Raiding a friend's liquor cabinet while housesitting can be an entertaining endeavor, because the brands are always somewhat different from your own and it gives you the opportunity to try something else. Sort of like when you're a kid spending the night at a friend's house and the spaghetti tastes just a little different, and the soap smells strange, and they watch a different channel for the evening news. Just by walking down the street your ten-year-old brain thinks you're in a different country.
With Paul's permission--really more of a mandate--here are two interesting liquors I tried.
Rhum Barbancourt is perhaps the best known Haitian rum, and has received some more attention since the recent earthquake, since it's one of the only Haitian products that you can purchase easily around the world. I've always found Haitian rum somewhat harsh and medicinal, but there are times when you want a bracing edge, and I certainly appreciate the distinction from some of the sweeter spirits in the Caribbean.
This is the 5 star rum, aged for 8 years. Lots of oak here--touch of vanilla, hint of sawdust, but mostly fresh cut oak boards. On the aftertaste you get cream and nutmeg. Most rum in this country is used as a mixer for various cheap and fruity cocktails, but anything aged like this really needs to be sipped and enjoyed on its own, like a fine whiskey. I've had some rums aged over 20 years, and they'll practically melt in your mouth.
I consider it "slightly off the beaten path" because you don't see many other Haitian rums, and as a category it's rare to find a rum labeled in French. Also, the most popular rums tend to come from places that are popular, politically stable vacation spots like Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Jamaica, etc. It seems a little odd at times to enjoy a luxury product from the poorest country in the western hemisphere, but rum has been a prized export for the past 500 years.
Things are different than they were in decades past, but there's still that association that Vodka = Russia. Of course, you can make vodka anywhere you can ferment something and distill the alcohol, but it is still more associated with places where it's too cold to grow grapes and there's not a strong export demand for the local beers. Monopolowa is an Austrian vodka with a Polish name, which definitely sparks my history interest.
It name means "monopoly" (though here referring to a royal license, like all those British products that carry the crown), and was produced by J. A. Baczewski from 1782 until 1939. The name and recipes were acquired by an Austrian company that still produces this spirit using the traditional recipe. While most vodka these days is made from grain, this is a traditional potato vodka.
I really can't give you any tasting notes here, as I'm not a vodka expert and the best stuff has the least flavor and aroma. I can tell you that it is nicely smooth and mixes beautifully. I've tried it in a number of vodka cocktails where it performed admirably.
I can, however, point out something interesting in the design of the label. There is a very light, almost imperceptible yellow polka dot pattern in the background. It's a circle with the initials JAB and a set of scales. I've adjusted the contrast and levels in the image at right to bring out the design, as always click on the thumbnail for a larger version. Doing such a light yellow design on a white background is a tricky proposition, because A) most people can't see it, especially in non-ideal lighting conditions, and B) those that do see it might just think that the label has gotten dirty or mildewed. The third category, of course, is comprised of those from the printing industry who break out the loupe to see what's going on.