Far down in the South Atlantic, midway between continents lies the tiny volcanic island of Saint Helena. Largely unknown to most people, this British colony’s major claim to fame was as the site of Napoleon’s exile in 1815. In the world of spirits though, it’s known as the home of the Tungi distillery, makers of one of the rarest and most unique spirits anywhere in the world. Distilled from the fruit of the locally grown prickly pear cactus, Tungi (pronounced toon-jee) is a clear, unaged, full strength spirit with a very distinctive flavor.
Historically, prickly pears (also referred to as tungis) were first distilled by colonists trading in East Africa, and their so-called “bush brandy” was a natural fit when it migrated to the British shipping stopover of Saint Helena around 1880. The ‘Saints’ have been distilling tungis in their backyards ever since, much in the same manner that moonshine is made, though Tungi didn’t go into commercial production until 2006, when Donny Stevens and Paul Hickling bought a small commercial still and installed it in the basement of Donny’s Bar in Jamestown. They’re currently producing a line of 3 spirits (an aged rum and a coffee liqueur as well as their flagship brand) which are only available on Saint Helena and its surrounding islands, as well as high-end shops in the UK such as Harrod’s and Selfridge’s.
The Chop was lucky enough to have a chance to sample some of this interesting spirit during our recent trip to Ascension, and initially found it very disagreeable. Not at all similar to a pear-infused vodka or a pear liqueur, Tungi is surprisingly bitter and medicinal tasting at first blush. Presenting an odd mixture of pine bark, licorice root, sour fruits and dried apricots, it can be something of an acquired taste. It does, however, boast the the very crisp and refreshing finish of a super-premium vodka, lending a clue that no matter what the taste, the quality here is unassailable. It is this finish on the palate that will convince you to try a second shot, and ultimately, to come to appreciate the flavor.
The locals on Ascension are given to taking it straight, and served chilled, it’s as fine an apéritif as any bitter liquor your grandpa may have tucked away in his cabinet. It also makes an outstanding Tom Collins, which is the perfect choice for bowling skittles or grilling a fresh-caught tuna in the island’s tropical climate. It makes a damned agreeable dry martini, and interestingly enough, it’s the first liquor we’ve ever found that made us want to add grenadine to a cocktail, which worked really well in drinks made with the bottles we smuggled home past US customs at the end of the trip. Because after all, isn’t bootlegged booze always the best booze?
Two Boats Cocktail
3 parts Tungi
2 parts simple syrup
juice of 1/4 lemon
dash of grenadine
Combine the Tungi, syrup, and lemon juice in an iced shaker, shake and strain into a cocktail glass. Sink the grenadine to the bottom and garnish with a wedge of lime.
(Tungi retails at 19.99 Saint Helena pounds for 700 ml. (About $36.) 43.6% abv.)