Dom Straub, bar manager at Hummingbird to Mars in Trolley Square.
Old Tom is sweeter, and genever, which can only come from certain areas, is made from grains.
Gift idea: Heyman London Dry. “It’s perfectly balanced and has a lovely texture,” Govatos explains. It also comes in a pretty bottle.
Rum: ready for a renaissance
Rum gets a bad rap, Straub says. Too many people picture fruity drinks. But Straub, who loves the Tiki culture in the mid-20th century, says rum can be nuanced, and since the production has no restrictions, it’s also a muse for mixologists.
While celebrity-backed Tequilas have blazed the path, educated consumers are trying small brands meant for sipping, not shots.
The critical ingredients are sugar cane byproducts, which is why rum rose to fame on Caribbean sugar plantations. Styles include light, gold, dark, black and aged. There are also flavored versions, such as Beach Time’s Beach Fire Spiced Rum, made with cinnamon, orange, vanilla and spices.
Gift idea: R.L. Seale’s Finest Barbados Rum, a 12-year-old provocative spirit.
Tequila: top of the trends
“Agave spirits have exploded,” Straub says. While celebrity-backed tequilas have blazed the path, educated consumers are trying small brands meant for sipping, not shots, he notes. Govatos agrees. Swigg focuses on artisanal products.
Tequila, made from the blue agave plant, only earns the name if it comes from the state of Jalisco and limited Mexican municipalities outside that state. There are six different types based on age, with blanca (silver) being the youngest and extra anejo being the oldest. Over time, tequila gets darker and develops complex flavors.
Gift idea: Fortaleza. “We have a hard time keeping it in stock,” Govatos says.
Vodka: not necessarily neutral
Vodka comes from the Russian word voda (water), and the liquor appeared in Polish documents in 1405. However, it wasn’t until 1933, when Vladimir Smirnov sold his rights to an American, that vodka became common in the U.S.
Vodka can be made from anything organic, like grains, potatoes and beets. For instance, Beach Time Distilling in Lewes distills corn to make Slack Tide Vodka.
There are plain, flavored and infused vodkas. EasySpeak Spirits in Milford sells a seasonal pumpkin spice flavor and cold brew—great for espresso martinis—plus lemon tea and orange. (Crush, anyone?) If you want to walk on the off-centered side, try Dogfish Head Roasted Peanut Vodka.
“When vodka flavors like buttered popcorn, bacon, bubblegum, Fruit Loops and scrapple hit the market, you know the top is in—at a certain point people get tired of the fad and look for a change,” says John Narvaez, beverage director at Harry’s Savoy Grill in Brandywine Hundred.
Gift idea: Kástra Elión distilled from Greek olives. “It’s one hell of a base for a dirty martini,” Govatos says.
Whiskey: marketing to millennials
Spirits go in and out of fashion, and bourbon is having its day. The Federal’s bourbon dinners sell out within a week, Kassoff says.
Bourbon is a whiskey, a spirit distilled from grain mash. Scotch whisky—without the e—is only from Scotland, where there are five whisky-making regions: Speyside, Lowland, Highland, Campbeltown and Islay. Each has a flavor profile. For instance, Islay whiskies have a peated taste.
In the U.S., bourbon must be at least 51% corn. To be a Kentucky bourbon, the spirit must be distilled in that state. Kassoff says it’s more approachable than other whiskies. Narvaez agrees. “Bourbon has a sweeter flavor profile…with notes of vanilla, oak, honey and caramel,” he explains. “It has a depth of flavor that is subtle and complex but not overpowering, making it easy to enjoy.”
It’s also easy to pair. “Being a steakhouse, we tend to lean into more of the deeper, earthier flavor profiles of whiskey and have curated one of the more extensive bourbon lists in the state,” Narvaez maintains. Bourbon also suits barbecue, which explains the large selection at places like Limestone BBQ and Bourbon and Bethany Blues.
Don’t expect the spirit’s popularity to dim anytime soon. Still, all trends ebb. “At a certain point, people get bored with the current thing and look to explore or revisit other classics,” Narvaez says. “Which spirit will lead the next trend is hard to say, but I’m confident guests’ interests will shift.”
Gift idea: Willett Pot Still Bourbon, which comes in a compelling bottle that looks like a still.