In the beverage world, certain liquors garner an unofficial designation that sounds a bit pretentious ( … okay, a LOT pretentious), but is nevertheless an inescapable part of the industry parlance. You’ll hear drink aficionados using this phrase on the regular, gesturing to a (usually high-priced) bottle of whiskey, rum, or amaro and declaring its contents a “sipping spirit.”
But what exactly constitutes a sipping spirit? Are there particular flavors to look for, and do certain types of liquor fall into this category more easily than others? And — perhaps most importantly — does a sipping spirit always need to wipe out your booze budget? We’ve got the answers to all of those questions, and then some.
A sipping spirit should deliver expected flavor notes and textures, but also bring something singular to the table.
Sipping spirits must, above all else, possess a structure and flavor complexity that allows them to be enjoyed on their own, without the addition of mixers or additional liquors. Beverage director William Brawley of Billie Jean in St. Louis expands on that notion by telling us that “a spirit qualifies to be sipped when it meets two criteria. First, it simultaneously upholds the integrity of what one expects the spirit to be while bringing something completely unique to the sipping experience. Second, that the experience of sipping the spirit is pleasing to the nose, palate, and throat. Often, spirits are wonderful but need to be tamed in a cocktail. A sipping spirit is robust and pleasant to the nose, flavorful and textured on the palate, and smooth on the throat.”
“High-quality production” is essential to a successful sipping spirit.
“For a spirit to be sippable, it must exhibit characteristics of high-quality production, [like] quality raw ingredients, proper fermentation, skilled distillation decisions, [and] sensible post-distillation decisions. It must have complexity of the nose and palate and an enjoyable finish. The spirit must not shock your mouth or nose, [and should] have aromas, flavors, and textures that are enjoyable on their own,” explains proprietor H. Joseph Ehrmann of Elixir in San Francisco.
You can “take your time” with a sipping spirit.
The surest sign that you’re drinking a sipping spirit? “A sipping spirit is a drink I can take my time with and relax, savoring the taste and having a moment to reflect on a long day or a success,” insists Steen Bojsen-Moller, beverage director and co-owner of Seymour’s and Toucans in Palm Springs, CA.
Sipping spirits also translate well to cocktails.
While sipping spirits can by definition stand on their own without added ingredients, there’s no need to avoid these bottles when making your cocktail of choice. The quality present in a sipping spirit results in a mixed drink with appealing flavor depth. In fact, some bartenders, like beverage director Carolina Gonzalez of WoodWind in Chicago, consider a spirit’s sipping potential a crucial prerequisite for including it in a cocktail recipe. “I feel like everyone should be able to enjoy the spirit on its own to appreciate a cocktail that has been created with that spirit,” Gonzalez says.
No, sipping spirits don’t need to be expensive.
“There are misconceptions that high-dollar spirits are the only ones that can be enjoyed alone without a mixer. In reality, there are many affordable [sipping-quality] bottles out there that won’t break the bank,” Gonzalez tells us in an effort to dispel the “sipping spirits must cost big bucks” myth. While the time and labor involved in an aged spirit often results in a higher price tag (which, in some cases, feels justified), excellent bottles can be purchased at all cost levels. As long as you enjoy the flavor of your sipping spirit, then there’s no need to worry about its “market value.”
5 Sipping Spirits to Try
Interested in sipping spirits, but unsure where to start? Try these bottle recommendations from our experts:
Aged rums count among the most widely beloved sipping spirits, thanks to their complex flavor profiles. For bar manager Mark Phelan of Revival Food Hall in Chicago, the ideal sipping rum is Plantation Xaymaca Special Dry Rum, because “it is a full-bodied, 100% pot-still Jamaican rum with no added sugar, and it just sings with juicy tropical fruit flavors while a subtle dryness on the finish begs for another sip. And at [around] $25 retail, its value is just as impressive.”
The herbal Italian liqueurs known as amaro inherently fit the “sipping spirit” mold, as they’re digestivos intended for a leisurely drinking experience after a robust dinner. Lead bartender Lauren Mathews of Urbana in Washington, D.C. particularly favors Braulio Amaro, telling us that “one of my favorite sipping spirits is Braulio Amaro. It’s an amaro, [so it’s] not high in alcohol, and it can run for about $50 [per bottle]. I love the Alpine notes. A glass of Braulio Amaro is very refreshing after a large meal.”
“Personally, I enjoy reposado tequilas [for sipping] because the introduction of the spirit to the barrel gives off hints of vanilla and spice, which makes for a delicious and balanced sipping spirit,” explains mixologist Juan Martinez of Socalo in Santa Monica, CA. When asked whether he had a specific reposado tequila to recommend, Martinez answered quickly: “At the moment, my go-to sipping tequila is Angelisco Reposado.”
In comparison to rums, agave spirits, and whiskies, gin doesn’t get much recognition as a sipping spirit. Many gin drinkers only consume this liquor in the context of cocktails, but Jaren Rivas, the president of the Portland, ME chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild, believes that gin deserves inclusion in the sipping spirits pantheon. His particular favorite sipping gin? “Hardshore Original Gin from Portland, ME. [It’s] a New American style of gin with full-bodied notes of rosemary and mint, the subtle florality of orris root, and undertones of Italian juniper and coriander.”
When it comes to sipping spirits, one genre of liquor stands out above all others: whiskey. From peaty Scotches to spicy ryes, whiskeys (and whiskys) are commonly served straight-up or poured over a single ice cube, with imbibers truly relishing the rich and nuanced flavors. Considering those facts, you may assume that any sipping whiskey would cost a significant sum … but beverage director Harry Jamison of Townsend in Philadelphia is here to prove you wrong, because his preferred sipping whiskey happens to be the delightfully budget-conscious Old Grand-Dad Bourbon.
“One of my favorite bourbons to sip on is Old Grand-Dad Bonded. A lot of people at our bar are shocked when I tell them that … until I have them try it. It is slightly more expensive to get the bonded version (50% ABV as opposed to 40% ABV), but it’s well worth it. The extra alcohol brings weight and richness to the spirit, and because alcohol is a solvent, higher-alcohol spirits tend to have clearer, sharper flavors. On the palate, it starts out with the classic sweet corn and slightly herbaceous bourbon flavor profile, but then fades into notes of chocolate and peanut butter as the oak comes through on the finish. The slightly higher ABV also gives it just enough bite to cut into the sweetness on the palate. I’m not saying that it’s the most complex and beautiful spirit I’ve ever had, but considering the price is somewhere in the low $20s per bottle, it’s enjoyable and punches way above its weight. You can also find Old Grand-Dad 114 proof, which is fantastic, for around $30,” Jamison tells The Manual.
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