Seven weird and wonderful spirits from around the world

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Explore the exciting world of spirits with Lonely Planet

The verdict is in: now is an exciting time to be a spirit drinker. Not so long ago, being a fan of liquor meant your go-to drink was a G&T, a rum and coke or a whisky on the rocks, rather than a beer or glass of wine. But times they are a-changing. The explosion of craft distilleries in the past five years has transformed the global spirits (and cocktails) landscape.

This is in no small part thanks to a gin revival, kick-started by a change to UK spirits licensing laws in 2009. But craft distilling has caught on all over the world, and with it drinkers’ desire to see the places where the spirits are made and learn about the craft-masters who make them. Renewed interest in spirits has also led us to rediscover drinks that a few years ago had all but disappeared from our cocktail cabinets. Touring a centuries-old monastic distillery in rural France, for example, is just as fascinating as that hip little tasting bar in a disused warehouse in New York.

Why go distillery touring?

There can be no greater transparency for drinkers than touring the distilleries themselves, handling the ingredients and tasting the spirits before labels have even been slapped on the bottles. For many craft producers, distillery tours and tastings have become a key way of raising their profile and creating a community following. Tour a distillery and you could well get unparalleled access to the master distillers, who take no greater pleasure than bending your ear to tell you how the spirits are made, what to mix them with and when to drink them – information that could never be gleaned from the back of a bottle in a shop. Stories, too, are part of the charm of touring distilleries: why a Ukrainian nuclear engineer ended up making vodka and whisky in New Zealand, or how a film and TV producer got the chance to grow his gin botanicals in an English castle.

It’s also likely that tasting at the source will get you a few shot-glasses worth of tipples that will never make it into the stores, as many craft distillers are dabbling with limited-edition spirits. Gin, for example, takes just a matter of hours to produce, meaning the possibilities for unique small batches are endless. You can be the distillery guinea pigs: all you have to do is book a tour.

Seven weird and wonderful spirits from around the world

If ever there was an excuse to mix your drinks, it’s these unusual intoxicants. Some will delight you with their unexpected ingredients, while others are a feat of endurance for your taste buds. Sip wisely…

Jeppson’s Malört, USA

What? With daredevil slogans like ‘the champagne of pain’, Jeppson’s Malört built its infamy on being almost undrinkable. Chicago immigrant Carl Jeppson distilled and popularised this wormwood-infused liqueur, a traditional beverage in his native Sweden. Malört escaped Prohibition because of its purported medicinal qualities and continues to be fondly described with tasting notes like ‘petrol’ and ‘burning’.

Try it: In Chicago bars such as the award-winning Violet Hour (www.theviolethour.com), where it is served in artisanal cocktails.

Kava, Pacific Islands

What? Take the rumours with a grain of salt – or in this case, a pinch of pepper. This pepper plant-derived intoxicant won’t send you on a hallucinogenic odyssey, but it does have sedative properties (expect your tongue to become comfortably numb). Fijian kava ceremonies are semi-formal affairs where drinkers gulp from a coconut shell, clapping in turn until everyone has sipped enough to feel thoroughly adjusted to ‘Fiji time’.

Try it: Many Fijian resorts welcome guests with a kava ceremony attended by local villagers.

Feni, India

What? Goa is the only place on Earth where brandy is made from cashew apples. These sweet, tart fruits are crushed in a bhatti (an earthenware boiling pot) and the liquor double- or sometimes triple-distilled. For centuries feni was sipped by Goan labourers to ease the pains of a day in the fields. Today feni is catching the attention of mixologists from London to NYC, who use it to add a splash of island flavour to their cocktails.

Try it: Swing by the Bay bar (www.swingbythebay.com) on Goa’s Bogmalo Beach uses more than 25 local spirits in its cocktails, including plenty of feni.

Pulque, Mexico

What? Libation of the Aztec gods and enjoyed for more than a millennium, tequila’s stickier ancestor is derived from fermented agave sap. Pulque is used as an aphrodisiac – try not to dwell on its creamy colour and texture – and is said to be rich in probiotics. If the sour-ish flavour is too overpowering, taste it curado – sweetened with guava or oatmeal.

Try it: Seek out pulquerias in Mexico City – these dedicated pulque bars first sprouted as a form of counter-culture under Spanish colonial rule.

Moss schnapps, Iceland

What? Brennivín is Iceland’s more famous firewater, but the country’s bitterly cold, surf-slapped coast is best evoked by Fjallagrasa moss schnapps. Lichens and mosses have a long history in traditional Icelandic medicine, though it’s only recently that scientists have confirmed their immune system-stimulating properties – news that has vindicated Icelanders in the habit of glugging moss schnapps to cure a cough.

Try it: At Slippbarinn (www.slippbarinn.is) in Reykjavik, where there’s a broad menu of spirits on offer, from traditional cough remedies to classy cocktails.

Punsch, Sweden

What? Swedish punsch was originally named for its five ingredients (from the Sanskrit pansch) rather than its ability to pack a punch. It began as a social ritual where hot water and arrack (coconut sap liquor) were poured onto a sugarloaf to create an enticing warm drink. When pre-mixed punsch first went on sale, a craze was born – modern Swedes remain partial to punsch, whether hot, cold or topped up with sparkling wine.

Try it: Learn the finer points of Swedish punsch – and other spirits besides – at the Spritmuseum (p172) in Stockholm before testing your knowledge at the on-site bar.

Poire Williams, France & Switzerland

What? Enlivening dinner party conversations across France and Switzerland, bottles of Poire Williams eau de vie (clear brandy) often contain a full-sized pear, and the idea has now even spread to countries such as the US and Canada. It’s no optical illusion: bottles are tied in place over budding fruit, which then grow within the bottle. The brandy slips down easy, but the real trick is getting the brandy-soaked pear out at the end…

Try it: You can learn how Canada has started to grow its own pear-in-a-bottle brandy (and pick up a bottle) at Ironworks Distillery

Explore the exciting world of spirits

Reproduced with permission from Lonely Planet’s Global Distillery Tour © 2019

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