If you taste enough wines and spirits, you’ll eventually experience certain coveted flavors and aromas that, at first blush, would seem funky and undesirable.
Think about these wine descriptors: minerality, tobacco, barnyard, petrol. What exactly are we talking about when we use such terms? Why, a newbie might reasonably ask, would anyone even want those qualities in a glass of wine? And yet, connoisseurs seek out Rieslings redolent of gasoline, nebbiolos teeming with tar and Rhone reds that reek of the barn.
The spirits world has its own array of strangely prized flavors and aromas. Think of bitter Italian amari or herbal, vegetal liqueurs like Chartreuse. One of my favorite Old World descriptors is rancio, which crops up when people talk about fine brandy.
Rancio — yes, the word shares a root with “rancid” — is the term for a peculiar flavor that cognac and Armagnac and sometimes scotch takes on as they age. It is, of course, impossible to fully describe. Nutty? Mushroomy? Cheesy? Like soy sauce? Beyond flavor, rancio also connotes a certain feel or sensation in the mouth, the way old brandy often presents itself on the tongue and finishes with an almost walnutlike oiliness.
I was at an Armagnac tasting a few weeks ago at the Alliance Francaise in Washington and the question of rancio was raised. Daniel and Christine Cooney, of Heavenly Spirits importers, led us through a tasting of beautiful Armagnacs from Artez, Delord and Dartigalongue. When we got to the 25-year-old Delord, the word rancio popped up, followed immediately by several raised hands. Christine Cooney gingerly danced around with descriptors like mushroom and rancid butter, then settled on this: “Sometimes it tastes like a nut that’s a little off,” she said.
But rancio isn’t the only weird and desirable aroma in fine spirits. Lately, there has been a growing interest in rums that have a certain funky quality called hogo.
Hogo was used in the 18th- and 19th-century rum trade to describe the sulfurous odors that happen naturally when raw sugar cane juice is distilled. The term is Creole slang for the French term haut gout (“high taste”), which was specifically used to describe the, um, mature decay of wild game meat that had been hung to age. I chuckled to see haut gout defined on Wiktionary as a taste that “used to be desirable but is not generally desired anymore today.”
Perhaps not when it comes to game meat. But among spirits nerds, hogo has never been more desirable.
One reason hogo drifted out of popularity is because rum distillers worked hard in the 20th century to tame it. By the ’80s, Bacardi white rum may as well have been Puerto Rican vodka. And even as aged rums gained popularity, so many were over-oaked and tasted like molasses-coconut creme brulee.
Of course, contemporary drinkers are looking for a little more idiosyncrasy in their spirits — cane-based spirits included. The road to hogo began with the rise of rhum agricole and cachaca, when people began to experience the joys of pure sugar cane, including the complex vegetal-herbal qualities those two spirits brought to the party. Then the old-timey, hogo-ful batavia arrack, an Indonesian rumlike spirit made from sugar cane and red rice, became a fashionable ingredient at high-end cocktail spots.
The market is now full of funky rums, what cocktail historian Dave Wondrich calls “full-on pirate juice”: 114-proof Smith & Cross from Jamaica, demerara rums from Guyana such as El Dorado, white Rhum Barbancourt from Haiti, and Banks 5 Island, which includes a little batavia arrack in its blend.
Hogo is so of-the-moment that it’s the name of the latest high-profile barin the District. Tom Brown opened his new rum-tiki concept on Seventh Street NW, right next to the Passenger, which he co-owns with his brother Derek.
“Hogo is used to describe something that’s impossible to describe any other way,” Brown says. “These are tricky aromas, deceptive aromas, and they lead you to believe it’s going to taste like something different than it does.”
Two of Brown’s favorite hogo rums offered at his new bar are a Fijian bottling by Samaroli and a domestic rum by House Spirits in Portland, Ore.
The best way to tame hogo, in my opinion, is with lime and sugar or honey. Which is why the recipe accompanying this column is my twist on the Ti Punch, a Martinique classic. Ti Punch, like hogo, is Creole slang: In this case, for “petit punch.”
Beware: Just like hogo, it packs more than a little punch.