When it comes to planning what kinds of liquid gifts to bring to holiday gatherings, I tend to find myself in the same pickle every year. I have this innate desire to please everyone, but I also want to drink things that are a little more interesting. Sure, I could bring a crowd-pleasing bottle of bubbly or bourbon, but why not arrive with a foreign amaro or intriguing eau de vie that could inspire friends and family to drink outside their normal wheelhouse? Holiday gatherings are such a great opportunity to share new treasures that most of the time, I can't resist the urge to bring something outside the box.
Of course, when it comes down to browsing the liquor store shelves, anxieties arise. Will everyone think I'm too offbeat or trying too hard? Once I remind myself it will pretty much always be impossible to please every single person at the party, I try to let those concerns go and roll with liquids that are exciting to me, and hope someone else will catch the curiosity bug as well. More often than not, the plan works, and one family member or another ends up finding a new holiday favorite.
So here's a guide to some of the fun and curious spirits I'll be bringing to Thanksgiving dinner this year. Some of these make stellar partners for your beautifully roasted bird, while others work to ease the digestive system after the annual
stuffing-eating contest feast. You might notice that most of them fall on the bitter end of the spectrum; that's because bitter and herbal liqueurs help rev your appetite—and soothe the stomach after a hefty meal. Every single bottle would make for an excellent contribution to your holiday gathering, and since most of them are consumed in smaller doses than, say, a bottle of wine, your host will get the added gift of leftovers.
Refreshing Pre-Dinner Sippers
If you know your great-aunt or father-in-law is a picky drinker, consider going with a friendly fortified wine that builds upon familiar flavors. These options are perfect for sipping before dinner because they are light, refreshing, and able to stimulate the appetite.
This softly sweet, slightly bitter aperitif wine will speak to wine drinkers and cocktail obsessives alike. Cocchi Americano ($19 for 750mL) starts with a base of Moscato d'Asti and layers on herbs, bitter orange peels, woody cinchona bark, and gentian to create a crowd-pleasing profile that's dripping with honeysuckle and cinnamon, with a slightly dry finish that ever-so-slightly recalls tarragon and thyme. Drink it on ice, with soda, or play with Negroni variations, adding gin and the bitter wine-based aperitif Suze for a smash hit designed specifically to say "welcome to the party."
BroVo Witty Vermouth
The Seattle distillery known for teaming up with bartenders just launched a line of four new American-style vermouths. While they are all intriguing, I like the perky Witty ($19.99 for 750 milliliters), developed in conjunction with Jon Christiansen, the beverage director at Monsoon, Monsoon East, and Ba Bar in Seattle and Bellevue, Washington. Witty's crisp, fruity Sauvignon Blanc base is tempered with a blend of herbal distillates that includes more than 15 kinds of botanicals, making for a wild and complicated flavor profile. It's a pretty floral mix that most potently showcases dried rose, chamomile, rosemary, and bay leaves, and tastes simply delicious with ice and soda.
Cappelletti Aperitivo Americano
Familiar with Campari? Think of Cappelletti ($20 for 750 milliliters) as a less bitter (but equally as shockingly red) alternative. The wine-based aperitif has much more round sweetness than the classic Campari, but slightly more of an herbal nature than the other "red bitter" Aperol, making it a fine substitute for both in most cases. Act like the Italians and try adding a little bubbly for a delightful spritz before the main meal. Just don't forget an orange or lemon peel, to add a much-needed layer of oily aromatics.
If Cocchi Americano is the softer quinquina of the group—the category includes a number of aperitif wines made bitter with cinchona bark—consider Bonal ($20 for 750 milliliters) the darker, more sultry relative. It leans more toward the raisin and plum end of the fruit spectrum, with an underlying cinnamon-like bitterness. It's an excellent pre-meal tipple that'll get your mouth watering—just serve it chilled or on the rocks for those who like their bitter straight. If you want to make it a bit more friendly, try mixing with fresh apple cider and a sweet bourbon, like Buffalo Trace, for a crisp drink that tastes like baked apple pie.
Pairings Perfect for Dinner
If you're bored with the standard red or white for the main course, challenge the norm this year with sherry or Madeira, some of the best (and often most underrated) pairing beverages. You might have heard that these fortified wines are cloyingly sweet, but both categories actually offer a range, from dry, salty, and wonderfully savory to rich, opulent, and molasses-laced. Where reds and whites can taste like fruit, sherries and Madeiras pick up the savory, nutty, meaty, and toasty side of Thanksgiving's star dishes, making for remarkable pairings.
Gonzalez Byass Fino Tio Pepe
This crisp, minerally fino sherry ($18 for 750 milliliters) works great with a range of flavors, from white turkey meat to tangy cranberry sauce and rich mashed potatoes, because it has a fresh, bright salinity and less of a nutty character than the more heavily oxidized types of sherry. It's fairly dry, with hints of salty roasted chestnuts and underripe pear, but there's also an unexpected underlying honeyed character that helps temper the oils and salts involved in the Thanksgiving meal. It's fun to experiment with finding the perfect serving temperature (some like it warmer than others), but generally speaking, I'll drink it chilled in a white wine glass.
Valdespino Amontillado Tio Diego
Amontillado-style sherry offers wonderfully dark, rich flavors, so if the salty, savory dishes at the table are your main priority, try this rich amber-colored example ($25 for 750 milliliters). Big, rich flavors in dishes like thick gravy, dark meat, mushroomy stuffing, and hearty greens will deepen and expand alongside this nutty, medium-bodied sherry. This dry and slightly smoky bottling will please whiskey and wine drinkers alike.
Gonzalez Byass "Cristina" Oloroso Abocado Sherry
Red and white wine can taste bitter next to sugary sweet potatoes and squash, but this oloroso sherry from Gonzalez Byass ($24.99 for 750 milliliters) can handle those dishes without a problem. Mockingbird Hill's sherry expert Derek Brown introduced me to it—I love its slightly salty maple, thyme and cinnamon moments. Its toasty walnut flavor also makes it excellent for pairing with a cheese plate; it's especially good with strong-flavored cheeses like gouda, Asiago and Gorgonzola.
Boston Bual Madeira
All of the Rare Wine Company Madeiras provide great value for money (most land around $45 for 750 milliliters), but the Boston Bual is an excellent pick for a dessert pairing, thanks to its natural sweetness, which rounds out and complements rich pumpkin and pecan pies. It's decadent stuff, packed with cinnamon and berry flavor and a molasses-like sweetness, begging for a grainy graham cracker crust. If $45 feels too steep, we also found the Rainwater Madeira from Blandy to be an appropriate substitute; it's less complex and interesting, but still gets the job done.
An After-Dinner Crash Course in Amaro
Italians have long held that the herbs, roots and other botanicals used to flavor their bitter liqueurs help ease digestion, so these amari are just what the doctor ordered for settling the stomach after a gut-busting holiday feast. You might already be familiar with Averna, Fernet Branca, and other popular brands—here are a few lesser-known labels to explore, listed from least bitter to bracingly so.
If you're a fan of Averna, try Lucano ($30 for 750 milliliters) this time around. One of Italy's best selling amaro brands, Lucano blossoms with a pleasingly loud orange and dark chocolate likeness that at times evokes candied stone fruit. Bitterness levels are relatively low, so it's a great place to begin if you want to love bitters but prefer easing into the category. Since it's got quite a bit of sweetness, it's easy to sip neat. If you're not going for a whole amaro tasting, try mixing this bottle with a spicy ginger beer for a bitter and stomach-soothing play on a Moscow Mule.
Artichoke-laced liqueur might sound strange, but I wager if you were to try Cynar ($29.99 for one liter) without knowing what it was, the strange thistle would likely never come to mind. Texture-wise, Cynar is thicker than the Lucano and Averna, but thanks to its pronounced vegetal personality, it's better for those looking for a more dry, earthy alternative to the sugar-heavy nature of those other brands. Dandelion and molasses lead the flavors, with a stinging bitter stab punctuating the finish. I love drinking Cynar straight, but it also adds a new dimension to a Boulevardier variation if you add about a quarter of an ounce to the standard 1:1 ratio of Campari, sweet vermouth, and whiskey.
Braulio Amaro Alpino
Brazen Braulio ($30 for one liter) is an alpine-style amaro, meaning it's made with herbs that grow in mountainous regions with a recipe that's been heavily guarded for more than a century. There's such an audacious pine needle flavor and aroma that drinking a dram kind of feels like pushing your face into the depths of a Christmas tree. If you favor strong anise and bitter orange spice with a kick of extreme bitterness, this one's for you. If not? I'd stick to the safer bets listed above.
You may be familiar with the swift bitter punch that Fernet Branca delivers. Vittone ($28 for 750 milliliters) is a slightly softer, less herbal alternative. Instead of a smack of Listerine-like herbs, you get a (quite astringent) mint personality, but it lands on the darker end of the spectrum somewhere closer to a Girl Scout Thin Mint cookie. If you decide to show up with a few kinds of amari for a fun tasting, be sure to finish with one like this—the most bitter of the group—as the unapologetic flavors have a tendency to overpower subsequent tastings. If you want to go further down the path of bitterness, take note of the even more obscure Sibilla and Fernet Vallet recommendations below.
Obscure Treasures for Adventurous Types
If your Thanksgiving host already has a well stocked bar—and her taste tends toward the adventurous—it's nice to bring a bottle that's a bit unusual. Here's a treasure chest of options for a Turkey Day walk on the wild side.
Kina L'Aero D'Or
If you're a fan of sweet white wines, Lillet, or Cocchi Americano, check out this rich quinquina. Kina L'Aero D'Or ($27.99 for 750 milliliters), formerly known as Kina L'Avion D'Or, has a rich sticky texture flush with ginger and orange marmalade flavors mingling with dry herbs and a quick hit of bitter wormwood that dissipates quickly, leaving only residual sugars on the finish. It's a fun addition to a Vesper cocktail for pre-feasting festivities, but it's also delicious when sipped solo on a few ice cubes.
One of my personal all-time favorites, the cardoon-flavored liqueur known as Cardamaro ($21 for 750 milliliters) has a brilliant balance between hefty dark cherry flavors and a profound cinnamon bark-like dryness that evens out the sugars. Its spectrum of flavor is broad and rich, and I drink it chilled before and after meals with relentless fervor.
Varnelli Amaro Sibilla
One of the most interesting and bizarre amari I've tasted to date, Amaro Sibilla ($53 for one liter) is made with wood-fired herbs and sweetened with honey. At first, the medium-bodied bitter has a rich coffee, clove, dark maple, and chocolate flavor that subsequently melts into an incredibly dry finish with lots of tannin, woody bark flavors and pops of soft mint. It's not for the faint of heart, but if you like crazy-bitter, weird and cool, intensely dry drinks, pick up a bottle. It's perfect for experimenting with in nightcap cocktails and for sipping after dinner.
This Mexican Fernet is the darkest, most oily and thick-bodied amaro I've ever had the pleasure of getting to know. A dry, thistle-like bitterness courses through the tempestuous Fernet Vallet ($22.99 for 750mL), accompanied with clove, cardamom, and other smoky, herbal flavors. While it's a bit too bold for me to sip neat, it mixes harmoniously with agave spirits like tequila and mezcal (add a bit of lime juice), or softened with an equal dose of Campari for a gorgeous 50/50. Definitely a post-meal aid for proper digestion.
Note: All prices given are estimates as of the time of writing and may change. All bottles except the Cappelletti, Valdespino Amontillado Tio Diego, Rainwater Madeira and Gonzalez Byass Fino Tio Pepe were provided as tasting samples for review. Special thanks to John Garrett of Virtuoso Selections Spirits, Derek Brown of Mockingbird Hill, and Stevie Stacionis of Bay Grape Wine Shop in Oakland for pointing me in the right direction with sherry and Madeira recommendations. I officially have some new favorites in each category.
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