From effervescent Vinho Verde to rich and aromatic Port, Portugal is well-known for its wine. But when you’re craving something stronger, the country offers a distinctive lineup of Portuguese spirits and liqueurs—some that you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere beyond the country’s borders.
“Portugal has incredibly unique spirits,” says Nelly Saraiva, co-founder of Rhode Island-based importer Brands of Portugal. “While they don’t always have international recognition, they certainly grab the attention of those who have experienced them.”
Portuguese Spirits to Know
Based on a top-secret formula passed down between Benedictine monks at the Singeverga Monastery north of Porto, this intensely herbaceous liqueur is meticulously handcrafted using techniques developed in the mid-20th century. It contains a dozen spices and botanicals grown on the monastery’s grounds, including saffron, cloves, vanilla, coriander and nutmeg.
João Sancheira, bar manager at Lisbon’s Michelin-starred 100 Maneiras, says that Singeverga is his favorite liqueur made in Portugal. “The liqueur has sweetness, obviously, but also some bitterness to it, which adds complexity,” he says. “I really like to use it in cocktails. It works very well with soda and lime juice or in something more spirit-forward, like a black Manhattan as a synergist of the Italian amaro.”
Visitors to Lisbon are sure to notice ginja or ginjinha bars scattered throughout the city. Compact and no-frills, these bars are solely devoted to a cherry liqueur that originated in the city centuries ago. Legend has it that a friar at the Igreja de Santo António developed the recipe for this Portuguese spirit, which infuses aguardente, a strong distilled alcohol, with sour cherries and sugar.
The liqueur is widely available in supermarkets, shops and restaurants throughout Lisbon, but if you have the opportunity, stop by a ginja bar to get the full experience. Locals enjoy the sweet, strong tipple any time of day or night, as it’s said to have medicinal properties. It’s typically sold in a shot glass for one or two euros per serving and can be ordered with or without a booze-soaked cherry nestled in the bottom of the glass.
This bitter almond liqueur hails from the Algarve, Portugal’s southernmost region, which is known for its beaches and charming fishing villages. Appropriately light and sweet, it’s usually served over ice with a wedge of lemon. It’s especially popular as an aperitif or digestive, and is a nice addition to cocktails as well. It’s similar to Italian amaretto in flavor.
The liqueur is commonly known by the name of one of its biggest producers, Amarguinha, which Saraiva represents at Brands of Portugal. “It’s intensely aromatic with notes of spiced almonds and hints of citrus fruit—and also in a strange, but good way, hints of bear claw pastries,” she says.
The self-proclaimed “Liquor of Portugal,” Licor Beirão originated in the 1920s with a closely guarded recipe involving the double distillation of seeds and herbs from all over the world. The result: a smooth, velvety liqueur traditionally served on the rocks.
“It’s super unique in the way that there is nothing currently like it on the market to compare it to,” Saraiva says. “Some of its flavors can be identified right away, like anise, cinnamon, orange peel and cardamon, but some of the others create such a fantastic, blended flavor they’re hard to distinguish.”
To serve, she recommends smashing a tangerine or clementine, adding two ounces of Licor Beirão and ice and topping it off with sparkling mineral water and basil leaves to garnish.
Licor de Merda
Though it may seem like a gag gift to take home to your least-favorite friend after a trip to Portugal, licor de merda—or “shit liquor”—actually has its fair share of aficionados. The drink was first made in the wine region of Cantanhede in the 1970s, when Portugal was going through a period of political instability. The drink was a nod to the country’s not-so-popular government at that time. But apparently, it became popular enough to stick around.
Thankfully, licor de merda is not actually made with, ahem, excrement, despite its brown hue. Its main ingredients include milk, cacao, cinnamon, vanilla and citrus fruits. Naturally, it’s popular in student bars and tourist hotspots thanks to its shock factor, but you’ll also find it on the menu at trendy cocktail bars and even used as an ingredient in some desserts. Anyone fancy a scoop of mousse de merda? (We’ll let you do the translating on that one.)
Another Algarve specialty, aguardente de medronho is a bit like moonshine in the U.S.—extremely potent (around 50% ABV), and often distilled by producers who may or may not be technically licensed to make the firewater. There are a handful of commercial producers, but when in the Algarve, you’re more likely to find private labels made by small producers tucked away in the rocky mountains of the region.
Medronho is made from the fruit of the arbutus tree, also known as a strawberry tree, which grows wild throughout the Mediterranean and Western Europe. The fruit only resembles strawberries, with a tart flavor and a lychee-like consistency. It’s not uncommon to be offered a shot of medronho after dinner in an Algarve restaurant, or even with your morning bica (coffee).
Last Updated: May 31, 2023