Here at Drink Spirits we get a dizzying array of new products. Most of them fit neatly into fairly established spirit categories, but once in a while we get something that doesn’t really fit anywhere. This is the case with Solbeso, a new spirit that’s made from cacao fruit. Solbeso’s formal classification is “Cacao Spirit with natural flavor” (we imagine that the TTB had absolutely no idea what to do with this one).
It would be a complete misnomer to say that because Solbeso is made from cacao fruit that it’s a chocolate spirit. Solbeso isn’t actually made from the bean part of the cacao plant (which is used to make chocolate), but rather from the fruit that surrounds the bean in the cacao pod. The fruit in the cacao pod is extremely perishable and only has a shelf life of around 6-8 hours after a cacao pod is opened, so it’s not a product that is often seen outside the cacao harvesting regions.
Seeing the opportunity for a unique product, Solbeso works with cacao farmers in Ecuador and Peru to process this cacao fruit on site where it’s both juiced and set out in the sun to dry. Solbeso gets its name from this sun drying process, as it’s the fusion of the two Spanish words, “Sol” which means sun, and “Beso” which means kiss. Although it’s exposed to natural wild yeast during the drying process, Solbeso uses a Champagne yeast for the bulk of its fermentation. Solbeso is distilled locally near the South American cacao farms in specially designed hybrid column-style and cognac-style copper alembic stills. The raw cacao spirit is then shipped back to Bardstown, Kentucky where it’s blended, proofed, and bottled.
Solbeso Cacao Spirit (80 Proof / 40% ABV, $39.99) is crystal clear in color and bottled in a fairly stunning gold-kissed bottle. From the first nosing it’s clear that Solbeso has absolutely no chocolate aromas; instead, the nose is much closer to pisco, with a light, fruity (pineapple), and floral quality. There’s a little bit of funk and a steminess to the nose which has a slight edge to it, the way that some single distilled spirits do (although there’s no information on how many times this has been distilled). The entry for Solbeso is a lot lighter and less edgy than the nose would suggest. The initial flavors are light goji berry and roasted pineapple, with the light floral qualities from the nose and a subtle earthy tone. In the midpalate we get a lot more of the steminess that was an undercurrent in the nose. We also get a touch of pepper spice and a dash of heat. The finish is fairly long and is a nice combination of the light goji berry note, slight steminess, slight spice, and a bit of earthiness.
The mouthfeel of Solbeso is really pleasant, starting very soft and slightly lush, and then slowly drying out to the finish. It’s a solid linear progression. The quality in craftsmanship at work here is no surprise, since the process was overseen by legendary Master Distiller Dave Pickerell (who was the Master Distiller at Maker’s Mark, helped make Whistle Pig what it is today, and has played a key roll in Hillrock Estate Distilleries).
While Solbeso can be enjoyed neat or over ice, the main intent for Solbeso seems to be as a mixing spirit. When you add it to a sweet iced tea, it takes on a little bit of a chocolatey character, which is ironic because this spirit specifically doesn’t have the elements used made to chocolate. Iced tea also brings out Solbeso’s earthy quality, which holds it back from being as easy and affable as other things you can toss into your tea. It fairs better as a sour, but again the stem flavor shines through. The toughest thing about Solbeso is that, no matter how good or bad it is, it’s an absolute oddball of a spirit.
The mountain this spirit has to climb is insurmountable. There’s an expectation among consumers that cacao means chocolate, so the disconnect when folks get Solbeso home and realize that it doesn’t taste anything like chocolate is going to be pretty extreme. This puts Solbeso between a rock and a hard place – how the heck do you market a cacao spirit while making it clear that it’s not a chocolate spirit? Also, how do you get Western palates to accept an earthy, stemmy, and goji-like flavor palate? The answer unfortunately is, you don’t. The harsh reality is that major categories like Cachaca and Pisco barely move the needle in the US, even though they have a massive following in South America. Trying to add an oddball spirit to the mix that clashes with consumer’s expectations just won’t work, and even though it’s clear that the folks at Solbeso are well intentioned (working with a sustainable product and farmers), the road to hell is paved with good intentions.