It’s time to gaze into my special boozy crystal ball and try to discern what we will be drinking in the next few years. We are so much more adventurous in our tastes than even ten years ago. Cocktails today are all about accentuating the taste of the spirit rather than disguising it with fruit and sugar. So I’ve tipped seven drinks with distinctive flavours, complexity and history. Some are currently obscure but about to become household names but others are well-known drinks that are doing interesting things.
Pronounced Bye Joe, this is China’s national spirit. Distilled from a variety of grains including sorghum, it’s something of an acquired taste but the best examples in their complexity have more in common with a good Scotch than vodka. Upmarket brand Kweichow Moutai recently overtook Johnnie Walker as the most valuable spirit brand in the world. Baijiu is now being taken very seriously in the western world too, underlined by the International Wine & Spirit Competition’s decision to introduce a Baijiu category.
Whisky is exploding outside the heartlands of Scotland, Ireland, Japan, Canada and the USA. This year I’ve tried excellent whiskies from Taiwan, India, Australia, and even England! These are premium brands and single malt whiskies often with innovative ageing techniques. For example Starward Whisky from Melbourne is aged in a mixture of Australian fortified wine and shiraz barrels that have been resized to get different levels of wood contact. They now have the marketing might of Diageo behind them so expect to see Starward widely distributed next year.
Cognac is dominated by big brands and sells about 180 million bottles annually, whereas armagnac, cognac’s southern cousin, is made by farmers and sells about 6 million. But I think that it might finally be armagnac’s time. Scotch drinkers in particular are drawn to it because in their peppery pungency, some armagnacs are like island whiskies whereas others taste like heavily sherried Speyside malts. And the prices will bring a smile to the face of Scotch lovers, with 30yo spirits retailing for around £100 compared to a hefty £1000.
Rum is rising fast, with sales set to break the £1 billion barrier. What rum has in spades is diversity: it’s made all over the world, not just in the Caribbean and Latin America, but also Mauritius, North America, Australia among other countries. It can be made from sugar cane juice or molasses and it can be clear, golden or almost black. You can mix rum or drink it neat. Now distillers are releasing rums for the collectors’ market such as Appleton Estate’s 50yo. Only 800 bottles were made at around £3,500 each.
Yes, boring old vodka is doing some interesting things. You can now buy oak-aged vodkas which have some of the character of bourbons, vodkas made from single varieties of potato or grain and vodka distilled from a particular field, like the very best cognac. Just to show you how seriously people are now taking this underrated spirit, Japanese whisky legend Nikka will be releasing its own vodka later this year. These are vodkas to be sipped cold rather than knocked back in shots.
Mezcal is made from agave cooked over burning wood and it comes from Oaxaca in Southern Mexico. It tends to be smokier, spicier and more pungent than tequila and is made in tiny quantities, mezcal’s production is 2% of tequila’s, usually by small producers. But the big boys are beginning to take an interest. Pernod Ricard bought a stake in Del Maguey recently and sales are rocketing in the USA. Oh and the good stuff never has a worm in the bottom.
From a martini to a manhattan, most great cocktails require vermouth. We think of vermouth, a fortified wine flavoured with herbs and spices, as the ultimate mixer but some are interesting enough to be drunk straight. There are new vermouths made by wine producers in South Africa or Australia, or in tiny quantities in garages in Peckham or Brooklyn. This competition has revitalised the big Italian brands such as Cinzano and Martini who have released special vermouths with deeper flavours that are equally good solo as mixed.
Seven to try:
Kweichow Moutai (around US$170 for 375ml)
A cult drink amongst the Chinese, this is a richly-flavoured clear spirit with soy sauce and almond notes.
Starward Solera Malt Whisky (A$69.99 700ml)
A little sweeter than a Scotch with aromatic, warm spicy flavours. It’s awesomely drinkable neat.
Janneau Single Distillery 18yo (£48.99 for 500ml)
This has an amazing wine like quality with rich tobacco notes; like a good Bordeaux crossed with Macallan whisky.
Rum Mount Gay Black Barrel (£25.51 for 1 litre)
It’s spicy and punchy but smooth with notes of coconut and vanilla, and it is excellent with ginger beer and lime.
William Chase Potato Vodka (£29.99 for 1 litre)
An English vodka with lots of creamy, nutty flavour. Works wonderfully in a Gibson with vermouth and gin.
Mezcales De Leyenda Tlacuache (US$42 for 700ml)
Made by a farmers’ cooperative in Oaxaca, it has a briny green olive taste with smoke like an Islay whisky.
Martini Riserva Especial Ambrato (€13.50 for 750ml)
A complex amber vermouth made with Moscato d’Asti wine, it’s particularly delicious drunk with tonic water.