Local spirits can offer importers a colourful array of niche options

For niche spirits, obscure can be good – products made in countries not renowned for their spirits production, for example, can gather export market cache. Latin America and the Caribbean are regions where efforts can reap dividends. The regions produce 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, a grape brandy spirit from Chile and Peru, is one of the more conventional lines available. Pisco is a Peruvian and Chilean speciality, 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), pisco exports from Peru increased by 215% between 2003 and 2009. Last year, the US was the largest purchaser of exported pisco, accounting for 32% of exports (US$433,442), followed by Chile, Colombia, Spain, Argentina, Ecuador and Germany. Brands currently available for export from Peru include Don Cesar, Ocucaje and Pisco Payet. 

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

Another Bolivian-inspired drink, which was launched recently – and one that is understandably rather controversial – is Agwa de Bolivia liqueur, produced from Bolivian coca leaves, as well as 32 other herbs and botanicals. Agwa is produced in Amsterdam from a distillation of coca leaves, and is available for sale in the European Union (EU) and the US.

Meanwhile, Brazil’s spirits sector is hoping to make its national spirit, cachaça, distilled from sugar cane, popular outside the confines of its domestic market. Some cachaça-producing companies are creating variations of the spirit, in the hope of appealing to international consumers. For example, Mangaroca produces Batida de Coco, made from a cachaça sugar cane spirit and coconut, or the variation Black Batida, made from Batida de Coco liqueur, with cocoa and hazelnut creams.

This company also produces O’Cangaceiro Amargo Brasileiro – a liqueur based on an infusion of selected Brazilian herbs and lime, which is available internationally.

In Mexico, the situation is different, given that the national spirit, Tequila, is far from being a niche product. Here, companies capitalise on the popularity of Tequila, and look to develop niche varieties of the spirit. For example, Aha Toro produces the traditional silver, gold, anejo (aged) and extra anejo Tequila, but also markets 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. 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 (piñas) is baked or steamed above ground, while for mezcal they are cooked in pit ovens, giving mezcal a smokier flavour. Export brands include Chacmol, Del Maguey, Los Amantes and Agave del Sur. Sotol, a form of mezcal, is also a marketable spirit. Sotol is made from the Dasilyrion (a short-stemmed plant 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 also well-known for the coffee liqueur brand 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, has been used as an inspiration for La Tradition. The company has struck on the idea of using the beverage as a base for a cream liqueur. It also produces several other Mexico-inspired liqueurs including Agua de Tamarindo Liqueur (tamarind liqueur), Agua de Jamaica Liqueur (hibiscus liqueur), and Agua de Piña 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, which grow in the hills in the centre of the island (but are not related to guavas) its base spirit is rum with additional cane sugar. The Sint Maarten Guavaberry Company, based in the capital of the Dutch part of the island, Philipsburg, sells and produces the drink, which is traditionally served 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 that is similar to rum, made out of sugar cane, and a favourite spirit in voodoo ceremonies. The drink is produced by small distilleries in towns outside of the capital Port-au-Prince, such as Léogâne, St Michel and Ti Goave. It comes in various strengths and colours, from white, bright red and green to caramel brown, with additives changing the colour and taste. It is generally bottled straight from the still without ageing 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. In Vietnam. for instance, niche spirits vary wildly in calibre. Before stricter regulations came into place, home brews were typically produced and consumed locally in 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 12 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.