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1–2 July 2024
Olympia London

Unique Cocktail Ingredients from Around the World

You’re away from Blighty, you see an amazing bottle/fruit/random meat product and you decide it’ll be perfect in an incredible unique cocktail creation. But did it actually work? Clinton Cawood checks the postcards home

You know the story. A freezing-cold lager in the sunshine that you know objectively is bordering on flavourless, but is nevertheless right now contributing towards a transcendent holiday moment you’ll be boring people about for years to come. Or maybe it’s the taste of a local spirit when you’re so far off the beaten track you’re sure you’ll be hailed a hero on your return, a bottle of The Next Big Thing held aloft. No matter what your experience or training may say, you’re convinced this will be on your cocktail list back home.

But even as you’re in the grip of this epiphany, there’s a nagging voice in the back of your mind. Have you really struck gastronomical gold, or will this crumble into just so much dust and disappointment the minute you step off the plane?

These are the stories of bartenders that dared to dream. That risked bottles with reckless luggage handlers and braved customs regulations to bring their holiday ingredients back home.

Luckily, in most cases, the results were rather nicer than you might expect.

Pineapple weed and wild gorse flowers
Jenny Willing, Gridiron, London

Not exactly a far afield holiday, but when I went to Islay with Bruichladdich for the Feis Ile – a fabulously fun whisky festival with island measures – we were tasked with making cocktails using only what we had to hand from the countryside surrounding the distillery.

In the beyond-picturesque setting, we came across pineapple weed, which is wild camomile and tastes just like pineapple. Combine that with wild gorse flowers that have a floral coconut flavour and you have some pretty bang-on tropical flavours that are easily found in back gardens, fields and country tracks.

To make our Islay Coladas, we straight infused the gorse flowers into a few different spirits and made a syrup with the pineapple weed to preserve the freshness of the flavour, and used sorrel water for the citrus.

I’ve since found a gorse tree in Clissold Park in east London that I rinse for flowers regularly. They have flowers all year round, but you need them to be open, usually in spring, to get the full advantage of the flavour. Now I see it everywhere and grab it when I can.

Gorse sherry is pretty bang on too and can be added to simple classics for a bit of added complexity.

Lewis Parry, The Curious Cat, Grimsby

I did two ski seasons and spent a lot of that time drinking Génépi, which is an aromatic herbal liqueur made with génépi flowers that only grow at around 2,000m altitude.

It tastes like mouthwash. But a good kind of mouthwash. Minty, but earthy.

We now use plenty of it at the Curious Cat. It’s our birthday drink! I also use it in our barrel-aged Negroni, the Negroni-Saurus Rex. It’s made with all my favourite things: gin, chinato, Campari, Antica Formula and Génépi, all aged for two months and then finally garnished with an orange twist – and a dinosaur!

I also made a drink with Génépi, Brooklyn Lager foam and cornichon, but that was pretty minging.

Adam Wilson, Liars Club Group, Manchester

I was in one of the most beautiful places you’ll ever see in your life, working on a consultancy project in Bodrum, Turkey.Its lush, green landscape just drops into the Mediterranean, and for the bar there I wanted to work with local flavours, with the idea of this marriage of greenery and the sea.

The people there were like, ‘This is our local booze mastiha and you’re not going to like it. It’s an acquired taste, but you should try it.’

I was just blown away, and they were blown away by the fact that I was so impressed with it. I was thinking, ‘This is definitely going on the menu.’

Mastiha’s flavour is hard to pin down. It’s citrusy, earthy and green. I’ve never tasted anything like it. The drink I made with it is incredibly simple, but works because of the flavour of the mastiha.

I combined it with sage native to that area, a bit of orgeat, lemon juice, soda and a touch of saline to hark back to that idea of being next to the ocean.

When I moved to Manchester last year, I found that not only was Roots Mastiha beginning to gain traction, but so was Freya Birch Spirit. That’s two spirits, both made from tree sap and both being used in different bars in the city.

Even weirder, there was already a drink on our menu that used Freya, also with saline and something green. And another bar was using Roots with sage and orgeat. Those flavours just work.

Calum Adams, The Bespoke Drinks Company, Chester

A lasting impression from Tokyo a few years ago was of these amazing broths, each with their own style. They would lift a basic noodle dish into something I had never experienced before.

So when writing the latest menu for The Suburbs in Chester, I knew I wanted to use a form of seaweed for its umami flavour profile. After some research, I began playing with kombu seaweed. Unique in its ability to produce MSG qualities, I wanted to take what was being done in those broths and create a stable flavour in cold cocktails.

There was some trial and error. Cooking the broth into grain spirits, shaking directly into drinks, scratching off the naturally-produced white powder on the kombu that gives the MSG flavours and putting that into a syrup… nothing was holding. The flavour was intense and slightly saline with a meaty texture for the first two to three days, but it dissipated into a weak kelp-like flavour by the end of the week.

We settled on a more common form of seaweed, vac-packing it into a 3:1 sugar syrup and making sure it was used within 14 days. For the next edition of the menu, we’re working on controlling that MSG flavour for use in a new drink.

Jake Beaverstock, The Exchequer Wine Bar, Dublin

South Africa is one of the most beautiful and wild countries I’ve ever been. Whilst venturing north of Cape Town, into the Tankwa region, the road was long and towns and villages, as well as the opportunity to buy food, were all few and far between.

It was here I was offered one of life’s great joys: biltong. This is dried meat, traditionally made using either beef or game, and spiced with coriander seed and pepper.

My hardwired bartending brain immediately started thinking of how I could incorporate this salty, spicy and slightly sweet ingredient into the bar back at home.

Passing through Cape Town on the way back I picked up a bottle of KWV Cruxland, a beautifully-crafted South African gin with 100% grape spirit redistilled with a Namibian variety of truffle. Biltong and this earthy, spicy spirit would be the perfect partner in crime in crafting a truly South African drink.

I left the biltong in high-abv neutral alcohol for three days to make a tincture, and the results were outstanding. I made a twist on a Dry Martini – the Braai Martini (after the Afrikaans word for barbecue) – combining Cruxland gin, hickory-smoked dry vermouth and a few dashes of biltong tincture, served straight up and ice cold.

In the bar, however, this brought debate over using meat in mixed drinks, and of course the sustainability and locality of a drink with its predominant ingredients shipped over 8,000 miles. So the drink never made the list.

Catia Cestra, ex-Lucky Pig, London

I was in the Philippines with friends who are from there originally, which gave me the chance to see the less touristy part of the island, and discover the real food and drinks too.

Aside from a lot of fresh coconut to mix with rum, they have a small citrus fruit called a calamansi, with a very strong bergamot perfume. The fruit itself is quite sour, although the peel is sweet. It has a unique flavour that’s a cross between a kumquat and a lime, and they’re full of seeds, which lend some bitterness that works perfectly with gin or rum. In addition, calamansi essential oil is said to alleviate depression and anxiety.

I brought back a few to try in a Margarita, which was extraordinary. I also brought back 4.5kg of mangoes (along with 2kg of señorita bananas and seven bottles of alcohol), so I mixed fresh local Philippine mango, a Philippine mango rum liqueur, Philippine dark rum and mint, and shook that with calamansi juice to create a sort of Mango Mojito. Amazing!

On the other hand, I brought back a coconut wine made from pure fermented coconut that at home tasted like nothing more than vinegar.

Robin Honhold, Super Lyan, London

The humble jackfruit is an ugly thing indeed. Our general manager Maja [Jaworska] was taking some downtime in Bali when she became aware of this exotic delicacy.

The size of four watermelons put together, they feed whole families and more. They have a super-distinctive aroma reminiscent of pineapple, guava and butter combined, and stay fresh for ages due to their thick hide. Once you’ve cut into them though, they can quickly become unappealing.

Once back on home turf, we brought in a whole jackfruit that we pulled apart and used for many, many things. But our favourite thing was making a Jackfruit Colada in our slushie machine, an amazing combination of jackfruit, Bacardi and fauxco lopez (made in-house by cooking whey with coconut chips). One of the best things about a Piña Colada is the slight saltiness that the pineapple lends, giving it a touch of savoury. In this drink, the Jackfruit and fauxco lopez both provide a distinct savoury element, giving it an unexpected umami kick.

We’re fortunate in London to be at an epicentre of world culture where influences from every continent mix and mingle to produce sometimes startling results, which means the city is awash with ingredients you would have difficulty finding elsewhere in the UK, if not most of the world, apart from the source. But it’s often the case that we only seek out things that are right under our noses once we’ve discovered them on the other side of the world.

This article was updated from one that was originally published in imbibe live magazine on November 01, 2018