Bored of botanicals? Tired of tequila? Clinton Cawood runs the rule over a few lesser-known white spirits categories to see which one could be the next big thing
In the last decade or so, we've seen a large number of white spirits make a break for glory to become the next big thing in the UK. Gin's the obvious success story here, transformed over a period of time with no signs of flagging. Tequila, too, has grown into a full-fledged category, and it’s fair, after the past few years, to say the same about mezcal. Even Irish poitin has gone from being an unbranded and illegal spirit to gaining some legitimate brands in the last few years.
So what unknown white spirit will burst onto the scene next? Which ones will seem to have the best form, look good for most of the race, then fall at the final hurdle and be shot by medical staff? Metaphorically speaking…
In our modern, gin-dominant, botanical-loving times, it's hard to overlook aquavit, with its caraway and dill flavours. Scandinavian Monica Berg is an aquavit expert. 'I believe the recent increase in aquavit's popularity is because of its versatility in cocktails, particularly as it’s a botanical spirit, same as a London dry gin,' she explains. This gives this age-old spirit – reportedly dating back to the 1400 or 1500s – some serious versatility when it comes to mixing. 'An unaged aquavit is perfect in most classic gin cocktails such as Martinis, Fizzes or Sours,' suggests Berg.
Aquavit has a trick up its sleeve though, mainly when it comes to Norwegian examples. 'If you also take into consideration the ageing in sherry casks, suddenly you have an enormous spectrum of styles to choose from,' adds Berg. She suggests trying classic rum cocktails such as the Mai Tai or Missionary’s Downfall for lighter-aged aquavits, and Old Fashioneds for longer-aged ones.
'Because we have such versatility in the category, you can always find one that suits your purpose,' she says. 'In general, though, I'd say it's a pretty forgiving spirit, so it can play well with a multitude of ingredients and flavours – in cocktails, or even be enjoyed neat with a beer.'
So why isn't aquavit already riding roughshod over all the white spirits in its path? For one thing, most aquavits aren’t exported, so supply outside of Scandinavia isn't great – although Berg acknowledges Amathus does import interesting examples.
Pros: Versatile, mixable, botanical flavour profile; a wide range of styles.
Cons: Limited exports; category information is rare.
All but the most diehard of agave aficionado would be well within their rights to think we'd just made a category up… but believe it or not, this cousin of tequila and mezcal has just begun to make inroads into the UK. Raicilla is mezcal made in the tequila stronghold of Jalisco. We've seen two UK launches in 2016, and from a base of zero, that's huge.
Jon Anders Fjelsrud, agave expert for Amathus – which launched the most recent of the two, Raicilla Estancia – thinks that it’s inevitable that as education about agave spirits increases, interest in new products increases too.
How does it work in a cocktail? 'Use it for what it is – an aromatic, like gin is an aromatic. Raicilla and mezcal all have a distinctive taste, of course, and raicilla doesn't have gin’s juniper taste, but it acts similarly in a cocktail,' explains Fjelsrud. Like mezcal, raicilla will suffer from problems of supply and high prices. The other raicilla in the UK is La Venenosa, imported by Speciality Brands.
Pros: Great for riding the coat-tails of tequila and mezcal’s success; offers a new and different flavour profile within agave spirits.
Cons: There are literally only two brands in the UK.
Shochu is increasingly big in Japan, outselling saké, while Japanese whisky has helped to convince the world of the country's distilling prowess. As a result, could this finally be shochu's moment?
Of course, there's at least one London bar that’s been championing shochu for a while now, and that's Shochu Lounge below Roka. 'At Shochu Lounge, our own macerated shochus that we do in-house with seasonal fruits, herbs or spices have always been very popular,' explains bar development manager, Simon Freeth. The shift over the last year, however, has been a move towards the more premium honkaku shochu. The menu has been updated to classify the different raw materials the shochus are made from.
With all its variety comes a whole lot of versatility when it comes to mixing. 'A brown sugar shochu could offer flavours that are more similar to a rum. A rice honkaku shochu can have a more subtle and delicate bouquet, while a sweet-potato shochu can offer a more complex and vegetal aroma,' says Freeth.
Pros: Great variety and mixability; can benefit from Japanese whisky's popularity.
Cons: Might be doing well in Japan, and perhaps the US, but needs a push in the UK.
It might be in every Italian restaurant, but that doesn’t mean anyone's pouring it outside of Italy – save perhaps for the occasional caffè corretto. 'And you really don’t need the best quality grappa for that,' admits Massimiliano Favaretto, formerly of El Nivel.
He's behind a relatively new brand, Domus, that's aiming to reinvigorate the grappa category, and may well succeed. 'There are extremely good grappas out there. Particularly the small producers,' says Favaretto.
Faveretto believes that the answer to keeping Domus from getting dusty on a shelf lies with cocktails. 'A Grappa Sour is a simple way of introducing it, quite similar to pisco with a Pisco Sour. I cut back a bit on the sugar, because it’s a floral, aromatic grappa, and I add a few drops of Cynar.'
What are grappa's chances in the UK? Favaretto is very optimistic. 'There are Italian bartenders everywhere,' he says. 'I think grappa has the right character and history to play an active role in the new cocktail scene.' If producers and importers select the right ones for use in cocktails, the category might stand a chance.
Pros: Interest in pisco could help; widely available.
Cons: Preconceptions; possibly inappropriate styles.
If it's something entirely different you’re after, Baijiu has that in spades. What it doesn’t have is another spirit to compare it to.
'Interest to try this spirit in Europe has increased drastically, but unfortunately the flavour profile hasn’t been a success within the bar industry,' says Ping Pong’s Daniele Ziaco. What flavour profile is that? 'It reminds me of entering a fresh stable in one of the farms where I come from – Tuscany – which is not appealing at all,' he explains.
'In the UK I would mostly go to serve it in cocktails, as cocktail drinkers tend to be more adventurous,' says Paul Matthew of Blood & Sand (Demon, Wise & Partners and The Hide). '"Sauce aroma" baijiu styles work well in vegetable juices or as a slight savoury note on sweeter drinks. "Strong aroma" styles can be quite pungent, so I like using them in Sours with egg white as a binding agent to make them approachable for baijiu beginners.'
Matthew explains that in export markets, the category tends to be too expensive for mixing – exactly where it would need to be to look at introducing new drinkers.
Pros: A completely novel flavour profile.
Cons: Err… a completely novel flavour profile; often priced too high for mixing.
Ever since the great 2012 Peruvian restaurant revolution (i.e. Ceviche’s opening in Soho), reports of pisco's future dominance of UK bars have been greatly exaggerated. The people making those predictions weren't entirely misguided. This, after all, is a spirit with a rich history, different styles (produced by Peru and Chile), and the mighty Pisco Sour – a global classic deserving of far more frequent appearances on the country’s cocktail menus. And let’s not get started on the wonders of Pisco Punch…
But alas, year after year, the category always fails to get going. What has happened, points out Chris Dennis (formerly Sovereign Loss), is a very dramatic increase in many bartender's awareness.
'Rather than perhaps a conventional "trend", what we're seeing is a slow burn and evolution of a category that was almost non-existent in recent memory,' he says. Pisco will never match rum or cachaça for sales levels, but it is making a strong impact in restaurants and bars.
Beyond its two cocktail classics, Dennis has some suggestions for mixing the stuff. 'Pisco is diverse and works in as many ways as you can imagine. Ginger, pear and stone fruits are great places to start mixing with,' he says.
Pros: Growing Peruvian food scene; Pisco Sours…
Cons: Might have missed its moment; education is needed.
There's lots to be excited about within the realm of up-and-coming white spirits, but when it comes to some of the more obscure categories, where do you begin? We put a few products to the test
Aquavit – Aalborg Taffel Akvavit, Denmark
An archetypal aquavit, and one with history going back to 1846. The caraway in Aalborg Taffel is highly evident on the nose, backed up by sweet citrus and reminiscent of rye bread overall. There’s more caraway on the rich and generous palate, with some spearmint and even more orange-citrus flavours.
To see what the category can also do with dill, check out Aalborg’s Dild Akvavit (38% abv), also with Amathus. The headline botanical is out in force, but considerably more restrained than caraway, resulting in a fresh, mild spirit that Aalborg rightly recommends for pairing with fish.
45% abv, £26.35/70cl, Amathus Drinks, 020 8951 9840
Baijiu – HKB (Hong-Kong Baijiu), China
For a version of China's national spirit that’s tailored to western palates – and with a considerably more reasonable price point than some in the category – you can't go wrong with HKB. That's not to say that this isn't a challenging flavour profile, though. Expect sour-fruit sweets and Play-Doh, as well as a vinegar-like savoury aroma, mixing with some sweet floral notes, and all joined by a vegetal, almost cheesy note on the palate. Acquired taste? Certainly. This unique character is achieved by using five base ingredients – corn, wheat, rice, sticky rice and sorghum.
43% abv, £44.99/70cl, Speciality Drinks, 020 8838 9444
Grappa – Domus Grappa Ruché, Italy
Made from the pomace of 100% Ruché grapes, new Domus is made at the Dellavalle distillery. This is a fine and delicate spirit, with gentle floral notes – rose in particular – mingling with white fruit aromas. The palate's sweeter and more generous than the nose suggests, with light caramel and a gentle toasted note leading to a rich, nutty finish. The sum of these parts makes for a spirit with no small amount of mixing potential.
42% abv, £25.95/70cl, domusgrappa.com
Pisco – Hacienda La Caravedo, Pisco Porton, Peru
Porton is a good example of Peruvian pisco, which are all unaged and distilled to proof. It's an 'acholada de mosto verde', or blend of partially-fermented grape must. It combines Quebranta, Torontel, Italia and Albilla grapes, resulting in a fresh and vinous nose, followed by a silky, sweet palate, with plenty of fruit. While this would undoubtedly make a mean Pisco Sour, it’s quite excellent on its own.
43% abv, £15.68/70cl, Mangrove UK, 020 3409 6565
Raicilla – La Venenosa Raicilla Sur de Jalisco, Mexico
Made from agave variety Cenizo Costeño (47% abv, £67.95/70cl, Speciality), this is a complex spirit, with peppermint and melon, plus a cucumber-like note and appealing rubber element too. There’s similar complexity on the palate, with more fruit notes joining a compelling herb and peppery spice.
As an alternative, there's Estancia, recently launched in the UK (40% abv, £63.68, Amathus). In the glass, there’s no doubt that this is an agave spirit, but with some botanical notes that have resulted in comparisons with gin too. There’s also a wonderful savoury character on the nose, and peppery spice on the palate.
Speciality Brands, 020 8838 9367; Amathus Drinks, 020 8951 9840
Shochu – Ginza No Suzume, Yatsushika, Japan
This barley shochu opens with a gentle floral note, leading to aromas that you would more immediately associate with its base ingredient. There's some lemon cream and custard, plus riper citrus. This leads to a palate that’s incredibly light and delicate, with just a touch of sweetness, necessitating a light touch when mixing. Martini-style drinks with this spirit would be ideal.
20% abv, £25-£30/75cl, JFC UK, 020 8963 7600