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Earthly Delights

A creative distiller gets his hands dirty

Author Trevor Baker


Tony Conigliaro says that when wine lovers drink his new cocktail, Terroir, there are elements they’ll recognize. The mouthfeel, for example, is much like the sensation you get while drinking wine from clay-grown vines. The thing is, the cocktail doesn’t have any wine in it. It’s Conigliaro’s attempt to capture the elusive concept of terroir, the influence of the land in which vines grow, by literally distilling the earth. To do this, he starts with a box full of dirt: clay, flintstone and moss.

“We dry the clay out, make a powder from it and distill it with vodka. It’s the terroir of wine, without the wine,” he says.

Conigliaro, owner of the famed north London establishment known as The Bar with No Name, is leading a generation of cocktail makers who believe that they can distill almost anything, from dirt to marmalade to a memory. Fellow Londoner Tristan Stephenson, of The Whistling Shop, for example, makes his Black Cats Martini by cold-distilling cream and gin at ultra-low pressure to produce cream flavor without curdling the ingredients. Meanwhile, another of Conigliaro’s cocktails, the Woodland Martini, is an attempt to distill the experience of a walk he once took near Portland, Ore.

“It started out quite light, with the sun coming through the leaves, and then, the farther into the woods we got, the darker it got. So we created flavors around maple, birch, sequoia and oak. Rather than using vermouth, we used sherry as a bridge between gin and those woody flavors,” he says. “For us, these drinks are like stories.”

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