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Something new on the top shelf: Acai
By Josh L. Dickey | Associated Press

Rainforest on the Rocks contains Veev, acai-infused liquor, and juice from a yellow watermelon variety to produce a sunny cocktail. Any color melon will work.

 

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Published: 10/1/2008 12:07 AM

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When a mysterious biblical philosopher wrote what would become Ecclesiastes 1:9, he may as well have been staring into the liquor cabinet: "What has been done will be done again," his thoughts roughly went. "There is nothing new under the sun."

Vodkas are flavored, tequilas super-aged, wines "made" by sports stars and celebrities - but it's still just vodka, tequila and wine after all.

So it was easy to get worked up about the prospects of Veev, the self-styled first and only distilled spirit made with an exotic berry from the Amazon, complete with hyperbolic claims of environmental friendliness and antioxidant benefits.

It comes in a handsome, frosted bottle. The folks who make it offer a handful of intriguing cocktail recipes. And by golly, it tastes like nothing else.

Veev, supposedly made from the purple berry of the acai palm tree, has the clean mouthfeel of vodka, the slight citrus tang of fine tequila and a blueberryish overtone all its own that raises the question: "What kind of killer, last-gasp-of warm weather cocktail can I make with this stuff?"

To answer that, we go back to the source, deep in the Brazilian rain forest.

Acai juice, which used to be nothing more than a goopy staple of Amazon cuisine we'd never heard of, went from total obscurity to global superfood in little over a decade. You can't swing a smoothie menu these days without waving its claims of antioxidant potency, cholesterol fighting abilities and sexual, er, enhancements.

Enter Courtney Reum, a young and palpably ambitious Goldman Sachs investment banker who, sick of the vodka-Red Bulls that were fueling his nights out in New York City, recognized acai's fermentation potential while on a surfing trip in Brazil with his brother.

"My brother and I were surfing in Rio, and had an acai smoothie on the beach almost every day for a week," he said, "and didn't think much of it."

He thought more of it pretty quickly. In the throes of a brief career working inhumane hours on major corporate mergers and consumer products - including during explosion of Vitamin Water - Reum, already in search of an entrepreneurial opportunity, began to wonder how to turn the local slurry of dark berries into a health-conscious clubber's drink of choice.

"I was struck by lack of innovation in the alcohol space," he said, "and even had a couple of CEOs tell me they've never really tried to innovate. I was really taken by the fact that these bigger guys I was working with weren't going to introduce something new."

Taking cues from the biggest trends in food - an endless parade of fresh, organic, and traceably sourced ingredients - Reum and his brother turned their Wall Street haul into the launch of Veev a little over a year ago.

"My brother and I felt like, 'Why don't we get out in front of it?'" Reum said.

For now, the brothers are taking a low-key approach to marketing their new drink, sticking to hotspots around New York and Los Angeles.

"I'm not trying to be Dark Knight at the box office," Reum says. "More like trying to have the highest per-screen average."

Because it's a privately held company, sales figures weren't available - but Reum says his is the best-selling independent brand in Southern California, "and we're doing in the thousands of cases a year."

Getting there wouldn't be so easy. Acai (pronounced ah-sah-YEE') is finicky stuff, prone to spoiling after its thin layer of juice and pulp is removed from the berry's hard center. Already in high demand in Belem (once the place where its juice was more popular than any other beverage) acai quickly became coveted the world over when producers figured out how to freeze the pulp. Soon it wound up in juices, energy drinks and beauty products in the U.S.

But Reum says acai is renewable in that it grows like a weed, and his company has taken pains to be an impeccably responsible exporter, including a $1 donation per bottle sold to rain forest preservation.

The 80-proof liquor defies categorization. A clear elixir, it smells a little like very ripe grapefruit, is smoother than most tequilas and mixes beautifully with anything rum does, from odd fresh fruit juices - including watermelon, mango and pomegranate, or any combination thereof - to guarana soda, a favorite in Brazil.

But it also dances deftly on the rocks with a squeeze of lemon, something that can't be said for some of the best white spirits that have been on the market for generations.

If there's a catch - and there has to be a catch, right? - it's that Veev is not actually distilled from the berries it puts forth as its calling card. Instead, the frozen pulp is shipped to a distillery in eastern Idaho, where it's infused into a neutral, winter-wheat based grain alcohol.

And there's a reason for that.

"When you harvest them in the rain forest, within 24 hours you have to do something with it, or it starts to go bad," Reum said.

Unfortunately for those of us who don't take regular surfing trips to Rio, "you will never see an acai berry at the market."

Nor, after thousands of years of trial-and-error fermentation and subsequent market research, will you probably ever see any truly new liquor under the sun.

• Sip columnist Josh L. Dickey can be e-mailed at jdickey@ap.org.

Rainforest on the Rocks

Ice cubes

2 ounces Veev liqueur

1½ ounces watermelon juice (see note)

4 sprigs fresh mint

Club soda

Fill a tall glass with ice cubes.

In a cocktail shaker, combine the liqueur, watermelon juice and mint. Shake, then strain into the glass. Top the glass with club soda. If desired, garnish the glass with additional mint sprigs.

Serves one.

Cook's note: To make watermelon juice, puree about 1 cup of cut watermelon in a blender, then pour the puree through a mesh strainer. Use the back of a spoon to press the pulp to extract all the juice.

www.veevlife.com