THERE'S A NEW ERA OF COCKTAIL CULTURE taking hold in America. Dwindling are the “Mad Men” days of imbibing processed liquor with high alcohol content and loads of sugar, thrown back in lowballs and syrupy long drinks. Today’s palate is focused instead on spirits that are better tasting and better for you. Think natural ingredients with complex flavor profiles, smaller artisanal batches committed to craft over quantity, and a drinking culture rooted in balance over binge.
And while more and more names are populating this conscious beverage space, there is arguably none as unassumingly cool as Forthave Spirits. New York caught on quickly; their bottles always seem to be found in the places you want to be, and be seen (behind the bar at a Nightmoves disco party, inside of a donut at buzzy Wildair, topping a spritz at Greenwich Village’s latest booked-through-eternity seafood spot, Dame ... you get the idea).
Founded by painter Aaron Sing Fox and writer/producer Daniel de la Nuez, the botanical spirit makers have a distillery in Williamsburg. The brand’s namesake? A fifteenth-century botanist, Richard Forthave. As the story goes: While the Black Plague tore through Europe, Forthave concocted an herbal tonic meant to fight the disease. The centuries-old recipe is what inspired Fox and de la Nuez’s own modern portfolio of exclusively plant-based recipes, each with their own medicinal qualities. Of course, they subbed out original ingredients like vinegar and garlic for more palatable alternatives. Their most recognizable bottle, the “Marseille” amaro, bears a design as subtle and mysterious as it is eerily relevant: a long-beaked plague mask, sketched by one of the co-founders.
Sipping each spirit is like walking through a forest of memories. It’s fascinating what the tongue and nose pick up — which tastes come through with vivid clarity and which ignite sensorially adjacent past experiences. “Marseille” evokes notes of honey and eucalyptus, as well as comforting chamomile tea (although there is zero chamomile used), bringing a sensation to the mouth that alternates between warm and cool. Their “Brown” coffee liqueur tastes almost like dark chocolate. In fact, the coffee beans undergo the same process as cocoa beans for this bottle, posing the question: Is chocolate’s flavor more a product of its process than its bean? “Black,” a nocino made with foraged walnuts, smells vaguely of dulce de leche as you lower the nose, with a taste so smooth it’s closer to a texture than a flavor. And the génépi aperitif “Yellow” triggers vermouth vibes, but a bit more delicate, lovelier.
Understanding that this larger shift in spirit consumption is less of a moment, and more a movement, I sat down with the Forthave founders to talk shop. What does one need to get into the botanical spirits game? Where did this growing appetite for the vegetal and herbaceous come from? And what actually is amaro?
“On one hand, there’s been a change in American palates, where they're embracing bitterness more and European dining culture as well. On the other, you have ingredient-driven restaurants, looking to things like natural wine over more traditional bigger houses. And with the resurgence of this cocktail renaissance, you start getting very fine cocktails in restaurants. But those same restaurants that were farm-to-table and showcasing organic would also see that the spirits they were working with were actually very big global brands that didn't fit with the ethos of being a farm-to-table, agricultural, organic restaurant. From there people realized, 'If we're going to focus this much on the carrot that we're putting in this dish, then we should give the same kind of attention to the spirits in our cocktails and in our back bar.'
It's also a change in lifestyle. You've had a bottle of wine with dinner and you want to have something afterwards. You’d usually have whiskey but a whiskey is not going to help you digest. These things can. An aperitivo is going to open up your appetite at the beginning of the meal. It's physiological. The bitter orange peels we use in our aperitivo, 'Red,' activate your salivary glands and start your digestion, which starts making you hungry. Likewise, at the end of the meal, if you have something that's bittersweet, it’s going to taste good and help you get your secreting bile going to get that digestive system flowing again. So health plays a role as well.”
“The most interesting ingredients are the bitter ingredients. Gentian root is an interesting one to experiment with — the dried root of an alpine flower. It has a drier, sharper bitterness, almost dusty in a sense. Turkey rhubarb root is another good one. Italians would purchase it through Turkey on the Spice Route, thinking it was coming from Turkey, hence the name. But it was actually coming from China. Rheum palmatum is the Latin name of the plant. This root has more of a chocolaty coffee type of bitterness. The third is cinchona bark, which is the bark of a mostly Latin American tree, most famously in quinine — the main bitter in tonic water. It was, and is still, used to fight malaria. During World War II, there was a big search for it in the Andes, through these very high altitudes, to give to the soldiers fighting in the Pacific, where malaria was a big threat.
So if people were to experiment at home, they should take some blend of those and maybe other spices, fruits, or citruses that they’re more familiar with, and infuse them into some kind of base alcohol that you think is of high quality. From there, you can leave it in the bottle. Shake it up. We do two weeks to maybe one moon cycle. Filter it off. Maybe add some honey or simple syrup to a desired level of sweetness. Put it out of sight again for another couple of months. After that, you might have some interesting takes on your own version of a digestivo.”
“We have fairly simple habits from that perspective, we mix most of them with just plain seltzer water over ice. Some of them, like 'Red,' we like mixing with mezcals. Los Nahuales is really good. Del Maguey is good — an independent bottler and distillery. We like to riff on negronis, spritzes, or highballs — they work beautifully with almost any botanical spirit.
With us both coming from wine backgrounds and not, say, brown spirit backgrounds, we’re very intentionally going back to ingredients, using the best possible ones we can find. Everything's organic, we work with farms upstate, in the Northeast; the honey that's in our amaro is from an apiary just outside of Ithaca. So that wine sort of palate comes into focus in how we want each of our products to be able to stand alone, or maybe just on ice with a splash of seltzer. Hal’s is good. Topo Chico is good with 'Red.' But we're really looking for this particular balance that you'd find in wine, with length and balance of acidity and that sort of bittersweetness. When we’re cooking, we’ll grab some 'Red' and pour it in a glass with ice and club soda. Or a little bit of 'Marseille,' our first amaro, reading at night before bed.”
“For us, it’s the INAO tulip glass. This is like the official standard wine-tasting glass. It's like a port glass. By some sommeliers’ standards, it’s the agreed upon tasting glass so that when people are comparing tasting notes among different vintages, among different wineries, it's standardized. It’s beautiful to sip anything delicate where you want to enjoy all the subtleties.
But when you travel through Spain or France, these places have these great traditions and every region has its own style from how it’s made to how it’s served. So if you're in Capri they'll pour you Amaro del Capo chilled because it's hot in Capri, in a different glass than you’d have in northern Italy — in Torino — where it’s colder and you're doing an après ski. Those ones tend to be more like a glorified shot glass. Like a small, thick ounce-and-a-half glass."
“Food pairings are more in the apéro hour. Or after a meal. Like the digestivo would almost be the dessert in itself — the coffee liqueur, the nocino, the amaro. The amaro poured over a gelato, which a number of restaurants do, is also hard to argue with. But in the apéro hour, we were chatting a bit with Rebekah Peppler [Los Angeles/Paris-based food writer and author of 'À Table,' her most recent cookbook] about all sorts of wonderful pairings — sardines and olives and all sorts of other wonderful things in tapas culture.”
Fox, de la Nuez, and I discussed taste and scent memories, how different people perceive different notes. The bottle depends on the person, in a sense. And apparently, the day. Getting to the end of our tasting, we finished on their “Marseille” amaro and the founders smiled at each other and remarked, “Huh. The flavors were different last week.” Sipping the same label now at my desk, a week later, I find that once again, the flavors are mysteriously, subtly, and delightfully — different.
Sophie Mancini Writer
Sophie Mancini is an editor at Departures. Born and raised in New York City, she holds a degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University and has a background as a writer in brand and editorial.
Laurie Frankel Photographer
Laurie Frankel is a San Francisco — based still life, food, and lifestyle photographer whose experience as a creative director shapes her graphic sensibilities and collaborative approach. Her work has been recognized by American Photography, Communication Arts, Graphis, and Luerzer’s Archive, among others.