Postcard From Fiji: The Hibiscus Bleach

8 August 2015

Bartender Tila at Nanuku in FijiI asked the Nanuku resort’s bartender, Tila (affectionately known as “Tila Tequila”) to repeat the name of the cocktail she was making for me. “Hibiscus Bleach,” she said again.

Still unwilling to believe I was about to drink a cocktail with the word “bleach” in the name, I ventured, “Hibiscus Beach?”

“Bleach,” she responded, with impeccable diction and infinite patience (she’s Fijian, after all). Hibiscus Bleach it was, and there was no getting around it. I watched intently as she prepared the drink, partially in hopes that it would make for a good blog post and mostly to reassure myself that none of the ingredients could be used as cleaning products.

“Start with four or five hibiscus flowers,” she explained, “and remove the insides.” She plucked out the pistils and stamens, stuffed the remaining petals in a large beaker and poured hot water over them. As the flowers steeped, she squeezed a lime and measured out some honey. It didn’t take long for the water to turn a deep pink.

Hibiscus BleachHere’s where things got interesting. When Tila removed the flowers, they had lost nearly all their color — the petals had turned white with only veins of pink remaining. I relaxed as I finally understood the name of the cocktail. She added the lime juice to the fresh hibiscus tea, and in rather spectacular fashion, it changed from purplish pink to almost fuchsia. I usually resort to flames if I want to dazzle guests with a cocktail, but this presentation felt just as impressive as a flambée.

Mixed with honey, the alcohol-free concoction tasted delightful. It was tart and sweet, with a note of strawberry to it. It’s a delightful mocktail to serve guests who don’t drink. Mixed with two shots of dark Fijian rum, it became a powerful Hurricane-like cocktail with an undeniable sense of place.

I sipped my Hibiscus Bleach in the resort’s open-air bar beneath a cascade of mother-of-pearl shells hanging from the ceiling, accompanied by a guitar-and-ukulele men’s quartet singing in harmony, and in that moment, I couldn’t imagine anything more delicious.


–Five fresh hibiscus flowers (or dried hibiscus tea)

–Hot water

–Juice of one lime (do not use bottled juice)

–1 tablespoon honey

–High-proof dark rum (Fijian Bounty Overproof Rum is 116 proof)

The author with his new favorite bartender, Tila

The author with his new favorite bartender, Tila

Five fresh flowers yield enough for about two cocktails. If you’re not someplace where hibiscus bushes grow like weeds, substitute hibiscus tea instead. Make it strong, using one tea bag per cocktail. Remove the stamens and pistils of the flowers, and pour three cups of hot water over the petals (or tea bags).

Meanwhile, juice one lime. After you’ve let the hibiscus steep for a minute or two, remove the flowers or tea bags and add the lime juice and honey. Mix well. Pour over two lowball glasses filled with ice (use larger cubes for a stronger cocktail), and top with a shot (or two, if you’re on vacation) of high-proof dark rum. Give the drink a brief stir, and garnish if you like with a lime wedge and a hibiscus petal.

It’s Fiji in a glass.

Flying High With Pink Pigeon

27 September 2014

Pink Pigeon RumRum ranks among my very favorite spirits. The best rums, such as Guatemala’s Ron Zacapa Sistema Solera 23 and Nicaragua’s Flor de Caña 12-Year Centenario, sip as elegantly as fine cognac or whiskey. And what a wonderful base for cocktails! Rum’s sweetness balances beautifully with the acidity of citrus or the sharp spice of ginger.

Most rums I encounter come from countries in Central America and the Caribbean, which have plenty of local molasses and sugarcane juice ready to be distilled. How could I resist, then, a rum from exotic Mauritius? This tropical speck lies well to the east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, and until recently, I associated the island mostly with extravagantly sybaritic resorts. It never occurred to me that it might have a talented distiller or two, until I received a free sample bottle of Pink Pigeon Rum from Wine Chateau.

Pink Pigeon Rum comes from the molasses of sugarcane grown in the “fertile volcanic soil” of the Medine Estate on Mauritius, and according to Pink Pigeon’s website, the Medine Distillery is the oldest on the island, dating back to 1926. Because the surgarcane is grown on the estate, and the molasses is distilled on the estate, and the resulting rum is bottled on the estate, Pink Pigeon Rum certainly qualifies as a “single-estate rum,” as the website attests.

Even so, those looking for a taste of Mauritian terroir might have to look elsewhere. Pink Pigeon uses its rum as a “canvas” for infusions, adding vanilla from Madagascar and Réunion, citrus and the “floral petals of vanilla orchids.” The rum may be single-estate, but the infusions come from two other islands entirely. I would be curious just to taste the rum on its own, without the infusions.

The infusions, however, certainly make Pink Pigeon Rum unique. I tried it first at room temperature, at which it has enticing aromas of vanilla cake, candied orange and tropical fruits. It felt syrupy on the palate, but the alcohol (80 proof) cut through the vanilla- and molasses-tinged sweetness. I sampled the rum after it spent a day in the freezer as well, and when tasted ice-cold, both the syrupy texture and the sharpness of the alcohol felt surprisingly heightened.

Though it tasted a bit unbalanced neat, the 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 a delightful Dreamsicle-like quality. The Pink Pigeon Daiquiri and Mojito were simply two of the best versions of those cocktails I’ve ever had.


–2 parts Pink Pigeon Rum

–1 part fresh-squeezed lime juice

–1 very small splash of simple syrup (1 part sugar dissolved in 1 part water, also available in bottles at liquor stores)

As always, fresh lime juice is important — do not substitute bottled, which tastes quite different. Combine all of the above ingredients in a shaker. If you don’t have simple syrup, just add a small pinch of sugar to the lime juice and rum before you add the ice, and stir to dissolve. Add some ice, shake, and strain into a lowball or martini glass.

Ordinarily you would use more simple syrup in a Daiquiri, one of the simplest and best rum-based cocktails, but because Pink Pigeon already tastes sweet, only a touch of additional sugar is necessary to balance the tartness of the lime. The resulting drink tastes refreshing and citrusy, with a wonderful additional layer of flavor from the vanilla.


–2 parts Pink Pigeon Rum

–1 1/2 parts fresh-squeezed lime juice

–6 or 7 fresh mint leaves

–1 small pinch of sugar

–4 parts club soda

Wash the mint, but don’t pat it dry. Add the mint and the sugar to a highball glass, and muddle with a spoon. You’ll bruise the mint, ensuring that its flavorful oils will be released into the cocktail, and the sugar will dissolve into the bit of water clinging to the mint. Add a few cubes of ice, the rum and the lime juice, and stir. Top off with club soda, give the cocktail one final stir, and if you like, garnish with the top of a mint sprig.

What a lovely, refreshing and well-balanced cocktail! Again, the lime and Pink Pigeon combine to create a Dreamsicle-like flavor, leavened this time with the bubbles of the soda and the coolness of the mint. A delicious twist on a classic.

I received my bottle of Pink Pigeon as a free sample, but it’s not all that expensive to buy. You can find it at Wine Chateau or Binny’s, for example, for about $30 a bottle. If you’re a fan of Daiquiris or Mojitos, Pink Pigeon definitely deserves a place in your liquor cabinet.

The Flower Of The Cane

28 March 2012

Although Americans tend to associate Nicaragua with civil war more than fine spirits, this now-peaceful country produces one of the world’s greatest rums: Flor de Caña.

This company dates back to 1890, but it didn’t start producing rum called Flor de Caña until 1937. The revolutionary years in the 1980’s turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The Sandinistas didn’t have the best reputation for protecting private property rights, to put it charitably, so to safeguard their stocks of rum, Flor de Caña sent many of their best barrels to neighboring countries. By the time Flor de Caña could finally repatriate their spirits without fear they would be confiscated by the government, they had their hands on some of the largest and finest stocks of aged rum in the world.

While staying on an island in idyllic Lake Nicaragua, I ordered a glass of the 18-year-old Flor de Caña. Seeing my interest in the rum (or perhaps noticing my notebook), the bartender asked if I would like to sample range of different ages. Why yes, yes I would. The couple from San Francisco next to me certainly had no objection, and we began our impromptu tasting.

Flor de Caña 4-Year Extra Lite: This clear rum has a lower alcohol content (35% instead of 40%), making it easy to sip on its own (though Flor de Caña recommends using it in a Macuá, the delicious Nicaraguan national cocktail of rum, guava juice, orange juice and lemon juice). I liked its fruity aroma and surprisingly dry, smooth flavor.

Flor de Caña 7-Year Grand Reserve: This caramel-colored, barrel-aged rum has more of a vanilla aroma, complemented by some additional light oak on the palate. Again, enjoyable on its own, and as the Flor de Caña website notes, it makes a mean mojito (thoroughness demanded I try one).

Flor de Caña 12-Year Centenario: The most famous Flor de Caña rum, and the most readily available in the United States, the 12-year is worth seeking out. It smelled of oranges, vanilla and caramel, and its taste reminded me of a fine Cognac: spicy oranges, ripe bananas and a finish of vanilla. Smooth, but big and spicy.

Flor de Caña 18-Year Centenario Gold: This gorgeous rum sucked me in with aromas of vanilla cake and crème brûlée and sealed the deal with flavors of vanilla, oak and orange peel. Very rich, with a finish that went on and on.

I tottered back to my room a very happy blogger.

Not For Mixing With Coke

9 October 2011

It wasn’t until I traveled through Guatemala that I realized rum could be more than just a tasty component of a Cuba Libre or a Piña Colada. There, on my very first evening in the country, I encountered the supremely delicious Ron Zacapa Sistema Solera rum.

My traveling companion and I expected  a relatively low-key first evening in the bar of the Camino Real hotel, but before long we’d made friends with some rather tipsy locals. Our new, seemingly wealthy friends insisted on buying us round after round of Ron Zacapa, which we insisted they help us finish. They gladly obliged, and much ridiculous dancing ensued.

Later, when I had a chance to actually focus on the flavor of the Ron Zacapa, it floored me. I had no idea rum could rise to the level of a fine bourbon or even Cognac. As our time to return home drew nearer, I despaired that I had been unable to find a bottle to bring back with me. But Ron Zacapa, ever a step ahead of the game, thoughtfully provided a fully stocked shop in the airport.

I brought home a couple of bottles of the Sistema Solera 23, which blends rums aged between six and 23 years in “one of the highest aging facilities in the world,” 2300 meters above sea level in Quetzaltenango. Here, “the thinner air and lower atmospheric pressure helps intensify the infusion of flavours from the barrels,” according to the website.

Perhaps I should have guessed that you can also purchase Ron Zacapa in the U.S. Binny’s carries the 23-year rum for $43, not much more than what it costs at the Guatemala City airport. It’s worth the investment.

The rum smells tantalizingly of vanilla and molasses, and it presents surprisingly complex flavors. When you sip it neat (the Ron Zacapa website suggests adding a cube of ice), a momentary burn of alcohol makes it seem as if it will be unpleasantly strong, but the rum instantly relaxes on the tongue, giving way to a sprightly, butterscotchy goodness and a long, warm finish. It’s an ideal autumn digestif.

Fortunately, just as my bottle of Ron Zacapa is about to run out, the Wall Street Journal ran a column on October 8th recommending an array of fine sipping rums. That Santa Teresa 1796 from Venezuela sounds mighty tasty at $40…

Drinking And Driving

9 September 2011

When taking a road trip, bringing along the appropriate beverage is crucial. And though my paternal grandfather reportedly used to declare, “You’re never really too drunk to drive,” I err on the side of caution and pack some non-alcoholic treats.

My current #1 road trip drink is Reed’s Extra Ginger Brew, an “All Natural Jamaican Style” ginger beer. Sold in packs of four bottles, this ginger beer, unlike regular ginger ales, is “carefully brewed and aged like fine wine in small batches by [Reed’s’] expert brewmasters,” according to the website.

However they make it, the ginger beer tastes delicious, with small bubbles and a powerfully spicy ginger kick (sure to keep you awake while driving). It lacks caffeine, but since caffeine is a diuretic, that can perhaps be an advantage.

Once you reach your destination, you can save any leftover bottles for the trip home, or even better, make a proper cocktail. My favorites are the Dark ‘n’ Stormy and the Moscow Mule: