When Illinois chefs Tom and Athena Seefurth handed out samples of their homemade beer at a local liquor store, they surprised more than a few customers; instead of the usual aroma of roasted malt or bitter hops, unsuspecting imbibers were treated to a waft of garlic…oregano…basil…and tomatoes?
The inventors of “pizza beer” and owners of two-year-old Mamma Mia! Pizza Beer Company did not set out to create such a quirky liquor. According to the Seefurths, the seeds of genius sprouted in their garage in Rivertown, IL, 50 miles west of Chicago, amid boxes of old concert T-shirts, giant stockpots, and vintage beer can collections. The two were brewing up bad jokes and batches of homemade beer when—Eureka!—inspiration struck: “We wanted to make a beer that would pair with our favorite food, so we thought: Pizza beer, why not?”
Though it may seem that such isolated discoveries are fated, concocting strange liquors isn’t limited to happy accidents or individual genius, or even to midwestern suburbs. From the arid plains of Mexico to the hill towns of Italy, strange liquors have been a worldwide tradition since the hazy and fortuitous beginnings of alcohol millennia ago.
In ancient times, liquor was part medicine, part religion. The Chinese have long prescribed “lizard wine” as a remedy for arthritis and ulcers, while the Incans poured the saliva-fermented chicha (corn beer) on the ground during ritual harvest ceremonies. Though many of these intoxicating formulas have shed their original purposes, the recipes have outlasted the ages, and people are still enjoying these unusual drinks today. Knocking back these odd liquors has become a way for locals to stay rooted to their traditions, and for foreigners, they can provide a window into the culture itself.
Take kvas, the ubiquitous liquor from Russia made from fermented cubes of stale black or rye bread. Come summertime, locals flock to vendors who roam neighborhoods with giant yellow jugs dispensing flavored (berries, mint, raisins) versions of the stuff—just as they have for centuries. The traditional drink, which dates back to antiquity and early czarist reigns, was consumed by both peasants and nobles alike.
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But today, with hundreds of bottles lining the shelves, liquors no longer sell themselves. That’s why some makers have severed ties with convention and turned to innovation, reaching deep into their imaginations to pull out novelties with shock value to stand up to otherwise ordinary products.
Perhaps the most notorious liquor marketing scheme of all: the “worm” in mezcal. Before the addition of the wriggly invertebrate (actually, it’s larva), mezcal was merely tequila’s less glamorous cousin. Thanks to an ingenious marketing campaign in the 1940s, the Mexican agave liquor now enjoys a mysterious reputation as an (alleged) aphrodisiac with hallucinations in store for those who dare eat the worm.
Whether traditional brew or modern marketing ploy, today’s strange liquors are all but made for a curious and adventurous international crowd of imbibers. Click through our slideshow to sample 10 of the world’s strangest. Cheers!