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Buying flavored alcohol

There are lots of ways to inject flavor into your cocktail menu. Mixers, juices (fresh or bottled), purees, essences and cordials can all amp up mixed drinks. But by far the most popular—and convenient—way these days is to purchase flavored white spirits, most notably vodka. Flavored vodka continues to be a fast-growing beverage category. Over the past five years, well over 100 flavored vodkas have been introduced, according to the Distilled Spirits Council. Lemon, lime, lemon-lime, orange, tangerine, melon, grapefruit, raspberry, strawberry, vanilla...

There are lots of ways to inject flavor into your cocktail menu. Mixers, juices (fresh or bottled), purees, essences and cordials can all amp up mixed drinks. But by far the most popular—and convenient—way these days is to purchase flavored white spirits, most notably vodka.

Flavored vodka continues to be a fast-growing beverage category. Over the past five years, well over 100 flavored vodkas have been introduced, according to the Distilled Spirits Council. Lemon, lime, lemon-lime, orange, tangerine, melon, grapefruit, raspberry, strawberry, vanilla, black currant, black pepper, chile pepper, cherry, apple, coconut, cinnamon, chocolate, coffee, peach, rose, buffalo grass—the litany of varieties goes on and on, with new ones introduced all the time. Grey Goose, for example, just released La Poire, a super-premium pear-flavored vodka.

When purchasing, be aware that quality varies greatly. Decide whether you want to stay with basic brands or feature top-shelf vodkas—or a judicious mix of both. Some distillers just add flavorings, either natural extracts or artificial ingredients. The best examples are made by infusing the vodka with real fruits, spices and other natural essences. Sweeteners may be added to round out the spirit.

Often the alcoholic strength of flavored vodkas is 10 to 20 proof, lower than straight spirits—another factor to be aware of when buying. Most vodkas are available in 750 ml or 1-liter bottles; less-expensive brands come in 1.5-liter or larger containers.

Rums have also entered the flavor fray. A few well-known rum brands like Cruzan’s coconut and spicy Captain Morgan have been around for a long time. Now, inspired by the vodka segment, rum producers like Bacardi have launched flavored lines, too. These days you can find rums accented by vanilla, lemon, lime, orange, mango, coconut, pineapple and banana.

South of the border flavor

Following on the heels of vodka’s dizzying flavor expansion, tequila is trying that same successful tactic. In March 2006, the Tequila Regulatory Council approved the production of flavored tequilas. Mexican federal regulations now allow the addition of flavorings, but only to mixtos, those less-expensive tequilas made with only a percentage of agave juice.

Because the flavored blends use tequila with a less-assertive character, they should prove as mixable as vodkas. Use flavored tequila in a margarita or substitute it for vodka in a martini recipe.

The United States is the main export market for these new tequilas. Tequila giant Jose Cuervo had three flavored tequilas waiting in the wings, ready to go when the regulation finally passed. Cuervo’s flavored line includes Oranjo (orange-flavored), Citrico (citrus) and Tropina (tropical pineapple). Another producer, Margaritaville, offers a line of tequilas in lime, coconut, tangerine, mango and passion fruit flavors. If the flavored tequila category proves profitable, undoubtedly other producers will follow suit.

At the same time, the Tequila Regulatory Council created another new high-end category: “extra-aged” or tequilas with a year or more of barrel time.  A step up from anejo tequilas, they aim to compete in the lucrative top-shelf tequila market.

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