Lynam Up: herbal spirit Cocalero puts a fresh spin on coca without the kick

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 February, 2014, 9:36am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 February, 2014, 5:08pm

"I get no kick from cocaine," claimed Cole Porter in I Get a Kick Out Of You, back in 1934. In the same song he professed to "get no kick from champagne" either. So we can safely assume that he would have got "no kick" from Cocalero, too.

Like champagne, this new South American "herbal spirit" does contain alcohol, but a significant part of its flavour is awarded by the coca plant from which cocaine is made.

Don't get too excited - it has about as much narcotic effect as Coca-Cola.

Exactly as much in fact.

"There is only one [internationally legal] source in the world for the coca leaf flavour," says John Ralph, founder and chief executive of the CL Trading Company, which makes the drink. "It's a company in New Jersey which produces it for a very well-known soft drinks brand. They agreed to supply us, so we've taken that base flavour and married it with 16 other botanicals."

Ralph came to Cocalero by a circuitous route. He grew up in Ireland and, aged 16, set up a company in Dublin operating rickshaws, which did a lively trade in helping nightclub patrons get safely around town.

Getting to know the nightclub operators, he says, gave him connections in the booze business, and he decided to set up an importing company.

"We had Campari, Aperol and really premium brands, " he says, but when Ireland's economic bubble burst, Dublin's drinkers traded down.

"People stopped buying bottles of spirits for 65 euros (HK$681) and moved towards buying pints of beer for four euros," he says.

It was time to try pastures new. In 2008, he moved to Shanghai, working as managing director for Babco Asia, which sells alcoholic drinks flavoured with coca. Ralph became fascinated by the coca plant and its role in South American lifestyles. In Peru and Bolivia the leaves are chewed and made into teas. Coca, in these countries, is believed to have health giving properties.

Ralph saw potential for another coca-based drink, but decided the ingredient was "more suited to the complex world of mixology". Having secured a supply of legally-processed coca, he enlisted a "flavour technologist" to develop a new formula.

"The two of us worked on just tasting, tasting, tasting until we got it right. We worked on about 200 different samples," he says. "I'd never got into production before and it was a fairly steep learning curve."

The twin inspirations for what he and the consultant came up with were coca and gin.

Ralph had paid attention to the gin revival, and although Cocalero, at only 29 per cent alcohol by volume, packs less of a punch, it shares some of gin's botanical characteristics.

The coca leaf flavouring is blended with 16 others, including Amazonian guarana, ginseng, ginger and green tea.

The last two were perhaps chosen with an eye on the Asian market, which is where Cocalero is being launched.

"Asia's the test market," Ralph says. "We've kicked off in Hong Kong and we're going into South Korea, Taiwan and China. Australia and New Zealand will be the next wave. I picked Asia because I'm living in Shanghai, I've got local knowledge, and this is the most dynamic market right now."

It is no coincidence that the drink is being launched in the year that Brazil hosts the football World Cup, focusing the world's attention on Latin America.

"What's the first thing you think of when you think of South America? It's partying. It's a fun place, it's relaxed, it's chilled. It's not hustle and bustle. It's a party at night, and we've tried to capture that in the spirit of the brand," Ralph says.

The spirit is intended to be served ice cold, either neat with a wedge of fresh lime or in cocktails. It can substitute in classic cocktail recipes for gin, vodka, tequila and white rum.

So what does it taste like? Citrus notes are fairly prominent. I suppose somebody who likes Coca-Cola might be able to recognise the coca. Personally, I didn't much care for it as a child and haven't touched the stuff since, so I'm unable to judge.

With just the lime it is a refreshing and less potent alternative to a tequila shot, although Ralph says he hopes people won't be throwing Cocalero down in one too often. He is encouraging mixologists to develop cocktails in which Cocalero is highlighted.

"We feel we've got a formula that works. The flavour profile adjusts as you go through the drink. The nose is different to the first flavour, which is different to the flavour at the back of your palate.

"It's a sensory experience. It has a bit more depth than your typical herbal liqueur," he says.

Coincidentally, Cole Porter was born in Peru. Peru, Indiana, admittedly, but perhaps he would have got a kick from Cocalero, after all.