One or two for the road

Whether a caipir­inha from Brazil or a kir from France, ev­ery coun­try has a sig­na­ture cock­tail

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - PETER MAN­DEL

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.

AFP/CARL COURT

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

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