With the right fruit juices, spirits can be elevated to new heights – and there’s no shortage of weird and wonderful combinations to try. By Liam O'Brien of Brass Monkey.
A long time ago, before the rattle of shakers and the clinking of glass, I wore chef whites and called everyone Jeff. We worked with the seasons, talked to our suppliers and we smelled and tasted everything. Ten years on and I wear collarless shirts and use more Fs than Jeffs. Fortunately, the trends and practices of the kitchen often flow out towards the bar. Seasonality is entering the mainstream of the bar industry, but is still too often a poorly understood term.
In part this is due to the bar industry’s lack of connection with agriculture; the raw materials and processes through which ingredients materialise in our back bars and fridges. But I would argue in the case of juice, it is because it is such a staple ingredient it is easy to overlook. But both spirits and juices can be much more complex than speed rails and lifeless cartons if an enthusiastic enough bartender wants them to be.
From Coupette’s Apples to Dante’s Garibaldi, some bartenders are utilising science and creativity, so the fruits and vegetables enhance and elevate seemingly simple drinks. The vodka orange, vodka cranberry and the Bison vodka and apple juice for the more adventurous, have been the choice of the consumer for many years (excluding the occasional gin and juice) but dare to dream of a world beyond these.
Ultimately, it comes down to the quality of the raw ingredients, and therefore seasonality is essential. It’s important to think through and reorient yourself around the commodity chains that supply us with endless boxes of oranges all year round, and perfectly unblemished but tasteless apples arrived from the southern hemisphere. In the UK our fruit seasons seem fleeting, but working with, not against, them makes the process interesting.
Apple – just coming into season – is, to my mind, king of the juice and spirit world and is my top recommendation for bartenders. A house favourite would be pisco and apple or combining the spiciness of rye with the sweetness of apple. If you’ve got a little more time and equipment follow the Coupette method for clarified and carbonated apple juice (Google it), which is something that can be utilised in my MaybeCham recipe: simply pour 50ml St George Spirits Spiced Pear Liqueur (or the distillery’s incredible Pear Brandy, depending on the sweetness of your juice) and 60ml sparkling apple juice into a chilled Nick & Nora. A delicious wintery alternative variation is a hot buttered apple with Jägermeister or rum.
Just outside of Nottingham is Starkeys, an incredible grower of apples and berries and home to the first Bramley apple tree. Having a connection to a local producer ensures lower food miles and seasonality, but also the ability to talk directly to the people whose hands pick and prune the food itself. These relationships reward us on more than a social level, they can also be a boon for sourcing as we can gain access to rare varieties or can make use of gluts in harvest.
So, before you even think about making delicious drinks using juice, tracking down and sourcing growers near you is the first and most essential step – we can no longer settle for the sad, generic, and disconcertingly waxy apples we order out of habit. I could go on about apples all day and most of the night, but let us tread some new ground. The UK is awash with berries throughout summer and autumn. There are hundreds of combinations but one of my personal favourites is strawberry and pastis. Pears come into season later in the autumn or, for something a bit different in the cooler months, don’t be scared to play around with root vegetables. One that works but shouldn’t: beetroot and Malibu. Another: carrot and Cointreau.
Putting localness to one side, it’s a reality that the UK does not produce all the fruits you’re going to want to mix with. Traceability is more challenging with imported fruit, so use Fairtrade where possible. If the fruit from your supplier tastes of nothing, use something else.
Pineapple juice is a real nutcracker as it’s often the most expensive juice to make. Disconcertingly, the price of a pineapple seems to vary little year round, a clear example of how the prices of our commodities are regulated on global markets – but it works so well with many spirits. My favourite is pineapple and cachaça; a match made in heaven. The earthiness of the sugarcane spirit combined with the sweet and sourness of the pineapple also complements fragrant spices like cardamom.
Another to try is freshly juiced watermelon, the salinity of which pairs well with a bittersweet Italian amaro. Meanwhile, the honey-herbal spiciness of Bénédictine, the back bar staple, is balanced by the sweet acidity of fresh grapes. Worth combining also are the richness of Mandarin Napoleon and tart, fresh orange juice. Others I’ve experimented with successfully include herbal liqueurs: kiwi and Chartreuse and grapefruit and génépi. Taste your ingredients and follow the flavours you know well – a lot of these pairings come down to instinct.
I make my juices using a Sage centrifugal juicer, but for further clarification and juice potential check out Dave Arnold’s Liquid Intelligence, which details the use of pectinex for yield increase as well as clarity. Arnold continues this discussion further than my word count but feel free to reach out to me for further information.
The possibilities are almost endless with fruit and mixers – there are as many combinations as there are fruits and spirits. But as I find myself more aligned with the seasons and more aware of the energy use and carbon emission consequences of what I buy, I’m trying to be less reliant on imported fruit. This has a positive local impact too by supporting farmers closer to home. I don’t yet have all the answers, but am keen to see how bar practices can evolve with greater consideration to sourcing. When you look beneath the surface, even the simple pairing of juice and spirit has layers.