6 Local Liquors Around the World You Haven’t Heard Of

See recent posts by Lara Grant

Hundreds of countries have their spirit of choice -- tequila in Mexico, rum in Cuba, and Jameson whiskey in Ireland, for example. Then there are the lesser-known liquors that are favored by a country, often enjoyed while laughing and conversing with friends and family at a neighborhood restaurant. Check out our list of six countries around the world and their lesser-known intoxicants that we'd argue are worth a flight for -- or we'd at least make the argument after a shot or two...

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1. Shochu in Japan

If you had to guess Japan‘s national liquor of choice, you’d probably think it’s sake, but shochu is actually far more popular among locals. The spirit is distilled just once from either sweet potato, barley, or rice — creating a different flavor profile for each — and typically has a 25 percent alcohol content by volume. It’s most akin to vodka and as with most spirits, it’s an acquired taste, but the best way to enjoy it is with ice, or a splash of hot or cold water. Some say the best shochu can be found in the area of Kyushu, the southwestern-most island of Japan. So next time you’re enjoying sashimi and sushi, skip the sake bombs and go for a shochu on the rocks. 

2. Arrack in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka, a small island (the size of South Carolina) in the Indian Ocean, is known for Buddhist temples, lush rain forests, and gorgeous beaches. The country is considered to produce some of the best tea in the world — many visitors choose to take tea tours — but for travelers who want something stronger than a caffeine kick, any local will recommend arrack. The liquor can be found throughout the island and is produced from Sri Lanka’s abundant supply of coconuts; it’s made by taking the sap of unopened flowers from a coconut palm, then allowing it to ferment before distillation. The result is a liquor that’s 66- to 100-proof that resembles a mix of whiskey and rum. Try it with ginger beer, another popular (non-alcoholic) local drink. 

3. Kava in Fiji

Kava Ceremony in Fiji

If you’ve ever been to Fiji, you’ve almost certainly participated in (or at least observed) a kava ceremony. Kava is a mildly narcotic drink made from mixing the powdered root of a pepper plant with water, to create a light brown liquid that tastes bitter and produces slight numbness around the mouth and a feeling of relaxation. A kava ceremony in Fiji consists of the chief or eldest man making the drink in a large wooden bowl, then filling a small bowl made from half of a coconut shell with the liquid and passing to the first drinker. After a specific set of claps, gulps, and “Bula” cheers, the ceremony transitions into a celebration of song and dance. We’ll Bula to that!

4. Pisco in Peru

Peru‘s liquor of choice is pisco — a brandy made by distilling grape wine from the country’s winemaking region into a spirit. Strict regulations mean true pisco can only be made using one of eight grape varieties, and in one of five coastal valley regions of Peru, and then distilled only once in a glass, stainless steel, or copper pot (something that won’t affect the taste). The result is a colorless to yellow-hued brandy with a proof of 76 to 96; its flavor largely depends on the brand, ranging from earthy to citrusy. Cocktail connoisseurs have likely tried a pisco sour, made using pisco, egg white, lime juice, simple syrup, and bitters — well worth a try at your favorite watering hole. 

5. Ouzo in Greece

A trip to Greece isn’t complete without visiting the ancient ruins of Athens, diving in the stunning blue waters of Santorini, and having a glass of ice-cold ouzo with locals. The spirit is made from the by-products of grapes after they’ve been used to make wine, which is then distilled into a high-proof alcohol (96 percent ABV) and flavored primarily with anise, and sometimes other spices such as cinnamon and coriander. The result is a clear and strong liquid with a distinctive licorice taste, similar to that of absinthe. It’s best served straight or with a bit of water or ice — which causes the liquid to become cloudy — alongside mezedes (Greek appetizers). Sip the ouzo while noshing on octopus, grape leaves, and feta.

6. Sombai in Cambodia

Cambodia‘s national drink comes from Siem Reap, a tourist-heavy town known for the awe-inspiring Angkor Wat temple. Sombai is a rice spirit that’s distilled with one of eight distinct flavor combinations — such as banana and cinnamon, coconut and pineapple, and mango and green chili — that was developed by expats. Most uniquely, though, the liquor is sold in hand-painted bottles with traditional checkered krama cloth decorating the top; the result is a one-of-a-kind bottle that makes for a great gift or souvenir. There’s a Sombai tasting room for travelers who want to sample the flavors before making a purchase. 

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