April 14th, 2017/ BY Silvana Lau

Spiced and flavoured spirits are making a comeback

In recent years, alcohol infused with flavouring and spices has gotten a bad rap. Snooty seasoned drinkers and purists alike find it tragic, calling it the bastardization of pure spirits.

Mention spiced rum to most people and thoughts turn to college frat parties with a spiked Coke in one hand and a pirate hook in the other. Meanwhile, flavoured vodkas, the anything-goes-wild-child spirit, evokes an endless stream of childhood food memories: cupcake, bubble gum, cotton candy, the list goes on …

In general, spiced and flavoured spirits have always played second fiddle to sugared-up drink concoctions designed to mask the awful taste and burn of low-quality base spirits. Historically speaking, poor conditions in distillation created harsh and unpleasant tasting spirits. “Sailors had a daily ration of rum on board the ships. Much of this rum was unaged and not much ‘fun’ to drink after a hard, laborious day. Sailors started opening the cask and flavouring the rum with cloves, star anise, ginger, cinnamon, vanilla, and cardamom to give it extra flavour and sweetness,” explains Mario d’Amico from Domaine Pinnacle Micro-Distillery.

Fast forward to the 21st century; distillers are using a different approach. “Unlike the traditional method of using spices to cover up the inferior spirits, the spices are lighter in flavour which allows the essence of the original spirit to shine through,” explains Bill Ashburn, Master Blender of Ontario’s Forty Creek Distillery.

Given the dramatic improvement in quality among some brands, adding spices to a spirit is more of an art than a necessity. Similar to a mad scientist, each distiller has his or her own idiosyncratic approach to master the art of balance. “We spend a lot of time getting the ratio of the spices right so that they enhance the spirit, not hide it. One must put together blends, allow them to marry and allow the true flavours to come out. This process takes at least six months of waiting,” says Ashburn. He continues, “distillers are going to continue to experiment and at the same time fine tune their processes.”

Besides the obvious reason of improving the taste, humans have been infusing spices and spirits together for centuries. Many believed it was an “easier” delivery method for homespun remedies to tackle ailments (I’ll take a shot of anything over a hard-to-swallow horse pill any day), while others believed that certain spiced spirits could increase your libido (isn’t that what tequila is for?) Whatever the reasons, these spirits have been enjoyed all over.

In the land of the Vikings, between the Arctic Ocean and the icy Baltic Sea, Scandinavians throw back shots of Aquavit (or Akvavit, depending in which country you’re drinking it) while toasting each other and shouting Skoal. Dating back to the 1500s, the traditional Scandinavian liquor or “water of life” forged bonds from Helsinki to Copenhagen.

Much like vodka, a neutral spirit derived from either grain or potato is spiced dominantly with caraway (dill, anise, fennel, coriander and cardamom is often added to the mix). Originally considered a cure for indigestion, caraway provides a savoury character to the Aquavit that pairs well with traditional Nordic fare like smoked fish and pickled herring. Although Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland all have their own version, a shot of Aquavit is a Scandinavian staple during those chilly arctic winters.

In the Caribbean, islanders would make their own recipes of spiced rums at home with whatever local ingredients were available and sell them in local grog or rum shops. Laced with classic spices and flavourings such as vanilla, nutmeg, cloves and allspice, the local island hooch was not only aromatic but potent as well. A handful of spiced rums made it across the Atlantic to North America, this, of course, included the ubiquitous Captain Morgan’s Original Spiced Rum.

Introduced to the North American market in the ‘80s, Captain Morgan’s vanilla-forward rum has been associated with quaffing more for quantity than for quality. “Captain and Coke” still remains a popular drink among young men, earning the good ol’ Captain a notorious reputation for frat party booze.

 

 

Moreover, many drink snobs from all over the world (well, except for the Caribbean) have an aversion to spiced rum. These discerning drinkers dismiss it as a sub-par — too sweet and not grown-up enough. Unlike good quality aged and sipping rums, spiced rums are more like mass-produced beers. Many commercial bottlings are infused with a combination of artificial and natural ingredients often including sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and clove (did you ask for a cocktail or a muffin?) One can see why traditional spiced rum carries the “boozy training wheel” reputation.

Nonetheless, not all spiced rums should be associated with swashbuckling-themed frat parties or colourful frozen drinks festooned with paper umbrellas. Small family-owned micro-distillery Domaine Pinnacle has created a uniquely spiced, blended rum using agricultural rum from Jamaica, Trinidad and Barbados.

Named after Quebec’s own Chic Choc Mountains, Chic Choc Spiced Rum is the first ever to originate from Quebec and it is not your conventional plain vanilla “me-too” rum. In fact, there are no references to pirates, sailors or anything nautical on the label of the bottle. What you will see on the bottle is the town rebel standing on top of a ferocious bear. Legend has it that the love affair between the town rebel and the mayor’s daughter was exposed, and as a result, he was punished to scale the tumultuous Chic Chic Mountains to retrieve rare spices guarded by a vicious beast. With a rum bottle in hand, the rebel returned weeks later, unscathed, with spices steeping in his bottle.

“We don’t use any cinnamon or vanilla in our spice mix. We wanted to think outside-of-the-box. An herbalist was hired and he gathered 200 indigenous plants from the boreal forest in the Gaspé Peninsula. We use a blend of Caribbean rums aged between three to eight years and macerated it with a mixture of six Nordic spices found in this untouched location of the country, which includes peppery green alder, pine forest spikenard, whiterod berries, lovage root, sweet gale seeds and wild angelica,” explains D’Amico. After months of experimentation, a sophisticated spiced rum was born. Frat boys take note: Chic Choc can be enjoyed in cocktails, neat or on the rocks.

Despite the particular spices sounding more like ingredients in a detoxifying spiced tea, Chic Choc is redefining the industry standard. “There is a decline of major mass-produced spirits as consumers become more interested in local, artisan and handcrafted spirits. People are demanding cocktails made from quality spirits and local and seasonal ingredients. In fact, we have a twist on the classic Cuba Libre. We mix Chic Choc with a locally produced cola called 1642 made exclusively with Quebec ingredients like maple syrup. We call it the Gaspé Libre,” D’Amico says with pride.

Chic Choc is trying to create a niche in the market, rather than trying to overtake the Captain or Mr Bacardi — they want to elevate the category. It’s the quintessential hipster spiced rum that replaces the eye patch wearing pirate image so often associated with rum with the plaid-wearing lumber-sexual. “It has a unique flavour and people must be open minded, adventurers and thrill-seekers to enjoy it. Our spiced rum is closer to an Amaro than the traditional not-so-subtle cinnamon and vanilla spiced rum,” says D’Amico. Thanks to Chic Choc’s blend of unorthodox spices, the negative stigma so often associated with these rum has shifted. These days, innovative bartenders and mixologists are experimenting with spiced rum as they make their way into more than just shooters and cola (that is unless it’s locally produced cola).

Love it or hate it, there’s no fighting it — no stopping it. In every corner of the globe, you will find distillers tinkering with spices and infusing them into not just vodka and rum, but liqueurs (Jägermeister spiced, Ancho Reyes Ancho Chile Liqueur), tequila (Peligroso Cinnamon Flavoured) and even whisky (much to the chagrin of “true” whisky aficionados). Everyone wants a piece of the (spiced) pie.

From American to Canadian, bourbon to rye, whisky distilleries have followed suit and jumped onto the spiced spirits bandwagon following the success of Fireball Cinnamon Whisky. Synonymous for “fun” among young hedonists, the syrupy incarnation of a spicy cinnamon jawbreaker (remember those?) has caught on like wildfire. In 2014, a Chicago-based research firm identified Fireball as one of the top 10 selling spirit brands by volume. Not surprisingly, it has become a threat to more established brands. Red hot Fireball has gone from an unknown to the hottest bar-shot trend in the US almost overnight, dethroning Jägermeister off its post as party-goers shot of choice.

Jägerbombs today! Fireball shots tomorrow! Trends are fickle. The popularity of spiced spirits isn’t slowing down anytime soon. As new brands feature the blend of natural spices infused with premium spirits, bartenders and consumers are giving spiced spirits a fresh new look, because everything in life deserves a second chance.

 

 

Ancho Reyes Ancho Chile Liqueur, Mexico ($40)

Hey! Hot stuff! I’d never tried an Ancho chile liqueur before, but I think I’m hooked on this spicy Mexican! From a recipe developed in the 1920s, this is a really unique shot across the palate. Cayenne pepper, sweet mace, cocoa powder and vanilla muddled together for a pretty complex aroma. Whoo-whee! The heat’s for sure there in the mouth (though the 40% alcohol is deceptively masked), but it’s tempered by a balanced sweetness and some smoked paprika endnotes. Traditionally served neat (though over ice you get that wild hot/cold thing happening), it would probably add a lashing of surprising spice to tamer cocktails.

Chic Choc Spiced Rum, Canada ($33.75)

Finally! A spiced rum that doesn’t taste like I am sucking on a cinnamon heart or a vanilla pod. Definitely, not your run-of-the-mill spiced rum; that’s because the usual spices cinnamon and vanilla (yawn!) aren’t added to the blend. Instead, Nordic spices (indigenous plants from the Gaspé Penisula) are infused with a blend of aged rum from the Caribbean. The Nordic spices attribute to a slight medicinal taste, reminiscent of Alpenbitter and Jägermeister without the bitterness. A fresh take on rum that features a spicy bouquet of woody herbs with nuances of sugarcane and ginger, complemented by subtle white pepper undertones. One sip of this Caribbean and Canadian love child, and you will feel like you are hiking in the great Canadian outdoors with the heat of the island sun on your face!

Forty Creek Spike Honey Spiced, Canada ($28.95)

Blended with the award-winning Forty Creek Barrel Select Whisky, sweet honey aromas greet you at first with hints of vanilla and cloves in the background. Once you sip the syrup-like elixir, a mélange of baking spices will envelop your tongue, with a persistent butterscotch finish. Nothing complicated, but an easy drinking spiced whisky that will satisfy that sweet tooth that always seems to show up after a meal. Serve neat if you are craving something rich and decadent; With a drop of water or on the rocks if you want to reveal more flavours of the rye.

chic choc presidente
(aka president of gaspésie)

2 oz Chic Choc
1 oz sweet vermouth (or white vermouth) but not dry vermouth
1/4 oz orange liqueur
1/2 bar-spoon of grenadine

Gather all ingredients. Shake with ice. Fine strain and serve with an orange peel.