Escape your comfort zone with these adventurous spirits

By Norman Burns, April 2 2019

There's a whole world of whiskies, rums and vodkas – and then there's a whole other world  of more exotic liqueurs.

With just a little digging you can open up a whole new world of premium spirits perfect for standalone sipping neat or as bases for some really cool cocktails.

Here are five under-the-radar spirits that deserve to be in your liquor cabinet.

Cachaca

The nickname of Brazil’s national drink cachaca should give you some idea of its potency. With an alcohol by volume content ranging between 38 and 54 percent, the drink is known in Brazil by its nickname “aquela que matou o Guarda” – which translates as the one who killed the policeman.

Like rum, cachaca is made from sugar cane. But whereas rum is made from sugar cane byproduct, such as molasses, cachaca is produced by fermenting and distilling the fresh sugar cane juice itself.

Brazilians like to sip the stuff neat – and they lap it up. In fact, of an estimated 1.2 billion litres produced annually, 99 percent is consumed in Brazil.

Outside of Brazil though, apart from as an ingredient in the classic caipirinha cocktail, cachaca is pretty much an unknown quantity. But Brazilian cachaca makers – and there are more than 5,000 boutique distilleries across the country – are looking to take the spirit of Brazil to a wider audience, helped no doubt by bartenders looking for the next big thing for their customers.

Cachaca is available in Australia in limited quantities; Germana Cacacha (40% ABV) is aged two years in oak casks, sourced from pesticide-free sugar cane. Once fermented, the sugar cane is distilled in a traditional copper pot still and then aged first in a balsam wood tank and then via French wine, cognac and Spanish cherry oak barrels.

Mezcal

Mezcal is a type of tequila, right? Err, no. In fact, tequila is technically a type of mezcal.

According to Mexican regulations, tequila can only be sourced from the blue agave plant. Mezcal, on the other hand, can be made from many varieties of agave.

Tequila is the “rock star” of a quintet of Mexican spirits, including sotol, raicilla and bacanora, but all have one thing in common – they are made from the ‘hearts’ of agave plants.

Mezcal tends to have a much smokier signature, thanks to the agave hearts being cooked in underground pits, often for a few days, before they are crushed and the sugar-rich sap extracted. The sap is then left to ferment before the liquid is distilled into mezcal.

There’s an urban myth, too, that mezcal must contain a worm that has “hallucenogenic” properties. While some, cheaper, mezcal brands do contain a worm, this is actually the larvae of a moth found on the agave plant and is purely put in the bottles as a marketing gimmick.

Mezcal can be drunk neat and is better served at room temperature as chilling it can “close up” the flavours. This Don Amado Mezcal Reposado Oaxaca 100% Agave was distilled in clay pots, a technique that has almost vanished in Mexico, and is 40% ABV.

Moutai

Of all the world’s “exotic” spirits, Moutai is probably the one (in Western circles at least) that is the most mysterious.

Moutai is a type of baijiu, or Chinese spirit, but the Moutai brand has a provenance greater than most.
Only baijiu produced by Kweichow Moutai Co. Ltd in the town of the same name (where it has been distilled for centuries) can be called Moutai.

Made from fermented organic sticky sorghum (similar to wheat), each bottle takes years to produce.

Sorghum grains are mixed with a yeast starter to begin the fermentation process and the mixture is distilled no fewer nine times and then aged in ceramic pots for three years.

The distillate then goes through an elaborate blending process. The resulting clear liquid packs a punch (up tpo 53% ABV) but can have a complex flavour profile, including hints of tropical fruits, smoky nuts and sweet plums and floral aromas.

It’s meant to be drunk neat but, like fine sake or wine, Moutai is no cheap slam-it-down beverage: often found at duty free shops throughout Australia and New Zealand, a 500ml bottle of Moutai Flying Fair (ABV 53%) retails for just under A$370.

A bottle of 15-year aged Moutai is just over A$1,500 while the extra-rare 50-year aged Moutai will set you back close to A$5,900.

And if you stumble across genuine examples of even older bottles of Moutai you could be richly rewarded; there's a healthy international collectors' market for Moutai, with some bottles fetching thousands at auction.

Pisco

Peru and Chile have been arguing for the better part of 500 years as to which country is the birthplace of pisco. But one thing for certain is this white brandy, usually made from muscat grapes, makes a spectacular base for all manner of cocktails.

Peru has much stricter rules than its fierce rival regarding pisco – it can’t be aged in any vessel that alters the flavour, nor can it contain any additives or be diluted; the ABV must be between 38-48%; and to be a true pisco it can only be produced in five government designated districts. Thus, some regard Peruvian pisco as superior.

Pisco production has survived earthquakes and, bizarrely, the American Civil War when many Peruvian farmers ditched their vines for cotton growing as cotton prices hit record highs.

Today, though, pisco is making inroads on the world liquor scene. Macchu Pisco (40%ABV) is produced in Peru’s mountains, with 4.5kg of grapes needed to produce each bottle. You can drink it neat, over ice, or use it as a base for another famous South American cocktail, the Pisco Sour.

Rhum Agricole

Unlike the bitter battle over the origins of pisco, there’s no doubting where rhum agricole was invented – the French-speaking island of Martinique.

The Martinicans needed to do something with their sugar cane after the island’s refined sugar market collapsed; distilling the fresh sugar cane juice into rhum agricole (French for ‘agricultural’) proved the answer.

Rhum agricoles are generally very citrussy but can have very complex flavour profiles – a taste light years apart from the heavier, big brand dark or white rums made from molasses.

The HSE Rhum Agricole Vieux 2004 Oloroso (produced in Martinique) was aged eight years in oak barrels before being “finished off” over six months in sherry barrels. Tasting notes reveal this drop “opens with cigar box notes and aromas of toasted hazelnuts and raisins”.

Rhum agricoles can be sipped neat or make ideal cocktail bases. Martinique remains literally the spiritual home of rhum agricole, drawing 125,000 people each year to its distilleries.

Rhum agricole is also produced in other overseas French “departments”, such as Reunion Island and Guadeloupe, but only rhum produced under strict conditions on Martinique is allowed to bear the designation of origin AOC Martinique Rhum Agricole.

Norman Burns
Norman Burns

Norman Burns

Norman Burns’ career in journalism has taken him around the world, covering everything from the Olympics to international watch fairs, although he’s still hoping to one day escape the bonds of gravity and review a 'space tourism' flight.


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