Cacao, also known as Theobroma cacao, is a tropical tree that is native to Central and South America. The tree produces fruit in the form of large pods that contain cacao beans, which are the primary ingredient used to make chocolate.
When used as a botanical in distilled spirit distillation, cacao imparts a rich, chocolatey flavour and aroma to the spirit. The flavour of cacao is complex and can be described as having notes of dark chocolate, coffee, and fruit. The specific flavour profile will depend on the variety of cacao bean used, as well as the method of distillation.
Cacao beans contain a variety of flavour compounds and molecules that contribute to its unique flavour profile. Some of the key compounds found in cacao include theobromine, phenylethylamine, and anandamide. Theobromine, a bitter alkaloid, is found in high concentrations in cacao and is responsible for the bitter and slightly astringent taste of dark chocolate. Phenylethylamine is a compound that is structurally similar to amphetamines and is believed to contribute to the feeling of euphoria often associated with eating chocolate. Anandamide, also known as the “bliss molecule,” is a compound that is naturally present in cacao and is thought to contribute to the feelings of pleasure associated with eating chocolate.
When used in cooking, cacao pairs well with other rich, bold flavours such as coffee, vanilla, and chili peppers. In gin distillation, cacao pairs well with other botanicals that have a strong, bold flavour profile such as juniper, coriander, and angelica. When paired with these botanicals, the chocolatey notes of cacao can add depth and complexity to the gin’s flavour profile.
In terms of history, Cacao has been cultivated by the Mesoamerican cultures for at least three millennia. The earliest evidence of cacao use is from around 1900 BC and it was consumed in a bitter and spicy drink, rather than a sweet food. The Mayans and Aztecs believed that the cacao tree was a gift from the gods and used it for medicinal and religious purposes