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On The Rocks: Putting Spanish Liqueurs Back On The Map

On The Rocks: Putting Spanish Liqueurs Back On The Map

Nika Shevela
Maria de la Peña | Photo Credit: On the Rocks

Vimbodí i Poblet is a small town of about 1,000 people in Catalonia, Spain, located  an hour drive from the Mediterranean port city of Tarragona, and even closer to the city of Reus, a historically strategic location in the region’s wines and spirits industry. 

Today, it makes up 30 percent of the town’s economy and agriculture. Viticulture, here in particular, stretches back to Roman times, with Cistercian monks introducing some of the techniques still used today. It’s no coincidence that the town’s coat of arms shows grapes and a wine barrel. 

This town is also home to On the Rocks, a company that produces artisanal liqueurs made with a focus on natural ingredients. Its founder Maria de la Peña says that despite the industry presence in the region, many were surprised that she decided to start a company in her hometown, and not in the nearby urban centers of Tarragona or Barcelona. But to Maria, the decision seemed logical, with its strategic location giving her access not only to the base spirit for her liqueurs, but also to a wide array of fruits and botanicals. Many aromatic herbs are grown in the garden located on the company premises, while others are sourced from trusted local suppliers.

The company was born after a night out with friends just a year before, during which they tried quite a few liqueurs, and found that none of them really had any of the flavors stated on the label. Maria decided to make liqueurs that instead offered a chemically concocted approximation to the original ingredients, she would work to harness the flavors through natural processes. She says, “Think of a lemon. It’s yellow, citric and fresh. Why not use it to make a liqueur?”

Photo Credit: On the Rocks

All On the Rocks liqueurs are made with 100 percent natural, local, and sustainably-grown ingredients that are macerated or infused using neutral spirit distilled from cane sugar molasses. They are also significantly lower in alcohol than many other products on the market with ABVs ranging from 14 percent for their Apple Pie liqueur to 36 percent for Licor de Magnolia. These traits are a direct result of Maria’s academic background in environmental sciences and years of work in the food-quality control sector. They have driven the mission of the business since its creation in 2014. 

This philosophy is progressive as is; but setting up a business as a woman in the  industry is another challenge. De La Peña’s trajectory as founder and director of her own company is rife with stories of prospective clients coming to On The Rocks headquarters and wanting to speak ‘to her boss’, or asking her to ‘bring some coffee while the boss is on his way’ at trade fairs. On a larger scale, female executives are still a rare sight in the region’s big distilleries, and despite efforts by some, changes have been slow to appear. 

On the Rocks Orange Lemon | Photo Credit: On the Rocks

Their production includes “Classic” range liqueurs like Orange Lemon,  Lemon,  Herbal Liqueur, and vermouth, in its non-aged and Reserva version. Her Herbal Liqueur is a digestif and deemed one of the ‘holy spirits’, much like Chartreuse, as it’s based off of a recipe historically produced by monks in monasteries of Tarragona area. It’s based on 12 botanicals including chamomile, aniseed and lemon verbena, and it’s produced for the nearby Poblet monastery, one of the largest abbeys in Spain. There is the “Specialty” range which includes innovative and unique projects like their Fuego liqueur, or “fire”, a wine-based creation at 20 percent abv with hot and spicy notes in it, as well as floral and peppery touches. Maria describes it as a ‘spicy fortified wine’. Another is Brindis, which means ‘cheers’ in both Spanish and Catalan as it is an homage to Marc de Cava, a grape liqueur made with the pomace left over after pressing grapes for Cava. Underlining their commitment to indigenous varieties, On the Rocks’ recipe focuses on Parellada, the little-known grape of the ‘Cava trinity’, which provides herbaceous and floral notes and a delicate fruity acidity. 

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Magnolia is the first commercially available magnolia liqueur; its uniqueness is in its seasonality. Magnolia flowers typically grow in a limited time window in the late spring or early summer, and only last a few hours. The flowers used come from the On The Rocks garden, but the recipe belongs to a friend’s grandmother and reflects the region’s traditions of home distilling. Known locally as ‘ratafia de magnolia’, the blend includes other ingredients such as lemon verbena, nutmeg and cinnamon. Maria is also quick to recognize the strong female role in the artisanal distillation traditions of the region, pointing out that women, like her friend’s grandmother, have been the ones in charge. 

Maria confesses she is somewhat preoccupied about the future of liqueur consumption: our hectic pace seems to allow less and less time for that, and in many restaurants around Spain, digestifs are offered as complimentary after-meal shots. The situation isn’t much better in bars and nightclubs: hastily mixed gin-tonics are still a drink of choice for many, while orujos and licores are deemed ‘too old-school’. However, Maria is not ready to throw in the towel, both introducing their spirits in cocktail recipes, as a creative pairing on tasting menus, or by actively working with some of the best bartenders. 

Magnolia Julep

Ingredients

  • 1 ½ ounces On the Rocks Magnolia liqueur
  • 1 ounce Natural ginger juice
  • 2 dashes of Angostura
  • 8 mints sprigs
  • Cava 

Steps

Mix the mint and Angostura in a rocks glass. Muddle the mint lightly, without breaking the leaves. Add Magnolia liqueur and pack tightly with crushed ice. Add ginger juice and top with Cava. Garnish with additional mint and liqueur.