A world of liquor. A world in liquor. PATRICK LECLEZIO unearths a few lesser known spirituous gems.
First published in Prestige Magazine (October 2016 edition).
Drinks are more than just drinks. The typical person doesn’t really think about it but one’s enjoyment of a drink goes beyond the liquid itself, and the value that this offers in isolation. Context is important, the intangible elements with which it is associated are important, which is why untold millions are spent on engineering and augmenting context, on creating these little worlds in which you the drinker experiences the drink – from its story and its rationale, and its packaging and its advertising, to the perception of yourself that it frames for you. These machinations though often take inspiration from what is already there. I take great relish from a drink’s pure and natural context. All over the world drinks have evolved in response to and in harmony with their environment, to become a portal into a history, a culture, and a way of life. The pleasure in a drink is often irrespective of the liquid. So put aside your regular beverage, step out your routine, and open yourself up to a different world, to a holiday abroad every time you have a drink. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.
Anise (or Aniseed) is a flowering plant native to the Eastern Mediterranean, the fruit of which, or rather its essential oil – called anethole, is used to flavour a variety of spirits indigenous to the region. The best known and most widely consumed are pastis, ouzo and raki, in France, Greece, and Turkey and Greece respectively. The distinctive licorice-like flavour is somewhat polarising, but even if you don’t have a ready affinity for it (and I count myself in that number) it can be immensely satisfying. The typical serve – diluted with water over ice – is a revelation: I would struggle to find something to compete on the basis of sheer refreshment. These are drinks that obviously evolved to douse the throat and quench the thirst during the hot summer months in the Mediterranean basin…perhaps when sitting in a little family-owned café, overlooking the sea, eating a few dolmades whilst waiting for a freshly caught fish to be served. Or at least that’s the world you’ll experience when you sample these drinks. Their other, equally distinctive feature is a transformation in appearance to a cloudy, milky colour when mixed with water. This reaction is known as spontaneous emulsification or, more memorably, as the Ouzo effect. This Lion’s Milk (as the raki version is known in Turkey) notwithstanding, these drinks have some versatility: I was recently in Crete, where raki is also served a digestif shot, complimentary (!) at the end of a meal in many places. A great way to end to a Greek meal.
I must confess that when I hear the word “byejo” (as it is pronounced) it strikes fear in my heart. I first encountered the stuff at dinner with a supplier in central China. I was incited to throw it back to loud shouts of “gan-bei”, the Chinese equivalent of cheers, which literally means drink it all. At 48 to 56% ABV (and sometimes even higher), with a flavour that needs protracted acquisition to an uninitiated Western palate, and when introduced to you with frenzied drinking, baijiu can be intimidating. But it’s worth persisting. Chalking up an estimated half a billion nine-litre cases in sales, it is easily the world’s biggest spirits category, so with millions upon millions of Chinese drinking it, and having drunk it or its antecedents for thousands of years, it’s clear that it’s something worthwhile. And yet it’s almost unknown outside of that country, even now in the post isolation era. How ironic that the world’s most plentiful spirit is also one of its most obscure. The stuff is made using a variety of grains, primarily sorghum, although rice is also used in some regions, and it is categorised by fragrance, with varieties ranging from the “sauce”, with a character resembling soy sauce, to “phoenix”, which is earthy and fruity. It is served warm or at room temperature and usually as an accompaniment to a meal. Interestingly Baijiu is aged in large earthenware pots, a process which I would think is of dubious value for distilled liquor. So whist you shouldn’t be fooled into buying the older, premium priced varieties – do keep a bottle at hand for raucous, banqueting celebrations, Chinese style!
There are few cocktails that compare to Brazil’s caipirinha. The exquisite taste both belies and credits the simplicity of the ingredients – lime, sugar and cachaça. I find many cocktails to be frivolous, but then there are those that bring such weight of tradition and meaning to bear as to be undeniable. If you haven’t had one, then make it your mission to correct the oversight. Despite its similarity to rum and specifically to rhum agricole, both are made from sugarcane juice, cachaça is its own unique spirit with a distinctive, funky, evocative flavour. It’s a beach, a party, and a party on a beach (in the best Brazilian style), all inside the confines of nine ounce rocks glass. Perhaps the most interesting aspect to cachaça and a hint to its one-of-a-kind flavour profile is that it’s matured in a variety of woods, including the exotic sounding amendoim, jequitibá and umburana, unlike other fine spirits which employ oak exclusively. It’s thin on the ground in South Africa, but the excellent Germana, an artisanal, pot distilled cachaça in a distinctive banana leaf wrapped bottle, can be found here and there.