Spirits

The Arrival of Tomato-based Spirits

European distillers are betting on Americans’ fondness for the nightshade with a new crop of liquors

Photo courtesy of Black Tomato Spirits.

The idea for Moletto Tomato Gin came to cofounder Mauro Stival when he was eating pizza, of course. “At first he said, ‘Mozzarella!’” says Lisa Laird Dunn, the vice president of Laird & Company, which imports the gin to the United States. Stival’s family, co-owners in Moletto, vetoed the idea of a cheese-based spirit. “Then he said, ‘Tomato!’”

As of 2018, U.S. consumers will have at least three tomato-based distillates from which to choose. On the one hand, the tomato seems like an unlikely raw material for making liquor. Yet it’s technically a fruit with naturally occurring sugar that can be distilled—a concept anyone who’s sunk their teeth into a ripe, peak-summer tomato can appreciate.

To be honest, the spirits business is late to the game, since craft brewers have been fermenting tomato beers for some time; tomato sake and tomato shochu are also available if you know where to look. While tomato-infused spirits abound—Crop Harvest Earth Organic Tomato Vodka, Belvedere Bloody Mary Vodka, and a sun-dried-tomato-infused liqueur, debuted in June 2018 by France’s Distillerie G.E. Massenez—traditionally, very few bartenders or consumers have been pouring tomato-based distillates. But that’s changing.

Newcomer Black Tomato Spirit is about to hit the U.S. drinks scene. The product is made in Holland with Sicily’s salty-sweet black tomato, juniper, piment (similar to black pepper), and two other botanicals. A premixed, ready-to-drink Black Tomato and tonic will also be available.

Black Tomato was originally categorized as a gin, and it’s still labeled as such in many of the 39 markets where it’s already sold (its current biggest markets include the U.K., Italy, Singapore, and the Scandinavian countries). But it’s going to be relabeled Tomato Spirit, in reaction to the “overcrowded” gin category, says Léon Meijers, the founder of Dutch VOC Spirits, which produces Black Tomato, as well as a nonalcoholic distillate called Fluère made from juniper, lavender, and coriander, and a line of cannabis spirits. Imported to the U.S. by F.X. Magner Selections, the tomato spirit will debut at Tales of the Cocktail 2018; in August it will be rolled out in six core states (Louisiana, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Colorado, and Florida) at a suggested retail price of $39.99 for a 750-milliliter bottle.

“I think the U.S. is ready for it,” Meijers says. “There’s a lot going on with the Bloody Mary at the moment. I think Americans are also ready and open-minded about trying new spirits, other than a traditional London Dry gin, which over-floods the market in crazy volumes, with crazy prices.”

Photo courtesy of Moletto Tomato Gin.

Unlike Dutch VOC and its Black Tomato Spirit, Moletto embraces its tomato-based product’s status as a gin, though Laird Dunn also notes that the category is nearing saturation. “There have been so many varieties of gins being introduced—it’s such a growing category,” she says. This is particularly true in Europe, a trend she noticed at Imbibe Live, a trade show held in London earlier this month. But Laird Dunn is convinced that Moletto’s tomato base will help it stand apart. “To bring in a gin just to bring in a gin,” she concedes, “wouldn’t be successful.”

The Moletto product is currently sold in several European markets, including Italy, Spain, and a handful of Scandinavian countries. It debuted in the U.S. about a year ago and is currently available in 20 U.S. markets. It retails for $39.99, and Laird Dunn confirms that Moletto has already sold 2,000 cases this year.

Meanwhile, a third tomato spirit quietly pioneered the space in the U.S. several years ago: The artisanal French distiller Laurent Cazottes makes a delicious tomato brandy, which PM Spirits imports in small quantities. Called 72 Tomatoes, it’s indeed made with 72 varieties of tomato, which are dried, then steeped in a grape eau-de-vie for a year; separately, the solids are pressed into pomace and distilled into a marc; the marc is then added back to the liqueur. The end result is an incredibly fragrant, complex “liqueur de tomate” that suggests the sweet savoriness of roasted tomato. At New York City’s Sushi Nakazawa, the elixir is paired with sea urchin, and Death & Co. has a bottle on its spirits list.

Are American palates ready to embrace tomato-based spirits? For a country so enamored with pizza, maybe this will become the ultimate food and spirits pairing.

Kara Newman reviews spirits for Wine Enthusiast magazine and is the author of Cocktails for a CrowdShake. Stir. Sip.and Nightcap (Chronicle Books).

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