Just as certain wines can conjure memories of archetypal leisurely lunches amid the vineyards, so too can cocktails transport us to beautiful places and happier times. We may be restricted to our homes and nearby grocery stores, but that doesn’t mean we can’t act as if we’re on vacation every now and then. And let’s be honest, who doesn’t need a little help lifting their spirits these days? Indeed, sometimes spirits are just the thing.
To write this first article in a series of three, I took boozy journeys to three destinations in North and Central America. In the United States, New Orleans ranks as a mixology capital, not least because it hosts the annual Tales of the Cocktail conference and festival. Mexico has its own great series of tipples, based around spirits distilled from agave. And of course, Central America and the Caribbean also have strong cocktail cultures, centered on rum.
So put down the newspaper, pick up a book from my list of recommended fiction, mix one of the cocktails below, and let the current troubles of the world recede, at least for a while.
One of the world’s great cocktail destinations, New Orleans is home to iconic drinks such as the Ramos gin fizz, the Vieux Carré, the much-abused hurricane and the Sazerac. This last cocktail is the simplest and what I’m most apt to make at home. Sipping a bittersweet Sazerac always takes me back to the Davenport Lounge in the Ritz-Carlton, which makes, for my money, the best Sazerac in New Orleans. And it’s the city’s most civilized place in which to listen to live jazz. I miss it.
1 sugar cube (or 1 tsp. sugar)
3 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
2 dashes Angostura Bitters
2 ounces rye whiskey
Chill a lowball glass in the freezer. Meanwhile, put the sugar in a shaker or cocktail pitcher and douse with the bitters. (Purists will protest, but since I had no Peychaud’s, I used orange bitters instead, which works perfectly well.) Muddle. Add the rye (I used Sazerac Rye, of course) and stir. Remove your glass from the freezer and add a bit of absinthe, swooshing it around to coat the glass. Add ice to your shaker or pitcher and stir for one minute. Strain into your lowball glass and twist a lemon peel over it to extract the oils. If you don’t have a lemon handy, the drink will still survive, albeit in a less fragrant state. Either way, I love the cinnamon note of the rye combined with the anise of the absinthe.
Just a few months ago I was in San Miguel de Allende, sipping cocktails on roof terraces, toasting liberally to my good fortune, oblivious to the gathering storm. While there, I discovered a wonderful winery, but it’s not the taste of wine that brings me back to Mexico. The country’s classic cocktail is, of course, the margarita, a beauty of a drink that is too frequently bastardized in the United States through the use of premade sour mix. Eschew that green chemical stew in favor of fresh lime juice.
Tequila — either silver, for a fresher cocktail, or reposado, for a richer one — is the usual spirit in a margarita, but I’ve become quite partial to mezcal. Whereas tequila can be produced only from the blue agave plant, mezcal can come from a whole range of agave varieties, each of which lends a different character to the spirit. In addition, mezcal calls for the agave’s piña to be roasted before it’s juiced, giving most mezcals an intriguing smoky note that’s sure to please lovers of scotch.
2 parts mezcal
1 part orange liqueur
1 part fresh lime juice
Tamarind paste (optional)
Combine the mezcal (I’m fond of Montelobos Joven), the orange liqueur (Triple Sec, Cointreau or Grand Marnier) and lime juice in a shaker with ice, shake for about 30 seconds and strain into your preferred glasses, which have ideally been chilled in advance. Salted rims are optional.
I like how this drink tastes tart, sweet, fresh and spicy-smoky all at once. But the way I really prefer to make it is with tamarind paste. To incorporate the paste into the drink, assume the parts above equal one ounce (for one cocktail), and use a heaping teaspoon of paste. Put the paste in a ramekin or other small bowl, and add in the orange liqueur. Stir to combine. If you add the paste straight into the shaker without thinning it first, it’s harder to dissolve.
The tamarind adds a wonderful juicy roundness to the cocktail, softening the drink’s sharp edges. Unfortunately, it also turns the cocktail brown, making it a good idea to use tinted glasses if you have them.
The daiquiri is another drink that has suffered an unfortunate transformation in the United States. Too often an oversugared candy cocktail of artificial-tasting juice blended with ice and cheap rum, a daiquiri is not the sort of thing most cocktail connoisseurs order in a bar. But a classic daiquiri is not unlike a margarita, and it can be an elegant, adult drink. The basic daiquiri recipe couldn’t be much simpler, making it an ideal choice for when few ingredients are on hand and speed is of the essence. However, it’s possible to tweak the recipe, especially with the composition of the simple syrup.
Simple syrup is quite simply half sugar and half water. You can make it on an as-needed basis, but it’s great fun to prepare more flavorful syrups in advance. For example, to make a more tropical version, steep some dried hibiscus flowers in hot water, and strain them out before dissolving in the sugar (I use a tea strainer and a mug). Cool and store in in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. I also like to make simple syrup with orange or lemon peel, muddling the zest in the sugar before adding water. Bring to a simmer and turn off the heat. Let it steep for a while, strain out the peel and store. My favorite version is made with aromatic Buddha’s hand zest, which adds a seductive floral note to a daiquiri.
1 part fresh-squeezed lime juice
2 parts rum
½ to 1 part simple syrup (see above) to taste
Start by juicing a lime and using that amount as a measure of one part. Add it, the rum (white rum for a brighter drink, or aged rum for a rounder one) and the simple syrup to a shaker with ice, and shake energetically for 20-30 seconds. Strain into chilled lowball glasses or coupes, as you prefer. Serve ungarnished or perhaps with a lime twist, but I prefer the added aromatic complexity of an orange twist.
When I first arrive at a Central American or Caribbean destination, I head to the bar at the earliest opportunity and order a classic daiquiri. The drink has become a touchstone, marking the start of a sun-soaked week or two that never fails to be relaxing, in spite of my writing duties.