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Long Read: Moonshine and fruit wine – a postcard from post-Covid Latvia

Published:  03 September, 2020

Pernod Ricard, Mentzendorff and Lucky Saint alum Hugh Jones upped sticks recently and headed to Baltic capital Riga where he found an emerging drinks industry with parallels to the UK's own. 

With travel restrictions easing in the UK, Latvia may not be a go-to destination for Brits. But with the second lowest Covid infection rate after the Vatican, the relaxed vibe is a welcome relief from the anxiety of London. Walking around the city, there are very few facemasks in sight – a relief after wearing ours for 7 hours all the way from our London flat to Riga airport.

Riga’s old town used to buzz with crowds and the nightlife centred around this area. Now, thanks to reduced tourism, bars there are facing an uncertain period. It’s not all bad news though, with local neighbourhood joints busier than ever and live music popping up in all the open spaces. Distancing is encouraged but in the many outdoor drinking areas, generally ignored.

I wasn’t expecting much from the drinks scene beyond beer and balzams (an intensely bitter herbal liqueur). Thankfully, the future of libations from Latvia is exciting, adopting an artisanal approach and blending the best elements of their past with the finest flavours that can be foraged in their forests. Cranberries, rowanberries, sea buckthorn, mushrooms, and horseradish are just a few of the native ingredients that Krišjānis Putniņš is adding to his Kandža (moonshine to you and me) at Akmeņlauzis. Despite the image ‘moonshine’ conjures, it’s taken very seriously here, with their original barley moonshine winning an IWSC silver in 2017.

Akmeņlauzis also have seasonal offerings, currently using a raspberry liqueur base, with wormwood and other herbs sourced from the countryside lending vermouth-esque aromatics. Great with tonic, as the base for a sour, or an alternative to either vermouth or Chambord in cocktails.

While grapes are grown in Latvia (Sabile wine hill used to hold the world record for most northerly vineyard in the world), they don’t produce great wine. However, there are some very good fruit wines being produced. Abavas are leading the pack here with their rhubarb sparkling (RRP €13). Its crisp rhubarb punch is elegant and refreshing, with a long finish. It’s food friendly (try it with pork belly) and worth noting that this was in a signature cocktail at The Artesian last year (mixed with Gentian infused vodka). Craft cider producer Mūrbūdu have a rival rhubarb fizz, with a higher fruit content and richer palate that is excellent but produced in very small quantities.

It’s interesting to note that the British isles are blessed with a similar array of wild ingredients and embracing them in much the same way. Sea Buckthorn is a key ingredient used by Leeds’ Bax Botanics in one of their alcohol-free spirits, and Cornwall’s Colwith Farm Distillery produce a limited edition sea buckthorn-infused vodka. Perhaps we’ll continue to be inspired by nature on our doorstep, just as they are in Latvia to create innovative, artisanal drinks with a real sense of place.