The Headless Distiller falls in love with a ‘paleo’ Thameside mezcal

HI! Barney Bayless here!

Let me tell you about this AMAZING guy who sums up everything that’s great about the return of nature to our bottles.

I first came across Homer when I was on a psycho-geographic exploration of the Thames estuary, observing how the tower blocks follow the ancient ley lines, reading the runes of graffiti, making offerings to the gods of this magical place.

Mud-flat majesty

When I was close to the mud flats (I cannot be more precise for reasons we will get to) my dowsing rod seemed to be malfunctioning. It was then that I saw a man by an old lean-to on the side of where that chartered river doth flow.

He was hunched over an odd-looking pot, smoke rising from a small fire made from old pallets. A mudlark, a beachcomber, a dust pile scourer…

A sign above the entrance to the hovel said ‘Edgeland Spirits’.

I sat on the mud and we chatted.

I discovered that Homer had started working here six months ago after quitting his job in a creative agency.

‘Why here??!’ I asked eagerly, looking around at the polluted, bleak, post-industrial environs.

Foraging wars refugee

His tale was a sad one, but one which is all too common these days. He had first walked ‘in the footsteps of John Clare’ to Epping Forest, built himself a treehouse and begun to forage.

Almost inevitably, though, he found himself caught up in the Foraging Wars which are still raging across the capital’s greener spaces  – something I’ve written about extensively on the blog.

After straying onto another’s plot and being subjected to a vicious nettle whipping, he headed back to the river. He kept his head down and stayed quiet.

‘I reasoned that if I was to make spirits which are on the edge of what is believed to be possible, then I should physically be on the edge as well,’ he said. ‘So here I am.’

He rummaged around in the back and pulled out some dirty bottles, all different shapes and sizes. He must have seen that I was intrigued.

‘I find them in the mud,’ he told me. ‘Why clean them? This is what they are. You can feel and smell their provenance.’

Death to hygienazis

He’s right! I suddenly realised. How wrong it was to have an authentic foraged spirit and then destroy all that hard work by putting it in a clean bottle! I curse those hygienazis.

‘What are you using?’ I ask enthusiastically.

‘Anything I can find, man,’ he says. ‘Weeds, Russian thistle, buddleia. There’s a lovely stand of hemlock down there, some monkshood… It’s all valid. It’s true foraging.’

The first glass is occluded with brown clouds, silt settling on the bottom of the glass. I take a sip. There’s a mirey stench, samphire covered by estuarine ooze, rotting reeds, then a fecund sense of decay.

The palate is claggy yet dusty. A film of oil forms on my tongue and refuses to leave.

‘It’s amazing!’ I blurt,  ‘… just fucking paleo.’

He pours me another. This has bite, heat. It’s like drinking sodium, backed up with a profound fecal earthiness.

‘Glad you got that on the finish,’ he says. ‘I’ve used rat droppings here. They’ve got an amazing flavour when you dry them.’

I look more closely at his still. It’s dull, crudely shaped, as if it has just risen from the ooze.

It looks like… it can’t be!

He grins at my expression. ‘I crafted that from Thames mud,’ he says.

‘Like mezcal?!!?’

I’m now so excited.

‘Sure. If you like. Yeah. Thameside mezcal. See that fried chicken shop you passed back in the housing estate? I grab the old boxes and hang any leftovers in the still. It’s super spicy.’

Homer hands me a glass. He’s right. That sense of rot and stale chilli is so distinctive I almost gag in excitement.

‘There’s a real sense of place in all of these,’ I tell him. ‘Who’s your agent?’

‘I’ve got a meeting with Distilling Adventures next week.’ He eyes me carefully. ‘They’re super keen.’

It’s a deal

I can’t possibly run the risk of such authentic gems being touted around by anyone else but me and immediately offer him the first place in my company Liminal Liquors’ cabinet of curiosities.

I know that this will sell. Bars like Cistern, that shrine to all that’s natural, will take at least two bottles a year. 

It’s a perfect fit.

There’s no need for a contract. We just spit and shake hands. Authentic.

As I head off into the marshes, my vision slightly blurred, palate still coated with the pervasive film of his spirits, I’m almost nauseous with joy.

And I’m in no doubt that this is the future.

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