I've covered before how I love using food and drink as a guide when I'm travelling. Often though, the ingredients themselves can be a source of revelation and fascination.
I was fortunate to be in Cuba representing the UK as part of a global bartending competition. The drink I created to win my trip there was based around my experiences of the Cuban rum at its heart, and was a view from the UK looking across at Cuba's rich rum and bartending history. As a contrast to this, during the competition I wanted to create a drink that focussed on the ingredients and experiences I found during my trip to Cuba. One thing that really astounded me was the fruit. I finally understood why pineapples are called the queen of fruits. I'd come across how incredible fruit tastes in the tropics, but the pineapple here was really quite a revelation.
It was with this in mind that purchasing these tropical fruits back home in Britain became more of a disappointment. It really made no sense; from either a flavour, economic or environmental point of view. However, it did make me realise what great produce we do have. In particular, given our climate, we've become very adept at producing fine alcoholic products, so instead of lamenting papayas that taste of potatoes, it seemed better for my palate, and conscience, to fill my shopping basket with the following fine gems.
The heritage of alcohol in Britain goes far back; in fact there's brands and houses that have been around longer than many countries. In many cases, these brands have shaped their categories, and even the law surrounding them. But this history of tradition and expertise has also spurred some newer marques that are really juggling things up. Give these a go, if you're in the UK they'll be local and easy, if not, they're worth seeking to try the best of British:
A wonderful gin made in Battersea where they will soon be making the first whisky in London for over 120 years. Crisp and classically bold, with a wonderful waxiness that comes from distilling local honey into the still. Using organic spirit and botanicals, it's a great story as well as a great product.
Whisky - Kilchoman 100% Islay
The youngest distillery on the Scottish island of Islay. Renowned and sought after for peated, fruity drams, this release sees all the produce, including the barley being processed and distilled on this traditional style farm distillery. Consistently great whiskies, and a great one to watch for the future.
Brandy -Somerset Cider Brandy
One thing we do grow well on these isles, and I'll stick my neck out and say better than anywhere else, is apples. So in the name of preservation and all things fine and boozy, it made sense that someone would concentrate this into a fine nectar reflective of the best of the West Country. Not a particularly new one though - they have stock over 20 years old.
Vodka - Chase
Made from potatoes from their own farm in Herefordshire, this single estate spirit has a wonderful creaminess that really separates it from the crowd. Best served short to really savour its silky texture.
Absinthe - Cold-distilled Absinthe
Due to the process by which this is made, this tastes very fresh, with all the vibrancy of the green herbs coming to the fore. It does however also come in at an eye-watering 91.2% alcohol as a result. You can buy sample sized bottles though, perfect for little dashes to cocktails (like below).
Aperitif - Kamm and Sons
Bittersweet, with a lower alcohol content, this is perfect for early evening drinks, or pre-dinner cocktails. Complex and unique, this bitter spirit/liqueur hybrid made in south London is great in simple mixed drinks and cocktails alike.
Wine - Nyetimber Demi-sec
I've been a fan of this house for a good while, but this latest addition to their staple is further proof of the quality of sparkling wine being produced on our shores. Sweeter, but with a wonderful acidity to balance out, it makes great cocktails, or a fantastic partner to food.
Beer - Kernel Brewery
Given Britain's long history of beer production it would be a shame to forget to mention some of the newer entries to the category. There's been an explosion of new craft breweries, but the products from Kernel consistently shine and astound. Big flavoured, but well worth seeking out.
The Mixed Breed
40ml Dodd's gin
10ml 5 y o Cider brandy
100ml Cox apple juice
2 dashes Cold-distilled absinthe
Add gin, brandy, apple juice and absinthe to a rocks glass filled with cubed ice. Stir, add more ice, then top with soda. Garnish with a slice of apple.