One or two for the road
Whether a caipirinha from Brazil or a kir from France, every country has a signature cocktail
ROBERT Louis Stevenson, the famous writer and rambler, once explained that he travelled ‘‘not to get anywhere, but to go’’. The great affair, he said, was ‘‘to move’’.
Sure, I would have replied, had I been there in Stevenson’s study, listening closely, single malt in hand. ‘‘Movement is just fine. But for me, the whole thing is, well, more liquid. I sail, and get on planes, and pilot my car in quest of interesting drinks.’’
This is the point where Stevenson would have either refilled my glass or sent me packing.
But let me explain. It isn’t daylight I like but dusk. And similar to a ship at sunset, reaching a new port lets me moor for at least a night and taste (I should say sip) what it has in store. I find out more from the snap of a country’s signature liqueur than by visiting sights or taking guided tours.
France, of course, has its kir (a blend of creme de cassis and white wine) and England enjoys its Pimm’s Cup (this gin-based drink with quinine and herbs is typically mixed with lemon-lime soda or dry ginger ale, fruit such as orange slices, cucumber garnish and sprigs of mint).
But these are only two of the world’s top cocktail-hour pours. In Iceland recently for the first time, I ran smack into a juggernaut in a bottle called Brennivin and known to locals as ‘‘Black Death’’. Similar to Aquavit in Scandinavia, Brennivin is a schnapps that’s made from potatoes and jazzed up with the scent of caraway seeds.
Much like a looming volcano, this national drink is a raw and mysterious thing.
The scary-looking j et- black Brennivin label depicts Iceland’s coastline, as if it were a tipple just for fishermen. In fact, while trying to get a glass of Black Death down, I learn that it is excellent for chasing away the taste of hakarl, an Icelandic delicacy derived from rotting shark meat. No one has any hakarl handy. And I don’t die from drinking my shot. But my throat and stomach feel like molten lava and my brain like a just-extinguished blaze.
During a rainforest cruise on Brazil’s Rio Negro, I am handed my first caipirinha, a concoction that tastes as fresh as jungle fruits or flowers (that’s the lime in there) but that coils inside you like a cobra, waiting to strike. I start asking deckhands for details and discover caipirinha comes from caipira, meaning a person from the countryside.
But after a second glass, the name of this national drink starts to sound to me like samba.
‘‘Caipirinha, caipirinha,’’ I sing out loud on the windswept deck. ‘‘Copacabana, Ipanema.’’ (This is the work of cachaca, a local sugarcane-based rum.) The cries of parrots overhead blend in, alongside the splashes of fish and fat tropical drops from a storm. For the first time, I understand why Brazilians seem never far from a guitar.
Sometimes a drink evokes what’s been going on in a country’s work life. For reasons I’ve never understood, alcohol has an eerie sense of economics and often reflects the pace of places where it is mixed and poured. An extreme example of this is Burma, isolated for decades until recently due to its tough military government.
Rural Burmese roads are clogged with herds of gentle cattle and, churning by on bikes and donkey carts, everyone smiles.
When my wife and I ask about spirits in a shop, the owner dredges up a dusty bottle about three-quarters full. Noticing our hesitation, he rummages cheer- fully in the back of the store and, flashing a Colgate grin, presents us with a fifth of Country Timebrand Burmese gin. We buy it on the spot.
An opposite universe, in many ways, is urban China. The busy Beijing restaurants I eat in pulsate with energy, with a zest for consumption that matches its most frenetic streets. The carts here transport lacquered Peking ducks, ready for slicing, and jingling bottles of baijiu, the country’s ubiquitous ‘‘white liquor’’ that’s distilled from sorghum and can be as strong as 120 proof.
After a cup of the stuff is slid my way and I take some wary sips, I begin to feel baijiu is more than just a drink. It is Beijing in a bottle. It reminds me of riding in Chinese buses, of touring around a carchoked downtown precinct. ‘‘What is this taste?’’ I ask aloud, and a local at my table is quick to reply. ‘‘It tastes like diesel fuel,’’ he says, clapping his hands and laughing delightedly beside four baijiu-drinking friends.
He is correct. I am slowly learning. Time for another cup.
A bartender mixes a drink at London’s Savoy Hotel; a country’s cocktail-hour pours can reveal much about the national character
A Pimm’s Cup and a strawberry caipirinha