Italian spirit and Brighton form unlikely connection
If you’ve spent any amount of time in Brighton & Hove, you’ve likely encountered Tuaca – whether it’s spotting the distinctive label on the shelves at an independent bottle store or noticing a flurry of excited bar-side activity in a nightclub, when someone proclaims: “Get the Wuacas in!”
It’s a distinctive liqueur, which seems to be more popular in the city than anywhere else in the country. First created in Italy centuries ago, it tastes like somebody has removed the anise from Galliano L’Autentico to create something more enticing and smoother. But how did something (reportedly) created during renaissance times pick up such a following on the south coast?
Nightlife obviously plays a big part in the local craze, which has seen its popularity bloom since the late 90s. Former clubber Brian’s first encounter with its amber charms was a house night at the Sea Life Centre being hosted by legendary local sound system heroes Positive Sounds (how utterly Brighton…). “They had a pop-up bar by one of the exhibits,” he tells me. “On offer was this exotic Italian shot, and people could not get their money out quick enough. That was the start of something for me. There’s been quite a few hangovers though…”
Brian’s experience will be familiar to many who sampled Brighton’s nighttime industry. Kathryn has been running pubs and bars across Brighton & Hove since around the time Tuaca began flooding into the city. She says a big part of its appeal is the sweetness and delicious vanilla notes. “I love introducing it to the new students in town. They ask what the hype is behind it as a Brighton-based shooter. Obviously, it’s not as strong as Jägermeister, but it’s certainly a lot smoother.”
The brand claims the recipe dates back to the Renaissance period, a not uncommon (but invariably poorly supported) claim. When two brothers-in-law, Gaetano Tuoni and Giorgio Canepa, ‘rediscovered’ the liqueur’s recipe in the 30s, they originally made it with milk. Soon, the dairy element was removed, and their booming product was named Tuoca after them. Spin forwards to the 60s, and the owner of a chain of liquor stores in San Francisco began selling it in the United States. To make it easier for locals to pronounce, he tweaked the name to Tuaca.
Andy used to work at the Kemp Town branch of Unwins – a Kent-based chain of 381 off-licences. He remembers the first time encountering the brand, when a regular customer came in with a bottle. “He said he’d started importing this Italian liquor, which was being stocked in the pubs and clubs around Brighton.” They were given a bottle each. Later that evening, they went round to their manager’s home and finished them in one sitting. When the customer came in the next day to find out what they thought of it, they were all quite keen to sell it. With the go ahead from an area manager wise enough to recognise a good opportunity, they secured a whole case; which was sold by the following night.
“I think we sold more of that than the house vodka,” Andy tells me. “It just flew off the shelves. He came in with another three cases, and they all went over that weekend. We didn’t even bother putting them on the shelves. We were just leaving it on the side and handing it to people. There were people driving down from Croydon to buy it.”
He says they were the first shop in Brighton to sell it, suggesting its soaring popularity was due to a great price point and distinctive branding. “It looks really good with an interesting name. From a flavour perspective, it was very easy to get on with. It was quite boozy. I think it’s about 35% but it doesn’t taste like that. You could do shots of it, and not really know the damage which is being done.” Another key to the drink’s success was getting bottles stocked in local pubs and bars, where it could spark the curiosity of a broad demographic with cash to burn.
Andy went on to work at a local beer and wine wholesaler and appreciates just how difficult it is to make an impact on the Brighton market. “People think there’s universities there and people try all kinds of stuff… They do, but then you’ve got to get it to last. With Tuaca it’s been an amalgamation of factors, but it might be just the right place at the right time.”
That customer turns out to be Poul Jensen, who then ran the landmark St James Tavern. He personally discovered Tuaca while his partner, Sammy, was doing snowboard seasons in Colorado. “It was a big thing over there. We bought a bottle back and got a taste for it.” When he moved to Brighton and took over the pub, he visited the distillery to find out how he could secure a regular supply in Britain. It turns out the whole venture revolved around a bet as to who could first get the liqueur into Britain. “Yeah,” he confirms with a laugh. “It was for a bottle of Cristal champagne… Which I’m still owed!” After a couple of years of developing its reputation, the pair started to get it stocked in other pubs.
Working in the industry for several years, Poul had plenty of contacts who could help him get the spirit into other pubs. “Brighton is quite a small place, so it just went from there through word of mouth. I think people connected to it because we were so passionate. We didn’t have 20 brands, there was just one. It was our life. It probably wouldn’t have worked in London, Manchester or anywhere else. How do you explain Brighton?”
In normal circumstances, if someone launches a brand they’ll spend a million on advertising and market penetration. Poul and Sammy had £400 to start with. “I think it was to do with the brand and our belief. And it’s different as well. The nectar of the Gods they used to call it.”
Poul tells me it’s a Demi sec liqueur, meaning the sugar content is lower than some competitors. Vital information as the sugar has a notable impact on any following hangover. But what does it actually taste like? “I’ve said this so many times, but… it’s a brandy-based liqueur flavoured with vanilla, citrus fruits and caramel. The flavour profile means it’s so versatile. You could sell it to a cocktail bar, club or café.”
Poul and Sammy now run the Roedean Café, which offers awe-inspiring views of the Channel. Eagle-eyed diners might also catch a glimpse of a giant-sized bottle of Tuaca behind the counter. It’s so large it has a small brass tap near the bottom, so hapless barmen don’t need to lift it. “When people first started selling it, I’d give them one of those. They’d never seen anything like it. These haven’t been produced for 10 or 15 years.”
It’s a memento of a brilliant time for Poul and Sammy. With a lot of love and effort, they can honestly claim to having enabled a Brighton institution. “It was a cracking ten years of my life. It’s one of those things that, if I hadn’t done it, I might not be where I am now.” The liqueur’s fortunes have slowed slightly since those heady nights. The original, independent distillery was acquired by a progression of multinational corporations and now stands as just a single entry on a long list of premium products. Poul suggests the brand now won’t reach its potential to dominate the British drinks industry. “For them, it’s just another notch on a clipboard to sell. There’s no personality anymore. Tuaca is just… Tuaca. It has its own personality.”