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Local spirits can offer importers a colourful array of niche options.

Friday, 01 October 2010 00:00

FOR niche spirits, obscure can be good--and so products made in countries not renowned for their spirits production can gather export market cache. Latin America and the Caribbean are regions where effort by buyers can pay dividends. They produces several of the most popular spirits in the world--notably rum and tequila--however there are also many lesser known local spirits that show potential in the international market.

Pisco, local grape brandies from Chile and Peru is one of the more conventional lines available. Pisco is a Peruvian and Chilean specialty, developed by Spanish settlers in the 16th century and produced in four varieties: 'puro' from non-aromatic grapes--quenbranta, mollar, ubina, or negra criolla; 'aromatico' from aromatic grapes--torntel, italia, albilla or muscatel; 'acholado' from a blend of non-aromatic and aromatic grapes; and 'mosto verde' from partially fermented grapes. The alcohol content of Pisco ranges from 30% to 50%.

According to the Peruvian Exporters Association (ADEX), Peruvian pisco exports increased by 215% between 2003 and 2009. Last year, the United States was the largest purchaser of exported pisco, consuming 32% of exports (USD$433,442), followed by Chile, Colombia, Spain, Argentina, Ecuador and Germany. Brands currently available for export include Don Cesar, Capel, Ocucaje and Pisco Payet.

More obscure, and from next door Bolivia is Fair Vodka, by Fair Trade Spirits, a unique new vodka produced from the quinoa grain of Bolivia. As the name suggests, Fair Vodka is a fair trade certified product, distilled from quinoa grown by 1,200 small producers in the Bolivian Altiplano.

Another Bolivian-inspired drink--one that is understandably rather controversial--recently appearing on the market is Agwa de Bolivia liqueur, produced from Bolivian coca leaves, as well as 32 other herbs and botanicals. Agwa, produced from the controversial Bolivian coca plant, is the only spirit of its kind. It is handcrafted in Amsterdam from a distillation of coca leaves, and available for sale in the European Union (EU) and the USA.

Meanwhile, Brazil's spirits sector is hoping to make its national spirit cachaga, distilled from sugar cane, popular outside the confines of Brazil. Some cachaga producing companies are creating variations of the spirit, in the hopes of appealing to international consumers. For example Mangaroca produces Batida de Coco, made from a Cachaga sugar cane spirit and coconut, or the variation Black Batida, made from Batida de Coco liquer, with cocoa cream, and hazelnut cream added.

This company also produces O'Cangaceiro Amargo Brasileiro--a liqueur based on an infusion of selected Brazilian herbs and lime, which is available on the international market. In Mexico however, the situation is different, given the national spirit tequila is far from being a niche product. Here, companies capitalise on the popularity of tequila, and develop interesting niche varieties of the spirit. For example Mexican company Aha Toro produces the traditional silver, gold, anejo (aged) and extra anejo tequila, but also markets unique products such as Aha Toro Diva--white tequila aged in used merlot wine barrels giving it a hint of wine and fruit, or Aha Toro Tequila Cream with a taste of cream and coffee.

Also, tequila's cousin mezcal has great potential for international marketing. There are a few qualities which distinguish mezcal from tequila. While tequila is made solely from blue agave, mezcal can be made from five different types of the plant. Also, while tequila is double or triple distilled, mezcal is often only distilled once; to make tequila, the heart of the agave (pihas) is baked or steamed above ground, while for mezcal they are cooked in pit ovens, giving mezcal a smokier flavor. Export brands include Chacmol, Del Maguey, Los Amantes and Agave del Sur. Sotol, a special form of mezcal, is also a marketable spirit. Sotol is made from the Dasilyrion (a short-stemmed succulent plant that is similar to agave) and is produced in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. Exported brands include Hacienda de Chihuahua, Don Cuco, and Golden Creek. Mexico is well known for its popular coffee liqueur Kahlua, however the country produces a variety of other lesser-known exotic liqueurs. One example is Xanath, a handcrafted liqueur obtained from vanilla beans from the region of Totonacapan. Horchata, a traditional Mexican beverage made from rice and cinnamon, was an inspiration for the company La Tradition. The company has struck on the potentially profitable idea of using the beverage as a base for a cream liqueur. The company also produces several other Mexico-inspired liqueurs including Agua de Tamarindo Liqueur (tamarind liqueur), Agua de Jamaica Liqueur (hibiscus liqueur), and Agua de Piha y Coco Liqueur (pineapple and coconut liqueur).

Similarly exotic fare is available in the Caribbean. In the north-eastern Caribbean island of St Martin--which is split between France and the Netherlands--a traditional spirit called Guavaberry has been commercialised. Flavoured with small spicy bitter guavaberries growing from the hills in the centre of the island, which are unrelated to guavas, its base spirit is rum, with additional cane sugar. The Sint Maarten Guavaberry Company NV, based in Philipsburg, the capital of the Dutch portion of the island, sells and produces the drink, which is traditionally serves on St Martin at Christmas. The fruit is found elsewhere in the Caribbean, but is most common on St Martin.

Elsewhere in the Caribbean, Haiti produces a spirit called Clairin, a strong spirit, similar to rum, made out of sugar cane, and a favorite spirit in voodoo ceremonies. The drink is produced by small distillers in towns outside of the Port-au-Prince, the capital, such as Leogane, St Michel and Ti Goave. It comes in various strengths and colours, from white, bright red and green to caramel brown, with additives changing colour and taste. It is generally bottled straight from the still, without aging and is often cut with water to reduce alcohol content. A bottle can cost less than US$1.

Of course Latin America and the Caribbean are not the only sources of unusual niche spirits. Asia has its own varieties, for instance, Vietnam. Here, niche spirits vary wildly in calibre. Before stricter regulations came into place home brews were typically produced and consumed locally (within villages) and seemed to be designed more to intoxicate than to be sipped and enjoyed. Hygiene standards during production were also dubious. Then 13 years ago along came Son Tinh Premium Spirits a producer of alcohol that manages to keep that local touch--all spirits are produced in a small village just outside Hanoi--while focusing on taste and a clean production process.

Son Tinh takes the rice spirit base, which is common throughout Asian spirits, and infuses it with various blends of local herbs, fruit, and even animals (geckos and seahorses have appeared in their range). They currently have twelve different varieties with one of the most popular being Tao Meo, a type of apple that is found in the hill tribe areas of northern Vietnam. Each blend is infused for a minimum of three years and some have aged for as long as six years.
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Author:Goddard, Pacifica; Miller, Karryn; Pierre-Pierre, Garry; Nuthall, Keith
Publication:International News
Date:Oct 1, 2010
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