Mud pits, peat bogs, volcanic rock-lined pits, and even gardens — there are myriad environments in which some of the world’s best-loved drinks are buried. From Mexico to Goa, distillers, brewers, and maestro mezcaleros are using the act of burial to process raw ingredients, ferment, or age their liquids in weird and wonderful ways.
It’s a phenomenon that reportedly dates back to the Iron Age; in 2016, archaeologist and anthropologist Bettina Arnold uncovered a cauldron that contained remnants of alcohol that had been brewed and buried in a German burial plot in 400-450 B.C.
Fast forward 2,500 years, and drink makers are still using the act of burying in numerous guises. In Goa, feni is usually made from cashew apples or palm wine. In the first instance, cashew apples are pressed for their juice in the summer months before going through fermentation in clay pots (keddem) buried underground and then distilled in pot stills.
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More commercially, Scotch whisky brand Ardbeg this year released Fon Fhòid, Islay’s first subterranean single malt. Meaning “under the turf” in Scottish Gaelic, the whisky (which was aged in second-fill bourbon casks) was buried in a peat bog for two years and 10 months before being unearthed.
Burying booze has often played a role in the creation of flavorful drinks. Whether it’s for aging, fermenting, or respecting traditions, makers around the world are digging underground (and elsewhere) as part of the story behind their liquids.
While tequila might be Mexico’s most recognized export, it is the smoky agave spirit mezcal that undergoes the burial process. All mezcals are made from the harvested core of the agave plant (there are over 20 agave species commonly used to make mezcal), also known as the piña. The leaves and roots of the whole agave are cut away using a machete, and the piña is left, weighing anything from 25 to 200 kilograms. This heart is where the sugars are concentrated and is vital to making the final mezcal.
It is a process that maestro mezcalero Don Fortino Ramos and his team at The Lost Explorer go through to produce its Espadin, Tobala, and Salmiana mezcals. “When the piña arrive at the palenque (distillery), they are weighed and individually chopped by axe into two or four, depending on their size, to ensure even cooking,” Ramos explains. “Dug in the ground, conical earthen ovens or pits — known as a horno — are lined with volcanic rocks, wood, soil, and river stones.”
The piñas are then placed in the horno, covered with tarp and soil, and cooked slowly for up to three days in order to caramelize the sugars and starches in the agave. The cover is then removed, and the roasted agave is left to rest and cool down for two to three days.
While the cooking and burying primarily serve to caramelize those sugars and starches, there is another pleasant outcome. “Cooking agave underground in this way releases the natural flavors of each agave species and adds to the level of smokiness that is a commonly associated characteristic of mezcal,” explains Ramos.
The skill and craft of the maestro mezcalero lies in ensuring that the level of smokiness is not overpowering and allows the real taste and flavor of the agave plant to shine through. “For example,” says Ramos, “Espadín agave has a natural green, herbaceous flavor profile which can sometimes get lost due to the over-smoking and -cooking of the agaves.” Adding layers of wet agave fibers on top of the hot stones is one way producers can avoid such mistakes.
Even the world’s most consumed spirit goes through a burying process. Distilled from fermented sorghum, baijiu most likely dates back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and today remains a huge part of China’s social and business scenes. One of the oldest baijiu brands is Fenjiu, made in the northern province of Shanxi. “Each distillery or each region’s baijiu production method is adapted from history and the locality will have had some impact on decisions about the burying process,” explains Qiqi Chen, managing director of Cheng International, which exports Fenjiu out of China.
It’s the fermentation stage of the process where burying comes into play. At Fenjiu, prepared grains and daqu (the starter) are mixed together and put into an earthenware cylinder whose opening is level with the ground. It is sealed with fresh grain or corn husk and left for at least 28 days to ferment. After this, the solid mass is removed and layered into the still for baijiu’s steaming and distillation process.
Burying the grains and daqu in these earthenware pots is key in the fermentation process in baijiu production. “Different soils or stones carry local minerals and microorganisms, which may lead to different styles of baijiu,” explains Chen. “It is not just the vessel material itself; it is the whole geographical environment that is affecting the fermentation process.” There are many styles of baijiu, but the four key styles are strong aroma, sauce aroma, light aroma, and rice aroma. Where these styles are made has an impact on their flavor — for example, most strong aroma baijius are made in Sichuan, where fruity esters are produced in the liquid. Meanwhile, in Guizhou, south of Sichuan, sauce aroma baijius offer umami flavors resembling soy sauce, roast meat, and mushroom.
Burying is a method that has been passed down through the generations, says Chen. “This is a unique process to Fenjiu, and it provides the optimal environment for the sorghum to react with the daqu. … This traditional process of burying for the fermentation period has always been recognized as the best way to produce Fenjiu baijiu.”
Cocktails aren’t exempt from the burying technique, either. Numerous experiments have been done by bartenders at home to change the flavor of their mixed drinks. In September 2021, Gin Mare partnered with Madrid bar Salmon Guru on Ultramare, a range of cocktails, including a Negroni, Gimlet, and Martini, sealed in amphorae and placed at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. The project was inspired by an article Salmon Guru founder Diego Cabrera read in National Geographic that told the story of a discovery of a 2,000-year-old shipwreck and, along with it, amphorae stills containing oil, wine, and garum (a fish sauce). Cabrera set about creating a cocktail using Gin Mare aged in amphorae placed in a tank of salt water. When the gin brand found out about it, it decided to collaborate, and Ultramare was born. The aim? To see how much salt penetrates into the cocktail over time while underwater.
Appleton Rum’s master blender, Joy Spence, also notes that it was traditional for elders of the Jamaican community to bury their rum punches for a few months in their gardens to marry before unearthing them in time for big events and parties.
In London, bartenders have gotten on the burying bandwagon, too. In the walls of the iconic Savoy Hotel lie shakers containing actual cocktails made by some of the legendary American Bar’s most prolific drink slingers. Perhaps the most famous belongs to Harry Craddock, author of “The Savoy Cocktail Book” and an iconic bartender operating in the 1920s and 30s. In 1927, he buried a shaker full of his most famous cocktail — the White Lady — in the walls of the hotel. More recent staff paid homage to his quirk with a cocktail on the Savoy Stories menu (aptly named The Missing Shaker). Anna Sebastian, who was a host at the hotel before departing and returning this year as a consultant, buried her Seal of Approval cocktail in a wall on the roof of the hotel — and many other staff members have since followed suit with their own mixed drinks. While one day these bartenders could unearth their burials, the fact remains that, to this day, Craddock’s shaker has never been found.
Whether it’s honoring old traditions, making new ones, or continuing age-old processes that have stood the test of time, it seems that the act of burying booze is here to stay. What remains unknown, though, is how future drinks categories and their creators will embrace the act — we’ll have to wait to unearth those stories.