At this time of the year, it seems to be the thing to make “Top ____ of 2014″ lists. I love a good list, and making one myself has given me the chance to reflect a bit on the past year. I did not go thirsty.
Posts about spirits and cocktails are some of my most popular, and with good reason. The world of spirits has never been more exciting in this country, with fine craft distilleries popping up all over the place. Cocktails, too, have experienced a major renaissance, as bartenders resurrect beautiful classic drinks and mix new concoctions with a creative energy not seen in half a century.
What luck, to experience this spirits and cocktail revolution first hand! I had quite a few memorable drinks in 2014, and here are my very favorites, in alphabetical order:
Set in a brick arch beneath some railway tracks north of Vienna’s Altstadt stands one of the finest cocktail bars in the Austro-Hungarian Empire: Halbestadt. Proprietors Erich and Konny focus on classic cocktails, including many almost-forgotten gems popular in the 30s, 40s and 50s. But they also stock the largest selection of mezcal in Vienna, and they’re not afraid to use it to create some truly unusual and cutting-edge cocktails.
Erich made me a stupendous Mezcal Negroni, as well as a delightful Clover Club (above). This little-known cocktail pre-dates Prohibition, if Wikipedia is to be believed, and it’s high time this delicious drink of raspberry, lemon, sugar, egg white and gin had a revival. Erich and Konny use only fresh fruit in their cocktails, ensuring that there was nothing cloying or artificial-tasting about this Clover Club. It was tart and fruity, with a bit of juniper from the gin. What a beautifully balanced cocktail.
One of my favorite Colombian fruits is the corozo, a red berry which on its own tastes somewhere between a blackberry and a cranberry. I tried it in a couple of cocktails during my trip there, and the most successful by far was the Corozo 75 at the estimable Carmen Restaurant in the Hotel Anandá in Cartagena. What a revelation.
This cocktail, composed of corozo-infused gin, corozo syrup and Chandon Rosé sparkling wine, tasted remarkably round and rich. The berry fruit felt deep, and yet the cocktail maintained an excellent balance, with lightness of texture from the Chandon and a floral note on top.
I sat down at the stylish El Coro bar in Cartagena’s Sofitel Santa Clara and asked the energetic bartender, Jhon, if he
could make me something with local ingredients. He had just the thing: a Lulo Martini.
He mixed fresh lulo juice, which tastes rather like lemon and orange juice mixed together, with aguardiente and a touch of simple syrup. He shook up the concoction, used a straw to taste for balance (the conscientious bartenders checked just about every cocktail for balance), and presented the cocktail to me in a chilled martini glass.
It did indeed exhibit excellent balance, with a smooth, juicy texture. The anise overtones from the aguardiente were kept in check by the creamy citrus of the lulo and sugar.
Pink Pigeon Rum comes from the molasses of sugarcane grown in the volcanic soil of the Medine Estate on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. The distillery uses its rum as a “canvas” for infusions, adding vanilla from Madagascar and Réunion, citrus and the “floral petals of vanilla orchids.”
Though it tasted a bit unbalanced neat, Pink Pigeon soared like an eagle when mixed into cocktails. I made a classic Daiquiri and a traditional Mojito, and they were absolutely splendid. Both drinks include fresh lime, which, when combined with the powerful vanilla notes of the rum, gave the cocktails an enticing Dreamsicle-like quality. The Pink Pigeon Daiquiri and Mojito were simply two of the best versions of those cocktails I’ve ever had.
Before traveling to Guadalajara, Mexico, I had never even heard of sotol, a sister spirit to mezcal and tequila. It comes primarily from the desert spoon agave (Dasylirion wheeleri), though according to the menu of La Tequila bar in Guadalajara, other varieties can be included as well. Each desert spoon agave takes about 15 years to mature, and each plant yields only one bottle of sotol. So it’s no surprise that shelves in liquor stores aren’t overflowing with the stuff (blue agave plants can yield up to 10 bottles of tequila or even more).
I tried a Hacienda de Chihuahua Añejo sotol (like tequila, añejo sotol must be aged at least one year in oak), and it was a delight. A light green-gold color, it looked like it could have been a Sauvignon Blanc. The lovely vanilla aroma along with notes of smoked paprika indicated otherwise, however! When I took a sip, I thought it was going to hit me with a bang, but it proved to be quite smooth. The sotol started lush and rich, with some sweet flavors that slowly developed into gentle smoke and red-pepper spice flavors. Very elegant, and surprisingly easy to drink neat.
Served at The Drawing Room in Chicago, this cocktail tastes, oddly enough, almost exactly like it sounds. It combines Cointreau Noir, Peychaud’s Bitters, and “scotch washed in duck fat,” according to head bartender Azrhiel Frost. I have absolutely no idea how she and fellow head bartender Will Patton came up with the idea for this recipe, but it worked astonishingly well. It had a pleasantly dusky orange aroma, and complex sweet, bitter and citrusy flavors. I could taste the duck, but it was a well-integrated savory undertone, rather than an aggressively meaty flavor.
If you want to try this cocktail, head to The Drawing Room before the end of the year. This excellent basement bar recently lost its lease. The Urban Outfitters store above it wants to run an elevator through the beautiful space and use the rest of it for storage. What a scandal. I think this calls for an Urban Outfitters boycott.