Cocktails

The Spirit Of The Moment: Mezcal

2 June 2016

The author in a Guanajuato cantina, consuming mezcal in as manly a fashion as possible

Just a couple of years ago, finding more than a handful of mezcals on a bar menu in the United States was rare indeed. Even Mexicans sometimes seem a bit scared of this spirit. I’ll never forget how, when I ordered a shot at a traditional cantina in Guanajuato (the kind with a urinal next to the bar), the bartender first offered me mezcal flavored with mango or coconut! He and my guide both raised an eyebrow when I requested the real stuff, though perhaps that says more about my distinctly gringo appearance and less about mezcal.

Gringos, however, have recently begun to take quite a liking to mezcal. In fact, as of March, Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood now has an official mezcal bar, Mezcaleria Las Flores, which has some 78 mezcals on its menu (including related spirits like sotol and raicilla). Those who find that selection too restricting should head instead to Leña Brava, Rick Bayless’s newest restaurant, which stocks a remarkable 112 different mezcals!

The rather sudden rise of mezcal may leave some readers wondering what the heck it is and what all the fuss is about. Mezcal is a sort of parent to tequila. But unlike that ubiquitous spirit, which can be made only from blue agave, mezcal can be made from just about any agave cactus variety. In addition, the piña, the heart of the agave plant from which mezcal is fermented and distilled, is roasted underground for about three days, whereas the piñas used for tequila are baked, not roasted. If tequila is like bourbon, mezcal is like scotch.

I love it. The flavor typically starts with something fruity, fresh and/or herbaceous before it moves to some warm, smokey spice reminiscent of Hungarian paprika. Sometimes it feels rustic, sometimes it feels refined, but it’s always exciting to drink.

A Monteromero (foreground) and a Leña Fire at Leña Brava

Monteromero (foreground) and Leña Fire cocktails at Leña Brava

I consume mezcal most often neat, but like scotch, it can also work beautifully in certain cocktails. Leña Brava’s cocktail list contains seven mezcal-based drinks, for example, and on a visit last week, I had the chance to try two of them. I ordered a Monteromero, composed of Montelobos mezcal, crème de cassis, fresh lime juice, black pepper and a sprig of rosemary. What a delight — the complex, well-balanced cocktail combined sweet, smokey, herbaceous and citrusy flavors to great effect.

My friend Scott ordered a Leña Fire, a powerful combination of Leña Wahaka mezcal (the restaurant’s house mezcal), Ocho Sientos sotol (see my post about sotol here), Ancho Reyes chile liqueur, Yellow Chartreuse, Gran Torres orange liqueur and fresh lime. This veritable parade of high-proof spirits tasted bright, spicy, citrusy and very, very strong. A couple of sips was enough for me, but Scott had no trouble polishing it off. (Also see this post about a mezcal-based Negroni I had in Vienna a couple of years ago.)

Chef Bayless’s daughter, Lanie, acts as the restaurant’s mezcal sommelier, and she offered to pair glasses of mezcal with the five courses we had ordered. Fortunately, she anticipated our desire to leave the restaurant in a semi-coherent state and gave us half-size pours. Lanie knows her mezcals. Her suggestions were excellent, contrasting or emphasizing flavors in various dishes, just as well-considered wine pairings do.

Tasting the mezcals in rapid succession highlighted their distinct characters. The Vago mezcal had a lovely freshness to it, with a sweet cucumber note balancing the ample paprika spice. But the Wahaka Reposado Con Gusano (aged six months in oak barrels) tasted richer and rounder, with something of a mocha note under the spicy heat. “Con Gusano,” incidentally, means that the bottle has a worm in it. Adding an agave worm is “…a proven, age-old method for clarifying the radicals of the barrel while balancing the spirit’s overall flavor with notes of earth and salt,” according to Wahaka’s website.

Words like “spicy heat” and “worm” may make mezcal sound intimidating. But if you give it a try, I suspect you’ll be pleasantly surprised. I find it much more interesting than tequila, and its quality-to-price ratio is very much in the consumer’s favor. More and more bars carry it — if you see it on a spirits list, I highly recommend ordering a shot to pair with a cool appetizer or with a creamy or chocolatey dessert. And if you already like scotch, mezcal is an ideal summer alternative.

Cocktails In Belize

12 March 2016
A "Spicy Mayan" cocktail at Belcampo Belize

A “Spicy Mayan” cocktail at Belcampo Belize

I must admit that I didn’t expect to enjoy much fine drinking in Belize. I knew the country made rum, and, for better or worse, cashew wine, but that certainly wasn’t the reason I visited. What drew me was the uncrowded Mayan ruins and sensational snorkeling. I didn’t have hopes of finding unique craft cocktails in remote jungle lodges.

Nevertheless, there they were:

SPICY MAYAN

My first stop in the country was Belcampo Belize, a jungle lodge near the coast with a very creative barman, Tim. He created the best thing I drink in all of Belize, the “Spicy Mayan.” Fortunately, Tim put a lot more thought into the cocktail itself than he did the name. I’ve never tasted anything quite like it.

First, he muddled some fresh allspice leaves in a shaker, releasing their oils. Ancient Mayans, a guide told me, used to chew allspice leaves in order to numb their mouths before dentists embellished their teeth with jade dots or performed other dental procedures. I tried chewing an allspice leaf, and while I did notice a numbing sensation, the leaf did not strike me as an adequate substitute for Novocaine. As a nibbled the leaf, my guide said something insane about ancient Mayans using molten jade to decorate their teeth, and I took a moment to heartily thank God for modern dentistry. But I digress.

Tim muddled several allspice leaves, shaking them with a mix of white rum, lime, simple syrup and Casa Mascia Apothecary Culantro Elixir, a liqueur made from cilantro’s wild cousin. The result, served over ice and garnished with an allspice leaf, had an inviting aroma of cilantro. Sour, sweet and herbaceous flavors balanced each other beautifully, and the slight numbing sensation of the allspice enhanced the cocktail’s general feeling of freshness. This drink, in short, was absolutely superb.

Watermelon Smash at Belcampo Belize

WATERMELON SMASH

While staying at Belcampo Belize, I also tried a delightful Watermelon Smash. Fresh watermelon, I find, makes a delicious and versatile mixer, and I would love to see it used more often in U.S. cocktail bars. In this drink, it was combined with bourbon, fresh lime juice, mint and Peychaud’s Bitters. It was sweet, a little tart, and far too easy to drink. I rather loved it.

Planters Punch at Victoria House

PLANTER’S PUNCH

My lunch at Victoria House, one of the most highly regarded properties on Ambergris Caye, was not a success. The seared grouper had obviously emerged straight from the freezer, not the sea, which is unconscionable considering that countless numbers of the fish swim along the reef within sight of the hotel. I played dumb and asked my waiter where the Victoria House got its grouper. Pointing to the ocean, he exclaimed, “Right there!” But he gave the game away when he continued, “We get it from local fishermen every Tuesday and Thursday.” (I dined there on a Sunday.)

Fortunately, my Planter’s Punch tasted much better than the bland, gummy fish on my plate. The bartender modified the standard recipe a bit, using both white and dark rum instead of just dark, and omitting the grenadine. I didn’t miss it, however. The drink tasted of pineapple tinged with a hint of molasses, and though it was fruity, it didn’t feel overly sweet. It was a pleasure to sip it as the palms along the beach swayed in the breeze.

Edward the Cucumber at Ka'ana

EDWARD THE CUCUMBER

The photo above makes this unusually named cocktail look like something sent from heaven, but this drink was more of a taste of purgatory. I ordered it at Ka’ana, a jungle resort near the ancient Mayan city of Xunantunich. It sounded perfectly lovely; the menu described it as a fairly straightforward mix of vodka, cucumber, mint, lime and ginger. But what should have been refreshing, cool and complex tasted almost unbearably tart, and when that flavor had finished bashing in my palate, some overbearing ginger spice gave it an extra kick for good measure.

My waitress confided that very few people actually like the drink. Who would? But why Edward the Cucumber continues to dishonor the menu with his presence remains a mystery.

Hibiscus Daiquiri at Ka'ana

HIBISCUS DAIQUIRI

Ka’ana’s bartender redeemed himself the next night with this cocktail, an attractive Hibiscus Daiquiri. A standard Daiquiri is one of the simplest and loveliest of cocktails, a perfect mix of rum, fresh lime juice and simple syrup. Here, the bartender steeped fresh hibiscus flowers in hot water and used the resulting infusion to make the simple syrup. The drink tasted tart and sweetly rummy, as it should, and just a touch floral. Delicious.

Belize, it turns out, isn’t just good for ancient cities hidden in the jungle, or eye-popping coral reefs inhabited by purple sea fans, acid-green eels and turquoise parrot fish. The compact country has more than its fair share of bartenders mixing up superlative cocktails. And there’s something especially wonderful about sipping something as civilized as a well-crafted cocktail while surrounded by unspoiled nature.

The Best Things I Drank In 2015: Spirits & Cocktails

7 January 2016

Xoriguer Gin & Lemon in MenorcaAt this time of the year, it seems to be the thing to make “Top ____ of 2015″ lists. I love a good list, and making a few myself has given me the chance to reflect on the past year. I certainly 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, 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.

Nor are these trends confined to the United States, as you can see from the short list below. How fortunate, to have been able to experience such an array of delicious drinks in such a variety of memorable bars!

Here are the best spirits and cocktails I drank 2015, in alphabetical order:

 

Adlerbrennerei Wildhimbeergeist

ADLERBRENNEREI M. PIRCHER WALDHIMBEERGEIST

The Adler distillery, in a small town a little north of Nuremberg, Germany, produced this delightful Obstbrand (fruit brandy) from wild raspberries. The words “fruit brandy” don’t necessarily inspire confidence, but nowadays, Germany boasts quite a few distilleries dedicated to producing high-quality small-batch spirits from a range of gorgeous local fruits.

I tried this example neat (as is traditional) in the clubby bar of Berlin’s Regent hotel. It smelled like creamy raspberries, and it had a remarkably smooth texture, with very little roughness or burn in spite of its alcoholic strength. I loved its warm and fruity character, light texture and spicy finish.

 

Brennerei Rochelt Williamsbirne

BRENNEREI ROCHELT WILLIAMSBIRNE

I couldn’t help but put another Obstbrand on this list, and honestly, there are two or three others that I would have added if space permitted. If you find yourself in Germany or Austria (or in a particularly well-stocked liquor store), seek out high-quality Obstbrand. It rewards the effort and then some.

This example, made by the Rochelt distillery in Austria’s Tyrol region, clocked in at a high 50% alcohol. Even so, the nose smelled of Williamsbirne (Poire William, or Bartlett pear), not booze. I can’t deny that the first taste knocked my socks off — the alcohol hit a little hard — but on the second try, with my palate properly primed, it tasted far more balanced.

Ripe pear flavor filled every nook and cranny of my mouth, and it kept developing and changing from there, moving from ripe fruit to pear skin to focused spice to alcoholic heat.

Sipped at Berlin’s Hotel de Rome, this exquisite digestive wasn’t inexpensive at €40 a glass — fortunately a food-and-beverage credit covered the charge — but my word, it was certainly memorable.

 

BUDDHA’S HAND DAIQUIRI

I came up with this cocktail myself, and it proved to be one of my all-time favorite inventions. The recipe is easy, as long as you can find a Buddha’s hand, a seductively fragrant alien-shaped citron in season for about two weeks each year.

First, prepare some Buddha’s hand simple syrup: Zest about half a large Buddha’s hand (being careful to avoid the pith) and muddle the peel with a cup of sugar, which helps release the fragrant oils in the rind. After letting it sit for a bit, mix the sugar and zest with a cup of water and heat on the stove, dissolving the sugar and extracting additional flavor from the zest. Once it cools, strain the mixture to remove the peel and store the contents in a little jar in the refrigerator. It keeps for about a month.

With the syrup prepared, keep to a traditional daiquiri recipe, mixing two parts rum (either white or aged can work, depending on if you prefer a fresher or mellower flavor), one part fresh-squeezed lime juice and a half-part simple syrup.

The Buddha’s hand simple syrup makes for an exceptional lime daiquiri, adding a floral note to the tart citrus and round molasses sweetness of the rum.

 

Cocktail at Vina Vik

COCKTAIL OF THE DAY AT VIÑA VIK

As you might guess from the name of this hotel, Viña Vik is far better known for its wine than its cocktails. But this design-heavy resort in Chile delighted me with its “cocktail of the day” the last evening of my stay.

As far as I know, it didn’t have an official name, but this drink certainly deserves some sort of title. The mix of vodka, Aperol, fresh watermelon juice, fresh lemon juice and fresh ginger tasted refreshing, complex and beautifully balanced. In a high-wire act of mixology, the sweet watermelon, tart lemon, bitter Aperol and spicy ginger worked together with impressive grace.

 

Bartender Tila at Nanuku in Fiji

Tila bleaching hibiscus blossoms

HIBISCUS BLEACH

Tila, the vivacious bartender at Nanuku, a resort in Fiji, made this rather distressingly named cocktail for me. “Tila Tequila,” as she is affectionately known, did indeed bleach five hibiscus blossoms in the course of making this drink, draining them of color as she steeped them in hot water. This fresh hibiscus tea, when combined with honey, fresh lime juice and Fijian Bounty Overproof Rum, makes for a powerful Hurricane-like cocktail. But what a difference from the sickly-sweet concoctions people carry around in plastic cups in New Orleans! You can see the full recipe here.

 

Rum House

Rum Old Fashioned (right)

RUM OLD FASHIONED AT THE RUM HOUSE

Fans of the film “Birdman” will recognize The Rum House as the Manhattan bar in which Riggan confronted the drama critic. We visited on a Saturday afternoon at about 5 p.m. and had no trouble getting a table, which felt like a mini-miracle in a neighborhood thronged with theater patrons. I loved the buzzing-but-cozy atmosphere, and the drinks we ordered were beyond reproach.

In particular, my Rum Old Fashioned, though unorthodox, worked absolutely beautifully. It moved from molasses sweetness to an appealingly bitter and spicy finish.

 

Up next: The Best White and Sparkling Wines of 2015

Cocktails: The Season For Unusual Citrus

16 November 2015
Pink variegated lemon

Pink variegated lemon

In Chicago, we’re slowly running out of seasonal produce to look forward to. We’re in the midst of kale, cabbage and carrots, and then there’s quite a dry spell until the first ramps of spring poke out their heads in April. Fortunately, this is also the season of citrus (well, somewhere it is), and all sorts of exciting tart fruits start appearing in grocery store produce departments. And citrus, of course, is a key ingredient in countless cocktails which can be made quite sexy and seasonal with an interesting citrus substitution.

The easiest “unusual” citrus to find tends to be blood oranges, which look either like small navel oranges or oranges rubbed with blush. The juice tends to be tart and delicious, and it turns any cocktail a gorgeous reddish color. I experimented with it a few years back and came up with some delicious drink recipes in this post.

But I must admit I don’t always have the energy to come up with exciting new cocktail recipes to showcase an unusual piece of citrus. When faced with an irresistible piece of fruit, but unwilling to devote the time and money necessary to come up with a fancy new recipe, the lazy mixologist in me turns to a simple and tasty classic: the daiquiri.

This restorative cocktail combines just three ingredients: rum, citrus (traditionally lime) and simple syrup (one part sugar dissolved in one part water). I like the ratio of two parts rum, one part citrus and a half part of simple syrup. The result is balanced, refreshing and boozy. Just how I like. Lime and rum work beautifully together, but other tart citrus fruits can work just as well.

Pink variegated lemon daiquiriFor example, at Whole Foods, I recently found a display of pink variegated lemons, and I certainly was not about to pass up the chance to work with them. I purchased a couple, juiced them and mixed up a daiquiri using five-year-old Ron Centenario from Costa Rica. (I ordinarily recommend using unaged rum in a daiquiri, but I was fresh out and impatient.) The resulting drink tasted sour and sweet, with a pleasant note of powdered candy.

And every year at Whole Foods, there are about two weeks when Buddha’s hands appear. This citron looks like a little alien or sea creature, with several finger- or tentacle-like segments extending out from a central hub. These fruits have no juice to speak of — the interior is almost entirely pith — but the peel smells sensational. It has a wonderfully floral, perfumed character, and even just having a Buddha’s hand in the room can make it smell like sunshine.

The Buddha’s hand lack of juice doesn’t mean it can’t be used in a daiquiri, but it takes a little more effort. I zested about half of my Buddha’s hand (careful to avoid the pith) and muddled the peel with a cup of sugar, which helps release the fragrant oils in the rind. After letting it sit for a bit, I added a cup of water and heated the mixture on the stove, dissolving the sugar and extracting additional flavor from the zest. Once it cooled, I strained the mixture to remove the peel and stored the contents in a little jar in the refrigerator.

Buddha's hand

Buddha’s hand

This Buddha’s hand simple syrup made for an exceptional lime daiquiri, adding a floral note to the tart citrus and round molasses sweetness of the rum. But the syrup doesn’t keep forever, as I learned to my chagrin, even in the fridge. Be sure to use it within a month or so.

Next, I’m looking forward to trying some daiquiris with Meyer lemons, which have both tasty juice and a fragrant peel. It’s hard to go wrong when you combine citrus of just about any kind with rum.

If you try making a cocktail with some unusual citrus, be sure to let us know how it goes in the comments section of this post. I’d love to see your recipes!

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