Travel

Taste Mexico in a New Drink Using Foraged Ingredients Native to the Yucatán

And it's even better when you travel there to get it.

Gin Katún
Gin Katún
Gin Katún

The Yucatán Peninsula is a lush slab of limestone separating the Gulf of Mexico from the Caribbean Sea. Along its edges, white sand meets cerulean sea, resulting in some of the most beautiful beaches anywhere on the planet. Upwards of 3.2 million annual visitors flock to the region of Mexico to bask in that serenity. And many of them arrive thirsty for Mexican tipples, which most often means tequila (in margarita and paloma form) or warm-weather-friendly lagers.

But at the Rosewood Mayokaba, a resort set amidst the emerald lagoons and mangrove jungles of the Riviera Maya, guests are treated to a distilled drink that speaks with a specific sense of place: It is the language of the Yucatán, in liquid form. And it’s not another tequila.

Gerard Puigmal/Moment/Getty Images
Gerard Puigmal/Moment/Getty Images
Gerard Puigmal/Moment/Getty Images

The idea for a brand-new Mexican liquor-the result of a lasting friendship between a celebrated chef and an iconic distiller-was born at the resort’s cocktail bar, Zapote, which itself is billed as a love letter to the Yucatán.

“We called it the ‘Journey Bar,’ because that’s exactly how we like our guests to feel,” explains chef Juan Pablo Loza, director of culinary operations. “There are different ways to create the journeys and sometimes its literal. For example, when a guest is curious about mezcales… We take them to our little blue room where we have a beautiful collection of ancestral spirits. We like to describe it as a place of discovery.”

Rosewood Mayakoba
Rosewood Mayakoba
Rosewood Mayakoba

As an engineer of unique flavors-both in the kitchen and behind the bar-Loza often discovers his own inspiration through collaboration with like-minded colleagues. For the cocktail program at Zapote, he enlisted help from his friends at Licorería Limantour, a Mexico City drinking den frequently mentioned among the world’s best bars. Together they conceived signature drinks including the Hoja Santa (mezcal, sherry, and elderflower liqueur imbued with the eponymous, peppery herb) and the Eneldo, which combines vodka with a local anise liqueur called Xtabentún.

Most of these cocktails weave some native ingredient into the mix. But after a brainstorming session with distiller Roberto Brinkman, it became obvious that these same ingredients could be used to build the underlying spirits themselves. After all, the two reasoned, an inventive bar menu is pretty much expected at high-end resorts these days. A copper still in the kitchen, however, would take this concept to a whole new level. And the most sensible vehicle to get there was a victual not commonly associated with Mexico: gin.

Zapote Bar
Zapote Bar
Zapote Bar

Rethink Mexican alcohol with this gin

Actually, Loza and Brinkman first met a decade ago over a bottle of mezcal. Back then, Brinkman was crafting Bruxo, his own brand of the agave spirit, in Oaxaca. Several years later, he moved to Mérida and eventually launched Katún-the first ever Yucatecan gin-in 2019. It now sells in US markets for around $42 a bottle. The success of that liquid indirectly brought the two friends back together.

“When I first tried Katún, I wanted to know who was making it,” recalls Loza. “When I got the contact information, I realized it was [my old friend] Roberto. And I knew I wanted to showcase his process at Zapote: from the raw ingredients to the corn alcohol-with all of these botanicals and Mayan ingredients-to the distilling where you can smell and eventually taste the final result.”

Because of how it’s produced, gin is a spirit especially qualified to express terroir-in other words, you can taste the flavors of the soil and general environment in which it’s made. A proprietary blend of botanicals (with dried juniper berries at the top of the list) are used to flavor a neutral grain spirit. The fresher those botanicals are, the more expressive the end result. You can think of it as herbal infused vodka: the tea of the liquor world. And if guests are here during one of Brinkman’s frequent visits, they can see it getting brewed.

Gin Katún
Gin Katún
Gin Katún

Taste bits of Mexico with fruit and chilies in every sip

“The idea is to show people how the Yucatán shapes the flavor of the liquid,” explains Brinkman. “For the citrus, we use china lima that’s endemic to the region, as well as a lime that’s used to make Copa de Lima-a very traditional local soup. The use of chilies also gives it a very distinct profile. Habanero is well-known in Mexico as ‘the chile of Yucatan.’ In Mérida you can always find it on every restaurant table. In the gin it adds more of a special, savory note than a spicy one.”

Brinkman shows up with many of these ingredients already dried, including other chilies less familiar to American palates such as xcatic and pais peppers. And while at Mayakoba, he often scours the surroundings to find other fruits and herbs to flavor his recipe, ad hoc. It’s a colorful palette that he assembles, both to the eyes and on the tongue. Layered upon the limestone-rich water of Yucatán’s legendary cenotes, you’re left with something that sings with an unmistakable earthiness: peppery, piquant, and vibrant. It sips well solo over ice, but is still perfectly distinguishable as the heart of the many popular gin cocktails at Zapote.

Rosewood Mayakoba
Rosewood Mayakoba
Rosewood Mayakoba

See where the magic happens

Proof of concept exists not only in the impressive customer response, but in the fact that Brinkman is finding himself regularly traversing the 186-mile stretch of road between Mérida and Mayakoba. “We take advantage of the fact that he can drive a few hours and be here to show this transformation of flavors,” says Loza. “And the whole [gin-making] process takes him only an hour. Right now we’re doing this three to four times a year, but we also do it upon request.”

So even if you’re not on property at the same time as Brinkman, there’s still ample opportunity to sip his artistry. A stay at the Rosewood Mayakoba does not come cheap; luxurious standalone suites strewn between jungle and ocean start at around $1,600 per night. But it’s one-of-a-kind experiences like these that help justify the cost, ensuring that guests can take in the beauty of the Yucatán-quite literally.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat.

Brad Japhe is a freelance journalist with a wicked case of the get-up-and-gos. He’s usually found at the junction of food, booze, and travel. Follow him @Journeys_with_Japhe.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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