I have not, for obvious reasons, travelled much in the past year, and I miss being on the road. But the upside to being desk-bound is I’ve had time to do more tasting than ever – of wine, spirits, beer, non-alcoholics and some categories of drink that don’t even have a proper name yet. I’ve deliberately gone in search of the weird: new things, odd things and stuff I don’t know much about. And it’s been a wild ride. More than once, I’ve felt like some kind of gastronomic astronaut, exploring the outer limits of what the human palate can imagine.
In the past fortnight alone, I’ve tasted vermouth flavoured with oyster shells, Mexican corn whisky, a cranachan-flavoured craft soda, Japanese orange wine, five varietal apple juices, an English rum, a sonically aged Negroni and two ‘pet-nat’ kombuchas created by the head of R&D for the two-Michelin-starred Mugaritz in San Sebastián; all, in their own way, were delicious. I’ve also tasted matcha oat milk, bamboo water, a trio of ales spiked with medicinal mushrooms, and a mix-your-own-spirits kit that promises seven types of booze from one bottle of neutral grain spirit; all of which were decidedly not.
Then I went on a yuzu bender – and that was unadulterated joy. I sampled tongue-spangling yuzu juices from Taiwan and Japan; yuzu tonic from Spain; hopped yuzu sodas from a craft brewery in Manchester; and yuzu sakes, shochus and gins. I spritzed my cocktails with a yuzu tincture created by a team of Cambridge scientists, and lay in a bath full of bobbing yuzu fruit in an attempt to re-create a winter solstice ritual popular in Japan.
I’ve come to realise that, sometimes, drinks can be interesting even if they don’t taste great
Out of a sense of journalistic duty, I made a serious attempt to get my head around the hard seltzer – the health-conscious millennials’ answer to the alcopop. I tried, I really did, to discover the allure of this billion-dollar beverage. But a blend of neutral spirit, soda water, low-cal sweetener and fruit flavouring can only ever taste so good. Clutching a restorative glass of Pinot Noir, I weighed into hard seltzers on Instagram. But clearly the kingpin of the genre, White Claw creator Anthony von Mandl, was too busy rolling around in dollar bills to register my grievances.
In a bid to be more eco, I tried a vodka made from CO2 emissions harvested from factories in Brooklyn, and a gin distilled from peas that regenerates the soil. I sampled whisky made from heritage grains discovered in 400-year-old thatch, and an eau-de-vie distilled from a single orchard containing 1,000 varieties of endangered apple.
As the clamour for more soft options grows, I went deeper into the world of the low and no. Ever-hopeful, I uncorked dozens of non-alcoholic ‘gins’ that taste like cheap cologne. I dropped high-strength juniper ‘essences’ into glasses of ice-cold tonic. I tasted some remarkably good zero-proof imitations of Campari and some really dire ersatz rum.
Perhaps the future isn’t fake booze, I thought at one point. Maybe it’s nootropics. So I double-dosed on CBD drinks, lay down on the sofa and waited for something to happen. ‘Do you notice any difference in my behaviour yet?’ I asked my husband impatiently, as he sipped his IPA.
Some of the most interesting things I’ve tasted over the past 12 months have been experiments in fermentation: kombuchas, kefirs, drinking vinegars and lagers that are brewed to be naturally low ABV. Some of them hum like a farmyard and have a tendency to explode. But the really good ones have a nuance – in texture, aroma and taste – that has the potential to be really exciting.
‘Why does she put herself through this?’ you may be wondering, ‘when she could spend her time tasting nice things like Champagnes, and Barolos, and single malts?’ Well, I taste a lot of those, too. But as I’ve come to realise over the past year, tasting, for me, isn’t just about hunting down the delicious. It’s also about exploring ideas. And sometimes drinks can be interesting, even if they don’t taste great.