For nearly 10 years, Nima Ansari has been the spirits buyer behind the veritable liquor library at New York City’s Astor Wines & Spirits. And in the last decade, as the cocktail renaissance has raged just outside the shop’s door, he’s seen spirits of all categories boom (gin, bourbon, Japanese whisky, amaro) and go bust (absinthe, pisco). He’s also encountered spirits that don’t fit neatly into a monolithic genre, the latest of which, Escubac, has for him defined the kind of adventurous ethos that it takes to grab his attention.
Escubac—whose name is the Frenchified term for usquebaugh, the Scottish Gaelic for “water of life”—is a spirit distilled with caraway, cardamom, cinnamon, citrus and nutmeg. Ironically, its defining feature is somehow what it is not: Sweetdram, the Scottish distillery that produces it, has dubbed its category-defying oddity “a juniper-free botanical spirit,” cheekily aimed at “modern drinkers suffering from gin fatigue.” Following distillation in a custom-made copper pot still, it’s infused with raisins and vanilla for rich viscosity and saffron for color. Packaged in a brown bottle and wrapped with a minimalist label of geometrical shapes that wouldn’t be out of place on a natural wine or new-wave olive oil, Sweetdram appeals with innuendo rather than statement.
“It takes real insight and vision to create products like [this], and a small leap of faith from people to not worry about the fact that it doesn’t fit into big, well-known categories so easily,” says Ansari. “Is it a liqueur? Is it a gin? Is it a base spirit? A modifier?” Ansari says it isn’t really any of those things individually, while being all of them at once. He recommends mixing it with tonic like you might in a G&T, or swapping it for gin in a Vesper or Martini. “Use it for some extra depth in a classic highball,” he says. “You’ll be surprised by how seamlessly it works.”
Sweetdram, which is based in Edinburgh and run by Daniel Fisher and Andrew MacLeod Smith, has ventured out further into hybrid territory with its smoked spiced rum (made with Caribbean rum, lapsang souchong, grains of paradise and smoked figs) and whisky amaro (single malt Scotch blended with honey and botanicals). The attraction for Ansari lies also in the company’s transparency and dedication to using only natural ingredients, an ethos that he finds indicative of industry’s direction at large. “Part of the promise of this new wave in the spirits world and the new generation of independent artisan creators is an opportunity for more transparency,” he says. “Stepping out of the old paradigm and into a new one seems as relevant today as it ever was.”
Made by: Sweetdram
Region: Edinburgh, Scotland
What it tastes like: “A healthy amount of citrus with a balanced counterpoint of spices, but it’s not a two-trick pony. The flavors are layered and the profile leans more savory than sweet,” says Ansari.
Why it matters: “The category of liqueurs contains so many subcategories that don’t fit as easily into more regulated categories like bourbon or gin,” says Ansari. “There is more opportunity for unbridled creativity here and the chance to really create something more original and exciting while still being accessible.”
Where to buy it: $34 at Astor Wines & Spirits