Much to my excitement, the world of luxury spirits is on the rise. Whilst this bodes well for someone in my industry, I can't help but feel a little worried that the gentrification of once-rustic spirits – rum, for instance – means we might be missing out on flavour to meet focus groups' demand for "smoothness".
Bandied about by the liquor industry's ad men are mind-numbing slogans like “exceptionally smooth,” “distinctively bold,” “luxurious character” and “stylish elegance”. These terms are designed to entice new drinkers to the product that they might have previously deemed too harsh for their tastes, but I have to question whether an "exceptionally smooth" experience is one every drinker wants to have. Doesn't the road less travelled - usually rutted and jarring - oftentimes lead somewhere more exciting and memorable?
Rum aficionado Tom Bulmer is the founder of Sugarcane Sunday, an annual rum fest held in Sydney.
“The term 'luxury' is about defining your market, whereas the 'premiumisation' of spirits is a focus on improving production methods and the quality of what's inside the bottle,” Bulmer says.
“At the moment the rum world is focused a lot on spiced rum, but a lot of the new products are market-framed rather than focused on the quality of the liquid. There's a loss of tradition and that's a shame, as for me rum is a product that you need to feel the soul of.”
One product with a load of soul that has a cult following among Australian bartenders is Wray & Nephew, an unaged Jamaican overproof rum. Bombastic, rough around the edges and wielding a 63 per cent alcohol-by-volume kick, it's the closest thing there is to genuine pirate juice.
But despite being one of the largest-selling rums in Jamaica, it's not legally recognised as rum by Australian standards that require a product to be aged in a wooden vessel – of any size – for a minimum of two years.
Tom is a fan of the unfinished, edgy, full-flavoured approach. “It's a product created by the local people for the local people and they're not about to change it for anyone,” he says.
A recent Fiji holiday brought me into contact with Bounty – another locals' rum made from the rich molasses left over after sugarcane has been processed for sugar. In production since the late 1970s, it is currently only available in Fiji where locals have developed a taste for the spirit and especially an overproof dark variant that weighs in at 58 per cent ABV. Whilst a little unrefined, its taste is a true expression of the island and its culture: grassy, fruity, rich and - in the words a copywriter might use - distinctively bold.
If overproof rum is not your thing, there are whiskies, gins, and tequilas out there that celebrate tradition and heritage and stick rigidly to original recipes. But outside these expertly marketed, crafted, matured, blended and rounded spirits there might well be a new frontier in rustic liquor. At least that's what mezcal importer Octavio Gomez-Haro from Casa Mexico is counting on.
“Mezcal as a product is more like wine,” Gomez-Haro tells us. "Producers have at least 30 types of agave they can choose from to make their spirit, each with a different result. It's a full-flavoured spirit and Australians are starting to get onto it, appreciating it like a good Scotch whisky.”
Most of the agaves (massive desert succulent plants) are cultivated for mezcal production, but some are still harvested from the wild for really artisan producers. Roasted in large earthen ovens, these agaves take on an intense smokiness before being milled for juice that is fermented and distilled. The product, generally bottled unaged and at natural strength, offers one of the most exciting experiences in the spirit world. It's real frontier stuff, offering flavours of bitumen, burnt rubber, roasted capsicum, fruit and earth.
And Octavio reminds us that every village produces its own take on the spirit. “Quality mezcal can't be mass produced – smaller artisan producers are the ones making the best mezcal,” he says.
What I'm driving at is that there are spirits out there that refuse to join this obsessive marketing-led quest for "smoothness". They can still be defined as "luxury", but in an artisanal, bespoke, even rustic way that offers rich flavour and a sense of place and heritage - without the shiny packaging or a boardroom full of Don Drapers.
What's the wildest spirit you've tried?