Thursday, May 22, 2014

Exploring Solbeso the cacao spirit.

By Catherine L Luke

Chocolate comes from the seeds of cacao.  What most of us don’t realize is that, beyond its seeds, cacao has so much more to offer.  Cacao grows in a sort of pod with a tough outer rind.  Inside the rind, as in a melon or a squash, is a soft and citrusy fruit.  Tom Higbee, the energetic innovator behind a new spirit called Solbeso, compares cacao’s fruit to a creamy sorbet.  Solbeso is a spirit distilled from this fruit.

Higbee’s delicious idea was inspired by a visit to a friend’s family cacao farm where he spent some time exploring and learning about cacao.  Higbee was struck by the sight of farmers removing and disposing of fruit simply because their sole focus was on harvesting the bean.   This was done because the flesh of the fruit oxidizes and browns a few hours after being exposed to air, not allowing enough time for transport to market.  Higbee saw all of this beautiful fruit being thrown into the river and dreamt up a way to capture its essence.  And so the idea for what would become Solbeso, which translates to “sun kissed”, was born.

The process of figuring out how to do this wasn’t simple.  Southern Peru has a number of distilleries dedicated to Pisco production.  Higbee happened to be in the north and, as far as distilleries go, there is no culture of distillation in northern Peru.  To try out his idea, Higbee rigged up an old moonshine still and boiled off a pilot bottle of what would become Solbeso.  It tasted pretty good.  He brought his product to a lab in Oregon.  It came in at 80 proof, and was even found to contain a trace amount of natural caffeine as well as theobromine, the component in chocolate that makes people happy.

Higbee assembled a team of local Pisco producers and horticulturalists and, with a little consultation, developed a system that would create a quality product.  It took about four years of “blood, sweat, and mosquito bites”.  Good things take time.

Unlike many chocolate producers who run large plantation-like cacao farms, Solbeso’s cacao fruit is harvested by family farms in agricultural areas of northern Peru, Ecuador, and the Dominican Republic.  The term family farm here, for the most part, means people going into lush forests behind their homes to pluck fruit from their trees- an, obviously, organic operation.   There are hundreds of variations of cacao fruit categorized into 12 basic varietals.  The more aromatic the varietal, the better it is for Solbeso, but also the more rare it is to find.  Terrior- seasonality, soil, elevation, climate and micro-climate- play an important role in the flavor and productivity of the cacao fruit.  Since there are so many factors that contribute to consistency and quality,  Solbeso blends the cacao of various farms to achieve the result they are looking for.

At the distillery, fruit is slow-cooked in little batches in specially-designed facilities close to the cacao farms.  This step must happen soon after harvest to preserve freshness.  Because of the delicacy of the fruit, every step of the process- from collection, to fermentation, to distillation- required a pioneering new approach to production.

And how about the final product?  It is not going through a supply chain.  It’s simply ingredients to product, product to market; providing much needed income to small agricultural communities along the way.  Most importantly, it’s delicious!  Smooth with a playful hint of tangerine.   The taste is interesting.  But it’s not just interesting, it’s good.  How could anything coming from cacao not be?  There is really nothing to compare Solbeso to as it seems to be creating a new category all its own.  In cocktails it can perform like a classic brown spirit, though also jives with something light and citrusy.  Like any good spirit, it is completely lovely on its own. 

Try it the rocks or in a fun cocktail.  New World Spirits, the company behind Solbeso, has shared a few ideas here:

Solbeso & Iced Tea:

Solbeso                                     1.5 Parts
Iced Tea                                     4 Parts

Build on ice, stir to incorporate ingredients and garnish with a lemon wheel.

El Conquistador:
Solbeso                2 Parts
Sweet Vermouth  1 Part
bitters                   2 Dashes

Build all ingredients in a mixing glass. Add ice, stir and strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a cherry, twist, or both. 

The Bird & The Bees:

Solbeso                            2 Parts
Honey Syrup (2:1)              .5 Part
Fresh Lemon Juice             .5 Part

Build all ingredients in a mixing glass or tin. Add ice, shake and strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with an optional lemon twist or sugar rim.

Picante No. 2:

Solbeso                      2 parts
Fresh Lemon Juice      1 part
Simple Syrup (1:1)      .75 parts
Jalapeño                     2 slices

Muddle Jalapeño in a mixing tin or glass. Add all other ingredients, shake, and double strain into a glass over fresh ice. Garnish with a Jalapeño slice.

Cheers from DrinkUpNY!

Catherine lives in Brooklyn, and has worked in the wine industry in Napa Valley and NYC. She is certified by the WSET, as well as the school of "wine in real life".  Understanding the patchwork of little-known Italian regional wines, dishes, and customs excites her most of all. She (sometimes) muses on her blog GrapesofCath.

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