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1–2 July 2024
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From Peas to Ants: Elevate Your Cocktails with Unusual Spirits

Unusual spirits

There are certain spirits producers that are forever pushing the envelope, in terms of production processes or ageing methods, all the way to the raw materials used to produce the spirit, or weird and wonderful ingredients to use as botanicals. Recent years have been no exception, with an ever-growing selection of unusual spirits to choose from – adding interest to cocktail lists and making it possible to offer something new to even the most jaded of spirit-drinking customers.

“These spirits demonstrate mankind's love of alcohol – we will literally make booze out of anything. Even ants. Or turkey,” says Henry Jeffreys of Master of Malt, which stocks no shortage of these out-there distillates. “Old Shakespeare had it right – what a piece of work is man.”

Novel raw materials

Beyond the usual suspects predominantly used to produce spirits – grains and grapes, mostly, as well as agave – anything fermentable can theoretically be distilled, and distillers have been testing the limits of this in the past few years in particular. For some, this is all about flavour, while others are motivated by finding sustainable, environmentally friendly alternatives.

Sense of place is increasingly important too, according to Speciality Drinks’ Hazel Glen. “We are continuing to see new products and brands come on to the market that are celebrating their provenance using local and unusual raw materials,” she says. “They’re championing this idea of terroir, which historically was associated with wine and champagne, but we’re seeing more and more within spirits.”

One of the pioneers in the I-didn’t-know-you-could-distil-that arena is Black Cow Vodka, produced from milk, or more specifically from cheese by-product whey. Usually discarded, this liquid forms the base of Black Cow, while the curds are turned into Black Cow Deluxe Cheddar. The resulting spirit is, unsurprisingly, noticeably smooth, but with an appealing saline character too.

Recently launched Pod Pea Vodka is produced entirely from British peas, chosen equally for their flavour as for their sustainability credentials. Particularly suited to the savoury style of cocktail that’s been steadily rising in popularity, this vodka offers vegetal and citrus notes, while being beneficial to the planet. Peas are known for being “nitrogen fixers”, helping to reduce the use of fertilisers and pesticides. Additionally, the farm where the peas are grown, Somerleyton Farm, uses regenerative agriculture practices, while the distillery uses steam for fermentation and distillation, reducing CO2 emissions.

Image credits to Helen Cathcart

“We chose the humble pea for its ap-pealing flavour characteristics, its sustainable prowess and the fact that peas are quintessentially British, growing plentifully right here in the UK,” said founder Becky Davies when the brand launched. “Pod celebrates the best of local brilliance whilst protecting our planet.”

Believe it or not, it’s not the first spirit to be produced from peas. In Scotland, Arbikie Highland Estate distils the base spirit for its Nàdar Climate Positive Gin and Vodka from the vegetable, with each bottle having a negative carbon footprint. After distillation, the leftover peas are particularly suited to becoming animal feed, reducing the need to import this, and further enhancing Nàdar’s positive impact on the planet.

Compared with peas, corn isn’t exactly the most exotic of base materials for spirit production – it’s at least 51% of bourbon, after all. But Mexican liqueur Nixta takes the use of corn to a new level. The specific corn used is an ancestral variety, cacahuazintle, which is used in two ways to produce the final liqueur. Roasted grains are macerated, while a distillate is produced from corn that has been nixtamalised – cooked with quicklime. The combination results in a pure expression of the corn, sweet and savoury, and particularly versatile in cocktails.

Unconventional botanicals

Beyond the base spirit, there’s plenty of scope for experimentation when it comes to gin botanicals, and other ingredients added to spirits too. But before we get to gin, let’s start with that earlier mention of turkey… Pechuga is a traditional style of mezcal in which some meat, often chicken breast, is suspended in the still for a third distillation. In a festive twist, Montelobos elects to use turkey, along with seasonal fruits and spices. The result, not overtly meaty, is complex and substantial, with just a touch of smoke.

Arguably more meaty, or at least more savoury, is Umami Oak Finished Gin from Audemus, which includes a caper distillate and is infused with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, before being rested in a former cognac cask. It does exactly what it says on the tin, with big umami notes, but beautifully balanced overall, and offering plenty of mixing potential.

Then there’s ants. Over in Cheshire, the team behind Shooters Gin include these insects in the botanical mix for their Ant Gin, with the formic acid contributing significant citrus notes to the finished product. Other botanicals include coriander, liquorice, apples, clementine, red grapefruit and juniper, of course.

Seaweed might seem tame in this company, but its use in Dà Mhìle Organic Seaweed Gin results in some particularly interesting flavours, spanning the savoury, vegetal spectrum. This Welsh distillery’s use of organic ingredients and regenerative farming practices is motivated by their positive impact on the environment.

Scottish rum brand John Paul Jones is another drinks producer making use of seaweed. In its Ranger White Rum this ingredient is used alongside other botanicals such as apple and lime, while its aged Lowland Rum expression makes exclusive use of seaweed. The same rum has been aged in Islay whisky casks to produce Providence, a smoky limited-edition bottling.

Keeping to the coastal theme, although decidedly less vegetal, is The Wrecking Coast Cornish Clotted Cream Gin, with the cream cold-distilled separately from the gin’s other 12 botanicals. The influence on this balanced, juniper forward gin is subtle, alongside bright and herbaceous notes, and some sweet cinnamon spice too.

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