The liquor industry is flush with chocolate-flavored liqueurs, 'wines' (shudder), and cloying choco-cocktail recipes. They all seem to end up tasting dubious at best, so when we first heard about Solbeso—a new spirit from South America made from cacao—we were pretty skeptical.
Yet as it turns out, Solbeso doesn't have much to do with chocolate at all. Chocolate is made from tiny beans nestled inside cacao pods, whereas Solbeso is distilled from the juicy, pulpy fruit surrounding said beans. When this fruit is transformed into liquor, it yields a softly sweet and citrusy-tasting clear spirit—a bit like tequila, a bit like pisco, a bit like rum—with thick floral flavors laced with nutty undertones. A totally new category of liquor that actually adds something interesting to the conversation instead of re-hashing tired concepts? Consider us on board.
Making the Cacao Fruit Spirit
Developing the formula and processes for an unprecedented liquor category comes with more than its fair share of challenges, which is why it took almost four years for owner Thomas Higbee to guide the product from idea to bottle.
Higbee says that inspiration originally sparked during a visit to Northern Peru when he discovered cacao farmers throwing away pods full of what appeared to be perfectly viable fruit after extracting the beans needed for chocolate production. Curious about the reasons for the waste, he sampled one of the leftovers, and was surprised to discover the raw flesh tasted quite appealing. "It's this luscious, lovely fruit, like a creamy lemon, lime, orange sorbet with cream, he says. "It's delicious."
After doing some preliminary research, Higbee discovered that one of the main reasons why the cacao fruit is discarded: it is highly vulnerable to oxidation. Like avocados, the fruit will begin to perish shortly after it is exposed to air, so distillation facilities must be within arm's reach. Determined to succeed but without easy access to Peru's pisco factories (most of which reside about 20 hours south near Lima, he says), Higbee rigged a mobile distillery and built others directly on site where the cacao is harvested.
"For some families, they've been throwing out this fruit for seven generations, and now we're taking it off their hands instead," he says. "It's giving these people more money for the same amount of work. It's cool for these small family farms."
Solbeso uses a few intensely flavored, aromatic varieties of cacao (there are upwards of 12 different varieties grown across South America, Higbee says), sourced from Peru, Ecuador, and the Dominican Republic. Higbee says they use an assembly of varieties because the difference in flavor between each one is similar to that between wine grapes. Each type adds something slightly different to the final flavor.
Once the pods are opened, the fruit is laid out on open-air beds, where a Champagne yeast and local yeast blend are introduced to aid in fermentation. Each batch is distilled on site in its respective country, and then shipped to the United States for blending and bottling.
Blending is an important part of the process because each single variety batch will taste slightly different, thanks to varying climate, soil, and season. "Blending gives you complexity and consistency," Higbee says.
How It Tastes
Bottled at 80 proof, Solbeso is unlike any other spirit on the market, although some loose comparisons can be made. "I often tell people, it's like if rum and tequila had a baby," Higbee says. When telling people about Solbeso, he starts by reiterating that the final spirit has little resemblance to the dark, bitter chocolate one might expect, but rather tastes light and clean with elements of the fresh creamy fruit: a little floral orange blossom, a bright splash of lemon.
The aroma bursts with an intriguing combination of green apple skin and wet grass. Lemon is prominent in the flavor, rounded out with hints of silky honeysuckle and rose, wisps of herbs like thyme and rosemary, and subtle undertones of toffee and roasted pecans. It's complex, balanced, and surprisingly soft with just the slightest burn from the alcohol on the finish. I can definitely see comparing it to aromatic Italia pisco, herbal tequila, and warmly sweet rum, but Solbeso strays from the straightforward framework of all three to settle neatly in its own category.
How to Drink It
Given its lemony, herbal character, Solbeso is delicious in Margarita form: mix two ounces of the spirit with one ounce fresh lime juice and three-quarters of an ounce of simple syrup for a drink that's got the same refreshing perk as the classic cocktail, but with a darker sweetness and deeper complexity.
Higbee recommends trying Solbeso paired with lemon juice in a Latin riff on the classic Bee's Knees cocktail, which is satisfying as well, but I found the Solbeso's bold spirit to dwindle a bit in the face of the rich honey. Instead, try it in the refreshing New York Sour, with Solbeso in the place of rye. The red wine floating on the top of the drink brings an added a deeper berry-forward complexity to the drink while also drying out the sweetness from the spirit and accompanying sugar.
Mostly, though, I've enjoyed drinking it chilled or on the rocks with a simple lemon twist.
I love Solbeso's unique and unapologetic personality, and can't help but get excited thinking about the potential for the category going forward. With so many different types of cacao fruit available for production, will single variety versions be developed? What would it taste like when aged in barrels? Could the category grow to be as wild and diverse as pisco or mezcal?
Only time will tell, but if this represents the beginning of a future for cacao spirits, I'm excited to see—and taste—what happens next. In the meantime, I'm looking forward to discovering what kinds of cocktails will be developed when Solbeso lands in the hands of bartenders in the months to come.