Monday, 11 March 2013

The Liquorists: Ceylon Arrack Trail

My experience of a Liquorists trail can be summed up in the following three bullet points:
  1. I haven't drunk like this since university 
  2. 25 minutes to drink a Sazerac and a glass of punch is not enough
  3. Capping off the night with a rum Old Fashioned and a Martini is just plain stupid
The last is my own bittersweet fault and I only partly blame The Liquorists. Nobody had a gun to my head, forcing me to drink the copious amounts of booze but it seemed in the 'spirit' of things, if you'll pardon the pun. (Five bars) x (a cocktail and a shot of punch) = this quote by Ernest Hemingway: “Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.”

Now, before you think - "Hold On! He's not selling this very well!" - I did have a great time. I'd simply advise booking the following day (NB: read week) off work unless you're blessed with an immunity to hangovers. Of course, as an advocate of responsible drinking, I know there is no need to drink everything that is put in front of you but it doesn't seem financially sound not to (although I should mention that this perhaps isn't a logical argument in this case, as we were guests of the kind folks at the Liquorists).

For those who haven't heard of The Liquorists, they are Tom Sneesby and Jody Monteith, a pair of vastly experienced bartenders turned consultants who run among other things the Manchester Spirit and Cocktail Trails. They take a spirit and teach you about it in the best way possible: drinking it in various concoctions. It's an upmarket, informative pub-crawl if you will, which they run from their headquarters/bar/venue/studio at 22 Redbank in the Green Quarter. Imagine a kind of boozy Bat-cave.

The bartenders' Bat-cave.
For this particular trail we had the company of Jody and the spirit in question was Ceylon Arrack. Now, I'd like to qualify that I too am a bartender albeit it one with much less experience but a great deal of curiosity; and I can't remember the last time I tried a spirit that was completely new to me. And I'm guessing that, with the exception of the 'trailblazers' and a select few, not many of you will have ever heard of this mysterious drink.

Ceylon Arrack has a great story behind it and Jody, being a great teacher and a passionate orator, conveyed its heritage to us over the course of the night. It is a spirit distilled from the sap of the coconut flower and comes from Sri Lanka where the 'toddy tappers' climb coconut trees, make holes in them and collect the milky sap which is also used to make palm sugar and coconut syrup. We were shown pictures of these daredevils 'tight-roping' between the enormous palms. The distillate of the fermented sap is then aged for a short period in Sri Lankan 'Hamilla' wood to mellow it.

Ceylon Arrack takes a little bit of flavour from the wood and bears a slight resemblance to a bourbon or cognac on the nose. It also has the floral, green qualities from the sap but its finish is predominantly sweet, almost caramelized, coconut. Thus it sits well with other flavours that like coconut, especially lime, pineapple, and ginger. These flavour combinations made up a lot of the shots of punch if I'm not mistaken.

The Sazerrack at Hula
It is beyond the scope of this post (and my hazy memory) to describe all the cocktails we had, suffice to say that you can mix it with ginger beer, a dash of bitters and a slice of orange as Jody did; or treat it more like a bourbon and make a Sazerac out of it like the guys at Hula with their Sazerrack (see what they did there?). We were also treated to cocktails at Northern Quarter stalwart Apotheca and newcomer The Whiskey Jar, ending up in Epernay. Transport was provided where necessary and we were given a nice Sri Lankan curry before embarking on the crawl as well as snacks at each bar, most noteworthy of which was Epernay's cheese and meat selection.

Um, something with beer in it at the Whiskey Jar. No idea what it was called.
I reckon with The Liquorists at the helm you're always going to be guaranteed a drink-fuelled night with the right balance of education, entertainment and socialising. Put a group of strangers together and there's always an element of awkwardness at the start which quickly dissipates after several drinks. This being organized fun after all, the only qualm I have is that the night could have started a little earlier to allow a bit more time in each bar as there were times went things felt a little rushed. I do nonetheless acknowledge the restrictions on time and the difficulty of herding a load of tipsy sheep from pen to pen!

After all this talk of booze, I feel I should leave you with a sobering thought. A cursory glance at an article on the Sri Lankan 'toddy tappers' will tell you that their art is dwindling one. The younger generation are put off by the risk, the hard labour and the poor wages (750 rupees/£3.80 for 100 litres of sap). Many of the ageing toddy tapper population have no one to follow in their footsteps. So it remains to be seen whether the manufacture of Ceylon Arrack will become an industrialized process and lose most of its heritage in the process. Let's hope not.

In the interests of transparency, I'll mention again that we were guests of the Liquorists, but like drinking those last cocktails, no-one has forced us into writing anything nice.