Until fairly recently, beyond international stalwarts like vodka or whisky, there were certain native drinks that were not made outside their home countries. Now, however, this is beginning to change. From Canadian aquavit to Australian vermouth, we lift the lid on five classic spirits made in non-traditional places…
The French have Cognac. The Scots have Scotch whisky. In Mexico they make Tequila, and the US boasts bourbon. There are rules and regulations that tie these spirits to their geographical location. But some spirits aren’t bound by such legalities. And with a bit of distiller ingenuity, they can be made anywhere in the world – and often with interesting results. Here, we look at five classic spirits made in unusual places…
Holland is widely credited as the birthplace of gin. Following the creation of genever – the region’s beloved malt-based spirit – gin is thought to have been invented by Dutch physician Franciscus Sylvius, who used it for medicinal purposes back in 1550. By the time the 1600s rolled around, there were hundreds of gin distilleries in the city of Amsterdam alone.
Around the same time, gin started to emerge in England in various forms, giving way to a rather bleak period dubbed the ‘Gin Craze’ until production was eventually licensed and tamed. Today, the juniper-forward white spirit is produced in countless western countries the world over, but rarely in the east, which is one of the reasons we were particularly excited to see Ki No Bi Gin launch back in 2016.
The inaugural release from the Kyoto Distillery – and the first Japanese gin produced in Kyoto – Ki No Bi is made from a rice spirit base and flavoured with locally-sourced botanicals that include yellow yuzu, green sansho and gyokuro tea. The botanicals are split across six flavour categories – base, citrus, Tea, spice, fruity & floral and herbal – and these groupings are distilled individually before being blended together to make the final liquid.
Historians believe shochu first originated in Persia (or possibly China or Korea) but it’s best known as Japan’s national spirit, having made its way to the rural south of the island country sometime in the 16th century. While it’s typically made from rice, barley, sweet potatoes, buckwheat or brown sugar, Japanese distillers have been known to use chestnut, sesame seeds, potatoes and even carrots to make the clear white liquor – so flavour-wise, it’s super diverse.
Generally speaking, shochu is little-known outside its east Asian home, with confused westerners sometimes referring to the spirit as ‘Japanese vodka’. However in recent years, a handful of experimental distillers, such as those at St. George Spirits, have sought to create their own regional take on the traditional spirit – in this instance, “a full-flavoured shochu from California rice that would complement a hearty bowl of ramen”.
To create St. George California Shochu, steamed Calrose rice is inoculated with koji spores and fermented (known as ‘sake lees’). Once the rice starch has been transformed into sugar, yeast is added, and the mix is fermented cold. It’s then blended with non-GMO neutral grain spirit and distilled in a copper pot still. On the nose you’ll find cashew, pistachio, sweet mushrooms and dried cocoa, they say – with the latter developing on the palate as bittersweet chocolate.
Unlike other spirits categories, we know precisely when and where absinthe was created: the canton of Neuchâtel in Switzerland, 1792. It was the handiwork of French doctor Pierre Ordinaire, who set out to capture the powerful healing effects of wormwood in a potable form. Fast-forward 70 years or so, and this potent anise-flavoured spirit had become the alcoholic drink du jour among bohemian Parisian writers and other arty types.
Where traditional absinthes are bottled anywhere up to 74% ABV – and modern variants up to an eye-watering 90% – Hendrick’s Absinthe stands at an altogether far more reasonable 48%, somewhere in the region of your typical single malt. In a step away from the stereotypical green-tinged liquid we’re accustomed to seeing, this spirit runs clear.
Crafted by master distiller Lesley Gracie at the gin brand’s headquarters in Girvan, Scotland, this variant is flavoured with Hendrick’s signature rose and cucumber botanicals, as well as traditional wormwood and star anise, making it an approachable introduction to absinthe.
Distilled from grain (or sometimes potatoes), this herbaceous tipple has been produced in Scandiavian countries since the 15th century. Aquavit is characterised by its predominant flavours of caraway or dill or both – the style varies depending on whether you’re in Sweden, Norway or Denmark – and may be matured in a barrel or bottled unaged.
The spirit has found favour outside its Nordic home in the likes of Iceland, Germany, the US, and Canada – the birthplace of Long Table Långbord Akvavit. Produced at Vancouver’s first microdistillery, Long Table Distillery, the liquid is made in small batches according to traditional Scandi style.
Långbord Akvavit is flavoured with six botanicals including caraway, fennel, anise and Seville oranges, and it’s bottled unaged, so there’s no cask influence. Expect ‘complex licorice and orange notes’, ‘a smooth, sweet finish of lingering marmalade’ and ‘prevailing herbal notes on the palate’, the team say.
While it’s more commonly associated with Italy, the history of this fortified wine is rooted in 16th century Germany. In fact, the origin of the word ‘vermouth’ comes from the way French people would pronounce ‘wermut’, the German word for wormwood (an original ingredient that remains a staple to this day). Modern vermouth – as we know it today – was first produced in the 18th century in Italy, with French and Spanish producers creating their own iterations not long after.
Australia may be renowned for its outstanding vineyards, but even so – when Regal Rogue debuted its inaugural new world vermouth, the brand caused a bit of a stir. The four-strong range sees 100% Aussie wines – from Barossa Valley shiraz to Hunter Valley semillon – married with native aromatics including anise myrtle, quandong, pepper berry and more.
This Wild Rosé bottling introduces pale, dry Barossa shiraz rosé from Adelaide Hills to native illawara plums, rosella and strawberry gum, and rhubarb and kina, resulting in a semi-dry vermouth characterised by tropical fruit and fruit spice notes. Delightful.