Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Escubac: A Collaborative Liqueur of Britain & France, With Roots In Ireland

"Their wine, like the Irish Usquebaugh, drunk immoderately, accelerates death."
--Sir J. Herbert's Travels

Liqueurs, also sometimes known as cordials, are worthy of more attention, especially considering how craft distillers are creating some fascinating new products, though they might be based on historical drinks. In short, a Liqueur is a sweetened grain alcohol and I've recently become intrigued by a new liqueur, Escubac ($21.99/375ml or $36.99/750ml), which I found at Astor Wine & Spirits.

Escubac was created by Sweetdram, a company located in Great Britain that was founded by Daniel Fisher, a former senior vice president at Astor Wines and Spirits, and Andrew Macleod Smith, an engineer and distiller. Having met at the University of Edinburgh, they seemed to be of one mind, with the objective of creating some new, interesting spirits and liqueurs. At their East London workshop, they create new products, a process which commonly takes 12-18 months to complete.

While perusing some old distilling manuals, they stumbled upon Usquebaugh, which they state was a yellow British cordial that originated in the 1700s and later became popular in France, where it became known as Escubac. This recipe intrigued them but instead of using it as is, they decided to use it as a framework and create their own unique version. They also eventually decided they wanted to collaborate on the project and chose to work with the famed Combier Distillery, located in the town of Saumur in the Loire Valley of France.

The Escubac is made from a base of neutral sugar beet alcohol and then they macerate 14 botanicals, including caraway, bitter orange, cloves, nutmeg, licorice, green anise, cinnamon, coriander, cardamom, lemon peel, and more, for about 72 hours. This is then sent to the Combier Distillery for distillation, and the liqueur is finally infused with saffron and sweetened with raisins, vanilla, and sugar. It almost sounds like a sweeter version of gin, but without the juniper.

However, before getting into my thoughts on its taste, let's return to the history of Usquebaugh for a bit. The term itself actually seems to originate with the Irish, and roughly translates as the "water of life," commonly being considered another term for whiskey. However, there are historical sources that indicate the earliest versions of Irish usquebaugh were flavored with various botanicals, meaning that the true ancestry of Escubac extends back to Ireland and not Britain.

For example, in The Art of Distillation by John French (1651), there is a recipe for Irish "Usque-bath," which is made with ingredients including raisins, pitted dates, cinnamon, nutmeg, and licorice root. All but the pitted dates are also ingredients on Escubac. The cookery book The Queen's Closet Opened (1655) also had a recipe for Irish "Usquebath," and its ingredients included raisins, pitted dates, dried figs, aniseed, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, musk, ambergris, and licorice root. Again, many of those ingredients are also in Escubac.

In the next century, The Country Housewife and Lady's Director In the Management of a House, and the Delights and Profits of a Farm by John Bradley (1736) there is a recipe for "Irish usquebaugh" which includes saffron, as well as ingredients like raisins, figs, licorice root, aniseed, fennel seed, coriander, and musk. This may be the first known documented mention of saffron added to this drink.

In British & Foreign Spirits: Their History, Manufacture, Properties, Etc. by Charles Tovey (1864), it states that "Irish Usquebaugh" is "... defined by Johnson to be a compound spirit, being drawn on aromatics;.." It was customary to infuse the base whiskey with various "savory or pungent" ingredients. In addition, "In all the recipes for making Irish Usquebaugh, saffron is a prominent ingredient." This indicates that saffron, which can make a drink yellow, was an integral part of Irish usquebaugh.

The first known documented French version is provided in L'Agronome, Dictionnaire Portatif Du Cultivateur (1764), which has a listing for Escubac, a liqueur, noting its base is saffron, brandy and sugar. The recipe also calls for bergamot, Portuguese oranges, vanilla, mace, cloves, angelica seed, coriander, and more. So, it appears that the concept of Irish usquebaugh was transported to France where they altered the name to Escubac.

Later, in La Nouvelle Maison Rustique, Ou Economie Rurale, Pratique Et Générale De Tous Les Biens De Campagne By Louis Liger & Jean François Bastien (1804), there are two references to Escubac, one for Irish Escubac (obviously paying homage to the roots of this liqueur) and the other for Escubac (Ratafia d’) also known as Escubac of England. The term "Ratifia" refers to a "cordial or liqueur flavored with certain fruit and their kernels." The Irish Escubac is made with brandy, saffron, coriander, green anise, and angelica root. The English Escubac is made with saffron, coriander, anise, cinnamon, vanilla, apricot kernels, sugar angel, sweet almonds, lemon zest, London honey water, and double orange water. Thus, it seems likely that Usquebaugh originated in Ireland and then traveled to Britain and France.

Back to the Escubac liqueur. The Sweet Dram website states their Escubac is a "juniper-free botanical spirit" and, like gin, mixes well with tonic. It can also be used in a variety of other cocktails, from Martinis to Margaritas, replacing almost any white liquor. I initially tasted it on its own, and was pleased with its complex and intriguing melange of flavors. There was some sweetness up front but it wasn't cloying or overly sweet, and it was complemented with a mix of citrus and herbal notes, with intriguing spice notes and a touch of bitterness. In some respects, it reminded me of an excellent Vermouth. I also mixed it with some club soda and lemon and it made for a satisfying and refreshing cocktail.

Escubac is a versatile liqueur and I'm going to enjoy experimenting with it in a variety of cocktails this holiday season. It has its own unique blend of botanicals, though the drink itself will bring to mind thoughts of Vermouth or Gin. If you're seeking a new gift idea, then consider picking up a bottle of Escubac. Or if you just want to serve some different cocktails for your holiday part, pick up a bottle.

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