Summertime Refresher: Gin and Tonic

August 17, 2015

The dog days of summer are upon us, and in Washington that means days hotter than two native black squirrels making love in a wool sock. So what’s one to do when the temperatures are hot as hell and the air is thick as a sauna?

My solution is to head to the pool with a refreshing cocktail in hand.

One of my favorite poolside elixirs is one of the simplest: a timeless gin and tonic with garnish. After all, there is a reason why July is known as Gin & Tonic Month.

While this may sound boring to some, nowadays there is a wide variety of gin styles and flavor profiles available in your local spirits store. You could spend the rest of the summer mixing G&Ts without a dull moment.

First, let’s talk a little about gin, which is essentially a spirit distilled from juniper berries. This gives it its signature “piney” flavor.
Gin started off as an herbal medicine in Holland, where it was known as genever (the Dutch word for juniper). Genever, which is being sold again, had a sweeter flavor and a darker color than the gin we know, because it had a high percentage of malt wine.
When Dutch Prince William of Orange and his wife, Mary, became King William III and Queen Mary II of England, Scotland and Ireland, they brought gin with them. However, the British tempered the sweet taste of the gin, creating the style known today as London or dry gin.

In the 1700s, the British government allowed the unlicensed production of gin. Very cheap, it became wildly popular, sparking a period of history known as “gin madness.”

The gin and tonic came about when British colonists in tropical areas, such as India and Africa, took a daily dose of quinine to prevent malaria. At that time, tonic water contained a high level of quinine. The gin masked the bitter taste.

Gin became popular in America during Prohibition, when bootleggers figured out they could make a cheap version by mixing grain alcohol with other flavors in a large vat (hence the term “bathtub gin”).

Today, gin has morphed into an artisanal spirit. Distillers experiment with different botanicals, such as cucumber, orange peel, elderflower, almonds and poppy. These gins have a less prominent juniper flavor, which is what many folks dislike about the spirit.

One of my favorite “neo-gins” is Bluecoat. Hailing from Philadelphia, it has soft and earthy juniper notes, finishing with a citrus twang. It also has a slight hint of coriander. This is my go-to for a G&T.

Arguably the most popular of the new gins is Hendrick’s. Its cucumber notes took the sprits world by storm a few years ago. Even traditional gin makers have jumped on this bandwagon. Tanqueray now produces Tanqueray No. Ten, with hints of grapefruit and orange, and Rangpur, with the essence of lime.

Whatever your style, there is likely to be a gin to go with it. If you’re a classicist, stick with a traditional dry gin, like Bombay. If want a slight twist, try Old Tom, which is a little more full-bodied with a tinge of sweetness. If you’re a retro person, mix it up with Bols Genever. For the truly adventuresome: Why not enjoy the season sampling as many as you can?

You may also want to experiment with gourmet tonic waters such as Q or Fever Tree. And don’t limit yourself to the typical lime garnish. Use your imagination and pick a fruit or a spice that will compliment your superb choice of spirit: cucumber, berries, thyme, blood orange, ginger root, a sprig of mint…

Jody’s Gin & Tonic

3 ounces Bluecoat gin
5 ounces Q tonic
Garnish with an orange wheel and serve
in a collins glass.

Cocktail of the Month: Peru Meets Bolivia

May 21, 2015

Anyone who follows my column knows about my love affair with pisco, which started when I lived in Peru. Little did I know then that pisco has a Bolivian partner-in-crime called singani.

Peru and its landlocked neighbor, Bolivia, share many things, including the Incas, the Andes, alpacas and altitude. When it was part of the Spanish empire, the area that became Bolivia was known as Alto (Upper) Perú.

Many folks regard Bolivia’s national liquor, singani, as a variation of Peru’s pisco, but there are distinct differences. While it’s true that both are technically brandies forged from grapes, singani differs from pisco because it is made from one specific varietal: white Muscat of Alexandria grapes. Singani hails from the Bolivian Andes and can only be produced within its appellation or specified landmark boundaries.

According to, distillation began in the 1500s when settlers began producing wine. The affluent residents of Potosí, a silver-mining town that was one of the richest cities in the world in its day, began to ask for a stronger drink with which to celebrate. In the community of Singani, a distilled spirit was produced for the wealthy. “Singani” has been in production ever since.

I got a chance to sample singani last autumn when I was traveling through Bolivia. In La Paz, I met up with one of my dearest Peruvian friends, Miguel Luis Roque, a musician who had been staying and playing in Bolivia for several months. During his time traipsing throughout the country often referred to as “the Tibet of the Americas,” Miguel had developed an appreciation for its native spirit.

Singani has a smooth taste and a hint of sweetness similar to pisco. However, Miguel wanted me to appreciate the subtleties of my newly discovered elixir. He insisted on doing a side-by-side comparison between singani and a bottle of pisco I had brought from Peru. When weighed against one another, I found singani to be a bit drier, with a slightly spicier flavor.

After sampling each straight up, we mixed them both in a traditional Bolivian cocktail called the chuflay. Technically a highball, a chuflay consists of singani mixed with lemon soda (or sometimes ginger ale). It’s usually served in a collins glass, garnished with lime.

This cocktail was a breeze to make. In the corner stores, we found a super-tart carbonated lemonade drink sold in liter bottles. This beverage was an excellent complement for the tangy flavor of the grapes, and the tender spiciness of the singani gave it a bit of a zesty aftertaste. It was as refreshing as breathing La Paz’s 12,000-foot mountain air.

I later learned that singani is free of methanol, which accounts for its smoothness. It also contains no congeners, which can contribute to hangovers. I appreciated this fact when I got up four hours after our tasting session to go mountain biking on Bolivia’s notorious highway of death.

For a long time, the only way for Americans to enjoy singani in their home country was to bring it back in their suitcases after a trip to Bolivia. However, according to, Ace Beverage in Washington is the first place where singani formally went on sale in the U.S. Movie buffs will be interested to know that Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh has begun producing his own brand of singani (Singani 63) that can be purchased online.

The traditional toast when drinking singani is “La vida es buena” (“Life is good”). I couldn’t agree more with this sentiment on the joyous day when I spent the night reminiscing, not only with close amigo Miguel but with my Lima-based travel partner (and Miguel’s former music collaborator) Lowell Haise Contreras. Cheers!

The Chuflay

1.5 ounces singani

4 ounces lemon soda or lemonade

Add singani to a collins glass, then add lemon soda. Garnish with lemon or lime.

Cocktail of the Month: The Spirit of Africa

April 23, 2015

Africa is an exotic continent with an unbridled spirit: a place full of starry-eyed dreams of safari, mystifying native people, endangered animals, spectacular sunsets and thrilling sojourns across savannahs filled with breathtaking vistas.

On my first trip there, I came across a striking elixir in Kenya with a bold label that truly caught my eye. The label prominently featured a massive elephant with mammoth tusks staring at me with its ears alert. The brown bottle with a golden cord tied around it blended seamlessly into the background display, featuring images of the sun going down on a dazzling landscape, with elephants silhouetted across a sky tinged with orange and gold.

A tagline proclaimed it: “Amarula – the spirit of Africa.”

I would later see this alluring liqueur on sale throughout Africa, from the town of Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe to the safari dreamland of Tanzania, from the rollicking beaches of Ghana to the colorful deserts of Namibia.

Amarula is a cream liqueur (similar to Baileys), forged from the fruit of the marula tree. In Africa, the tree is also known as the elephant tree because elephants are very fond of its fruit.

There is also an ancient African legend about the elephant and the hare. According to, a hare helped an elephant during a time of drought. To thank him, the elephant presented the hare with a tusk. The hare buried it in his garden and then enjoyed the wonderful fruit in times of famine. From then on, the elephant is said to be looking for his tusk as he devours the fruit from the marula tree.

Marula trees grow abundantly in the wild and are found in South Africa, Botswana, Swaziland, Namibia and Zimbabwe. The fruit, the size of a small oval plum, has a golden-yellow skin and a soft, citrus-like flavor, but with a creamy nuttiness.

Amarula liqueur is made in South Africa. The technique is very similar to the process of making wine, for which South Africa is also known. Like grapes, the fruit is crushed with the skins. Next, the pulp is transported to Stellenbosch, South Africa’s famed winemaking town, where it is fermented, distilled and then left to age for two years in oak barrels, where the additional flavors of vanilla and spices are imparted. Finally, it’s blended with fresh dairy cream to give it its thick, velvety consistency.

The rich and creamy final product is often served on the rocks as an aperitif or after-dinner tipple. Many of the cocktails made with Amarula are thick and heavy. For a dessert-like indulgence, it is mixed with coffee or other sweet liqueurs and ice cream.

The best Amarula mixture I’ve sampled came from an outdoor restaurant along the beachfront road in Cape Town’s hip Camps Bay neighborhood, where fashionable young locals hobnob on Sundays. It was a brisk early-spring afternoon, just before sunset. I was sitting on the patio, lazily enjoying the sublime view.

My drink arrived in a classic martini glass, looking a bit like an old-time brandy Alexander. A combination of Amarula, vodka and Cointreau, it was a pleasant pre-dinner treat. The orange liqueur enhanced the orange flavor of the Amarula, while the vodka provided an extra kick, preventing the drink from becoming too heavy. It was a lovely way to cap off a day of touring Africa’s celebrated southernmost coast.

There are more noble reasons to imbibe Amarula than the exotic taste. The brand is involved in many projects to help the people and wildlife of Africa. Being true to its majestic elephant mascot, the Amarula Elephant Research Program tracks elephant movement rates and ranging behavior. Amarula has also partnered with the Kenyan Wildlife Service.

Another unique community project the company sponsors is the tassel program, which helps formerly unemployed women by hiring them to make the tasseled cords that adorn every bottle of Amarula.

You don’t need to fly to Africa to sample this unique elixir. Amarula is available in many local liquor stores.

Swinging Safari
2 1/2 shots of Amarula
1 1/4 shots of Cointreau
1 shot of vodka

Mix all three ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Strain into a martini glass and garnish with an orange peel.

Cocktail of the Month: Searching for Livingstone

March 26, 2015

“Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”

On Nov. 10, 1871, journalist and explorer H. M. Stanley muttered these words to David Livingstone in a small town on Lake Tanganyika in East Africa, giving rise to this still-popular quotation.

The quote has dubious connotations, as it describes Stanley’s words upon completing a long and treacherous journey in search of Livingstone, one of the most popular explorers of the 19th century. When he spotted the only white man, the legendary question was posed

Livingstone, who had a near-mythical status in Victorian England, was on the forefront of a period of geographical discovery that led to the colonization of Africa.

Throughout Africa today, monuments of Livingstone abound. His name is attached to many places, including the city of Livingstone, Zambia, where he became the first European to visit Victoria Falls. Even a cocktail bears the name of the British hero.

I stumbled upon this by accident. As a cocktail nerd, whenever I travel to a new place, I Google the city name along with ‘cocktails,’ in an attempt to find the top local watering holes.

When I Googled ‘Livingstone’ and ‘cocktail,’ I didn’t find any lounge recommendations, but I found a number of sites with recipes for the Livingstone cocktail. My interest was piqued. I wanted to try this new cocktail, but the websites seemed to disagree on its ingredients.

The ingredients were sometimes listed as Mount Gay rum, orange juice and tonic. To me, a drink made with Barbados rum did not seem fitting for an African pioneer.

Another site had a photo of a drink looking much like a 20th-century cosmopolitan made with pomegranate syrup. I didn’t picture Livingstone hanging with the “Sex and the City” gals.

The recipe that came up the most was a drink similar to a classic martini, made with gin, vermouth and sugar syrup. This timeless combination was something I could imagine as a colonial drink.

I decided to take the search into my own hands when I landed in Livingstone last September. However, I quickly found that the hunt for the Livingstone cocktail in Livingstone was almost as challenging as Livingstone’s search for the source of the Nile.

I started with the bar at my hotel, Fawlty Towers, named after the John Cleese Britcom. Since my expectations were formed by the antics of Basil Fawlty and Manuel, I wasn’t too surprised when the staff hadn’t heard of the drink. They recommended some nearby places.

My first stop was Zambezi, a happening African joint. No luck. I headed to a long stretch of nightspots. I dutifully tried them all: cafés, outdoor bars, a seafood restaurant and even an Italian restaurant. Dr. Livingstone’s cocktail was nowhere to be found.

Finally, I upped the ante and headed to the Royal Livingstone Hotel, the ritziest place in town. I assumed they must serve the cocktail that bears the name of their hotel.

The Royal Livingstone exudes colonial elegance with its stylish design, graceful lobby and well-designed lounging areas. The expansive grounds around the hotel are home to a number of safari animals. I caught glimpses of zebras and giraffes on my taxi ride there.

Since it was early in the day, the refined bar was empty. I was handed a thick menu of drinks. Surely Dr. Livingstone would make an appearance soon. But once again he was absent. I quizzed the bartender, who brought me his supervisor. I was told that at one time they had a cocktail called the Livingstone, but they no longer served it. I asked him if I could order it. He eyed me suspiciously and said he would have to check.

He returned with a recipe for the elusive elixir and began to whip it up. Its ingredients were puzzling to me: mint muddled with a double of Jameson, apple juice topped off with soda water. A drink named after a British national hero forged from an Irish whiskey?

The drink was surprisingly interesting. The mint complimented the vanilla undertones of the Jameson, while the apple juice provided a hint of sweetness.

However, it seemed a bit heavy to be drinking after a warm day on safari, so I decided to compare it with the gin version I found online.

For the next round, I requested the bartender to mix a recipe I took off the internet. This drink was light and refreshing, and the London gin gave it a bit of regal twang. Here was a cocktail that could inspire new adventures.

After downing my drink, I found myself doing just that, hopping a boat from the hotel’s marina to visit the top of Victoria Falls and take a swim to the very edge in the Devil’s Pool.

Thank you, Dr. Livingstone, for the liquid courage!

Cocktail of the Month: The Bamboo

January 16, 2015

Sherry, other than being a hit song for Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, is etched in many people’s minds as a sketchy elixir, along the lines of sloe gin, crème de menthe or anything else collecting dust in your grandmother’s liquor cabinet.

The most well-known brand is Harvey’s Bristol Cream, a product that may be the all-time king of cheesy advertising. In my childhood, long before I truly understood the meaning, I remember learning about women’s liberation from a Christmas commercial that aired in 1978 (available on YouTube). In this tacky classic, a woman invites herself to a man’s apartment so she can “slip something under his tree.”

Sherry remained off my radar for the next 20 years or so, until an accidental meeting when my boyfriend, Glenn Sorvisto, and I were on a three-week Iberian road trip. Our circular route stretched from Madrid to the Basque Country, then along the Portuguese coast and into Andalucía.

It was right after we crossed back into Spain from Portugal’s Algarve when – as happened many times during the trip – we got lost, ending up in the Sherry Triangle. In this region, defined by Spanish law, I had my first adult run-in with sherry.

Sherry is a fortified wine (meaning that extra alcohol is added), primarily made from Palomino, Moscatel and Pedro Ximénez grapes. The towns of Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María are the three corners of the Sherry Triangle. Sherry can only be produced in this region, and many of the bodegas (wine cellars) welcome visitors.

The limestone-based soil provides perfect conditions for growing these types of grapes. Sherry is aged and blended using a solera system, in which wine rotates through a series of older and older barrels.

Though we didn’t go to a winery, I got a delightful lecture on sherry from the host at a tapas bar where we stopped for lunch. After spending a day in Lisbon educating myself at the Port Wine Institute (and OD’ing on sangria everywhere else on the trip), I was eager to try something new.

As we nibbled on freshly cured ham, olives and egg tortillas, we were treated to samples of different sherry varieties. I always thought of sherry as sweet. My biggest surprise was finding out that roughly 90 percent is dry. And I discovered that, like Port wine, the flavor and characteristics of different sherries can vary tremendously.

I tasted sherries from both ends of the spectrum. On one side was fino, a very dry, light-bodied sherry, strawlike in color. On the other was oloroso: dark in color, rich in flavor and served with manchego cheese. In between was a nutty-flavored amontillado. To satisfy my sweet tooth, I finished with a cloying Pedro Ximénez sherry.

If you want to experience the warm ambiance of Andalucía, you don’t need to cross the pond. Just head to 7th Street, NW. Derek Brown, the man behind the Columbia Room and Eat the Rich, and his wife Chantal Tseng, formerly of the Tabard Inn, have teamed up at Mockingbird Hill, a ham and sherry bar inspired by their visits to Spain.

Complementing a selection of Spanish-influenced dishes and local hams at Mockingbird Hill are 54 varieties of sherry. The best way to start is with a sample flight, similar to my introduction in Spain. Or – as you would expect in a bar run by D.C.’s mixology power couple – you can order a sherry cocktail.

Tseng enjoys sherry in a number of ways. She recommends the Cheribita, dry fino sherry served over ice with orange bitters and a lemon peel. Sometimes she combines sherry with other spirits: “Sherry and vermouth, sherry and gin, sherry and bourbon, sherry and scotch, sherry and aged rum, sherry and tequila.” Says Tseng, “Sherry is simply versatile.”

According to Tseng, sherry mixes well in cocktails because it shares characteristics with many ingredients. “Sherry is super-complex and can taste anywhere from oyster shells, ocean spray, apples, lemongrass, chamomile, white flowers and chalk to almonds, peanuts, hazelnuts, walnuts, apricots, gingerbread, baking spices, chocolate, marzipan, figs, etc.,” she says.
“Sherry mixes with something and retains its personality. It gets along with so many different ingredients but never loses itself in them. It goes from an elegant accompaniment to the rich backbone of a drink depending on how you use it.”

Her favorite cocktail on the menu is the Bamboo, a combination of fino sherry and Dolin dry vermouth with a dash of orange bitters.

So it’s time to let go of all your sherry clichés and expand your horizons. Let the helpful staff at Mockingbird Hill guide you on your sherry discovery path. ?

The Bamboo

1.5 ounces fino sherry

3 ounces Dolin dry vermouth

Dash of orange bitters

Combine ingredients and stir. Garnish with a lemon peel.

You can try a Bamboo or a sherry flight at Mockingbird Hill, 1843 7th St., NW.

Cocktail of the Week: The Jungle Bird

November 19, 2014

I remember seeing the pictures when the Petronas Twin Towers opened in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in the mid-1990’s overtaking the World Trade Center for the crown the world’s tallest building. I was living in the big apple at the time and all New Yorkers were astounded that someplace else could now brag about having the world’s highest skyscraper. This was a period of great upswing for New York, it was a time when then-mayor Rudy Giuliani proudly boasted on David Letterman, “Our city can kick your city’s ass.” Suddenly, a small country on the other side of the globe had stolen a little bit of thunder from New York.

With this memory etched in my mind, the Petronas towers were at the top of my must-see list when I visited Kuala Lumpur in early August. For me, the best way to experience this architectural wonder was by enjoying a few cocktails while marveling at this architectural phenomenon.

In New York, if you wanted to glance at the twin towers while enjoying a swanky drink, you headed for the legendary rainbow room in Rockefeller Center. In Kuala Lumpur, if you want an up-close view of the Petronas Towers in style, you go to Marini’s on 57.

This upscale lounge on the cutting edge of KL’s evening scene is Malaysia’s highest rooftop bar. To arrive at Marini’s you are whisked up 57 floors in seconds by a high-speed elevator. You can choose to sit outside on one of the patios or imbibe from indoors where floor-to-ceiling windows give you an almost dizzying view.

The lounge is located in the third, shorter building of the Petronas complex. The lounge wraps its way around the building, providing visitors with 360-degree views of the city skyline and an imposing view of the towers. While sitting there, you visualize Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta Jones, scaling across building like they did in the film “Entrapment.”

Marini’s on 57 has an impressive list of signature cocktails, concocted by mixologist Junior(one name only). I started off with a chocolate espresso martini. While I usually avoid cutesy candy-flavored faux martinis, I found this one to be a cut above. Instead of being mixed with chocolate or coffee flavored vodka, this one featured Maker’s Mark Bourbon as its base spirit, which gave it a hearty full flavor.

The next drink on my list was the Mellow Sundown cocktail, a tipple conceived by Junior to celebrate the lounge’s, sunset hour, when guests can enjoy watching the sunset between the towers. This drink had a sunny taste, which came from a mixture of fruits, including pineapple, apple, lime and predominantly passionfruit. Junior mixes this cocktail with vodka to highlight the bright fruit flavors.

My favorite of the three was the 57 Sour, Junior’s twist on the classic whiskey tipple. Like a proper whiskey sour, this one was shaken with an egg white to give it a frothy texture and sprinkled with bitters for added spice. The two main differences that make this drink stand out are the addition of grapefruit juice to the standard lemon for a more rounded tart sensation and the use of honey as a sweetener which provided a robust compliment to the semi-sweet Maker’s Mark bourbon.

When Junior heard I was a tiki drink enthusiast he whipped me up a Jungle Bird, a long-forgotten tropical drink that, according to lore, was created at the Aviary bar at the Kuala Lumpur Hilton in 1978. Junior became familiar with this lost cocktail after finding the recipe in one of Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’s tiki books. For me, this drink – a combination of 5-year-old rum, Campari, pineapple and lime juice – took the cake. Campari, a bitter Italian aperitif, may seem out-of-place in a tiki drink, but somehow this odd combo of sweet yet complex rum, tropical fruits and herbs melded perfectly together.

As the day turned to dusk, I enjoyed these lovely cocktails as I watched the changing light dance across the towers. When the moon began to rise, I headed back to my hotel, knowing I’ve visited a KL’s signature landmark the way I wanted to see it – with a drink in hand.

The Jungle Bird
(Courtesy of Jeff “Beachbum” Berry)
1/2 ounce simple syrup?
1 1/2 ounces dark aged rum (Junior uses Angostura 5-year rum)
?3/4 ounce Campari?
1 1/2 ounces pineapple juice?
1/2 ounce fresh lime juice?

In a cocktail shaker filled with ice, combine all of the ingredients except the garnish. Shake until well chilled and strain into a glass filled with ice.

Cocktail of the Week: Roasted Pumpkin Spice Margarita

Pumpkin, along with apples, cinnamon and cloves, is one of the classic flavors of fall. The mere mention of this orange squash invokes images of the autumn harvest, jack-o-lanterns and pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving.

The incorporation of seasonal flavors and ingredients into our food and drink has made pumpkin a shining star once the leaves begin to change. Imbibers have a wide choice of delicious pumpkin beers and themed cocktails.

Some of my favorite pumpkin ales come from Schlafly in Saint Louis and Dogfish in nearby Delaware (where they spell it ‘punkin’). My only issue is that many of these beers start appearing in stores and on menus in late August and early September.

While a pint of Weyerbacher imperial pumpkin ale is fantastic on a brisk afternoon while admiring the colorful foliage, I have trouble enjoying spiced ale during D.C.’s Indian summer days – when temperatures continue to hover in the 80s. Even though Halloween is the first pumpkin holiday of fall, it is not uncommon for some of the pumpkin beers to be sold out and replaced by winter brews.

Thankfully for those who enjoy pumpkin cocktails, the selection usually remains constant through Thanksgiving.
If you like to have your pumpkin cocktail and beer in one, the Copperwood Tavern in Arlington, Va., is offering a fall-themed version of the classic flip cocktail (a heated mixture of beer, rum, egg and sugar). Copperwood’s version is forged from Cruzan rum, egg and pumpkin syrup, topped with Port City porter.

While pumpkins are usually associated with Americana, there is no shortage of international cocktails to try. For example, Daikaya, a traditional Japanese ramen shop in Chinatown, is offering a spiced pumpkin mule cocktail made with fresh pumpkin, cinnamon, clove, ginger, turmeric, lemon and bourbon.

Spanish hotspot Estadio is serving a pumpkin slushito, a mixture of scotch, pumpkin puree, black tea, lemon and beer.
A surprising one, and the most refreshing tipple I uncovered this year, is El Centro’s pumpkin margarita. At first, the idea of altering this warm-weather favorite with pumpkin seemed a bit odd, but the key to this drink is its subtleness.

Instead of using a pumpkin puree or syrup, El Centro infuses the tequila with roasted pumpkin and spices. “We like infusing tequila,” GM Joshua Gray said. “It’s fun to play around with different flavors.”

I sampled the tequila infusion on its own, and its flavor reminded me of being enveloped in a cozy poncho on a cool night in the Sierra Madre Mountains. Bartender David Constantine shared my approval. “I’d drink it straight,” he said.

The flavored liquor is mixed with agave nectar and freshly squeezed lime, then served in a pint glass with a cinnamon-sugar rim.
The result is a light and aromatic drink. The fall spices blend with the slightly peppery reposado tequila, adding some zing to the Mexican staple. The cinnamon-sugar rim adds a perfect amount of spice/sweetness to balance the tartness of the lime.

Unlike some heavy autumn elixirs, this pumpkin drink would be refreshing year-round. I just may be making pumpkin margaritas next July!

Roasted Pumpkin Spice-Infused Tequila

1 750ml bottle Sauza Blue Reposado

1.5 stars of anise

1 teaspoon cloves

1.5 half-sticks cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/16 teaspoon ground allspice

1 tablespoon granulated sugar

1 29-ounce can pumpkin puree

Crush spices together using a mortar and pestle. Fold spice mixture and sugar into pumpkin puree. Spread flat onto a sheet pan lined with wax paper. Roast at 250 degrees for 30 minutes. Place cooked mixture into cheesecloth and tie tightly. Place cheesecloth-wrapped mixture into a glass mason jar. Fill with tequila. Let sit 5-7 days, agitating daily. Strain mixture.

To make a margarita, mix tequila with agave nectar and fresh lime and serve in a glass with a cinnamon-sugar rim.

Readers may sample the pumpkin margarita at either of El Centro D.F.’s locations: 1218 Wisconsin Ave., NW, and 1819 14th St., NW.

Cocktail of the Month: Negroni

August 20, 2014

As a cocktail writer, I am often asked what my favorite drink is. What an impossible question! A multitude of factors come into play… the weather, my mood, the food, the atmosphere, the country, the bar and even what I’m wearing. For example I have an adorable green sundress that I bought in Chiapas that just begs for margaritas every time I wear it.

While drinking a glass of Saki feels so right in in the land of the rising sun, I can’t understand the thrill the beach boys in Bali feel when their girlfriends bring them bottles from Japan so they can drink it on the steamy beach here.

Circumstance also has so much to do with it. While I have come to accept the fact that I’ll never find an imperial IPA or a small batch bourbon in Bali, I still smile when I remember finding bottles of an aged Saint James rhum agricole from Martinique in a dusty roadside shop in Burkina Faso. Or the time a bartender offered me an 18 year-old Scotch in Kathmandu.

If I had to list a go-to drink, it would have to be the Negroni. Firstly, as a person that abhors overly sweet cocktails, I just love the herbaceous unique flavor. After coming of age before the resurgence of craft cocktails, I never want to drink another premixed margarita, Slurpee-tasting frozen daiquiri or a cloying pucker-flavored tipple, like a neon-green appletini.

The Negroni (a mixture of Campari, gin and red vermouth) is the polar opposite of artificially-flavored sugary tipples. I just love its herbaceous bitter, tangy taste.
The principle ingredient, Campari, an Italian bitter aperitif, is an infusion of herbs, aromatic plants and fruit in alcohol and water. It is characterized by its dark red color.
Campari was invented in 1860 by Gaspare Campari in Novara, Italy. It was originally colored with carmine dye, derived from crushed cochineal insects, which gave the drink its distinctive red color.

While those with a sweet tooth sometimes complain about the medicinal taste of the bitters, there’s something about the way the sharp orange of the Campari melds with the botanicals of the gin and the vermouth, bringing the two together.

Secondly, despite it’s Italian origins, Campari is surpisingly available in far-flung corners if the globe. I’ve imbibed a sultry Pisco-forged Negroni in Peru and savored them in the Caribbean sun in St. Lucia. I sipped one in a country club in Nairobi and sought them out in Shanghai, Dubai and all over Europe.

It is believed that the Negroni evolved from an earlier Italian cocktail called the Milano-Torino. The name comes from the ingredients – a blend of Ciano Italian vermouth from Milan, and Campari from Turin. This tipple became popular with American tourists visiting Italy during prohibition, so it became known as the Americano.

The next part of the story, like many drinking stories, may be myth or fact. A widely reported account is that the Negroni was invented in Florence, Italy, in 1919. Count Camillo Negroni invented it by asking Fosco Scarselli, the bartender at the Hotel Baglioni in Florence, to strengthen his favorite cocktail, the Americano, by adding gin, according to a New York Times article. The bartender also added an orange garnish.

Aside from the Campari, the other key ingredients to a good Negroni are the gin and the vermouth. I prefer an American-style dry gin, one that has some citrus overtones, but one that is more complex and doesn’t have quite the juniper sharpness of a London-style dry gin. My favorite is Bluecoat gin from Philadelphia. When that is not available, Bombay sapphire will fit the bill.

Martini & Rossi sweet vermouth is probably the most well-known and widely available sweet vermouth. If I were sipping sweet vermouth alone with some club soda, I would prefer to go with the more upscale, Dolin Vermouth, with it’s jammy flavor. M&R will work in a pinch.

The Negroni idled on the backburner for many decades, but it has recently enjoyed resurgence, along with many other classic cocktails. For the past two years in June, Campari and Imbibe magazine have teamed up to present a nationwide Negroni Week. Numerous bars in D.C. can mix up a fantastic version of the cocktail. It’s always a safe bet to order at any of Washington’s cocktail-centric watering holes, like Bourbonsteak in Georgetown or the Columbia Room in Mount Vernon Square. A few other surprising places that serve a smoking Negroni are Murphy’s Irish Pub in Woodley Park and Smoke and Barrel in Adams Morgan.

The Negroni


1 oz Gin

1 oz Campari

1 oz sweet vermouth


Place ingredients into an ice-filled shaker. Stir well. Strain into chilled cocktail glass or an ice-filled tumbler. Garnish with an orange twist or flamed orange peel.

Cocktail of the Month: Pirate’s Cocktail

May 9, 2014

It seems that rum and pirates are like smoke and fire – you can’t find one without the other. From the earliest rum production in the 1600s in Barbados to Captain Jack Sparrow’s fondness for the spirit in Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” trilogy, their history is tied together.

Today, liquor-store shelves are filled with brands of rum with pirate-themed monikers, the most popular being Captain Morgan, accounting for about a third of the premium rum market in the U.S. The real Captain Henry Morgan was legendary for his ruthlessness, his exorbitant thirst for liquor and his enormous success. But few know that he died an ugly death in Jamaica at the age of 53 from alcohol-related causes.

While it may have been rum that put the final nail in Morgan’s coffin after his Jamaica retirement, during his carousing on the high seas Morgan most likely imbibed other spirits. Preferring to plunder Spanish ships and villages, the richest of the time, he probably drank brandy and Madeira wines, the spirits that Spaniards consumed, while on the job.
Another rum named for a real-life buccaneer is Admiral Nelson. A British flag officer famous for his rousing leadership and unconventional battle tactics, Nelson was wounded in combat several times, losing an arm and his sight in one eye.

The best known and most notable of his victories was the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, during which he was shot and killed.

Nelson’s love for rum was so fabulous that his body was preserved in a cask of rum before it was finally laid to rest. After this incident, rum was often referred to as “Nelson’s Blood.”
The rum drink most commonly associated with pirates is “grog,” which is a misnomer. Grog was invented after the decline of piracy as a form of rationing on ships of the British Navy. Pirates consumed their often crudely distilled and harsh tasting poison straight up.

If you’d like to act like a buccaneer and enjoy a tot of rum on its own, you’re in luck. In recent years, rum has been enjoying a renaissance. Many fine rums now on the market can rival the complexity and depth of a single malt Scotch. One of my favorite sipping rums is Ron Zacapa, produced in the highlands of Guatemala. This rum took the top honors for five years in a row at the International Rum Festival. It was retired in 2003 to give other spirits a chance at the grand prize. Ron Zacapa continues to be served to the judges at the competition as a benchmark.

Other aged rums I adore are Ron del Barrilito, a craft rum produced in Puerto Rico; Chairman’s Reserve from St. Lucia; Neisson Rhum Agricole from Martinque; and Mount Gay Extra Old from Barbados.

Even with these enchanting choices, many still prefer their rum in a cocktail. The Pirate Cocktail, which originated in the venerable Esquire Drink Book, is a lovely option. Essentially a rum Manhattan, this pleasant nip preserves the character of the rum. The sweet vermouth softens the alcohol while the bitters highlight the complexity of the aged spirit. It’s a perfect coming-out drink for spring: too hearty and sublime to be a frothy summer drink, but too sultry to stay inside after winter.

**Pirate’s Cocktail**

3 ounces full-flavored aged rum

1 ounce sweet vermouth

2 dashes Angostura bitters

Stir ingredients with ice and strain into
a short glass.

La Cusquenita Linda

January 17, 2014

Peruvians are crazy for pisco. Not only is pisco, a grape brandy produced in Peru, the country’s national liquor, there are two public holidays celebrating its virtues. National Pisco Sour Day is celebrated during the first Saturday of February and National Pisco Day on the fourth Sunday of July. So one afternoon as I wandered the touristy corridor of Cuzco between the Plaza des Armes and San Blas, I wasn’t taken by surprise when I strolled by a storefront identifying itself as the Museo de Pisco (Pisco Museum). It seemed perfectly logical in this tourist mecca for a pisco museum to exist.

With its walls filled with diagrams, graphs and maps explaining the pisco-making process, distillation equipment on display, and a vast collection of bottles behind the bar, I was ready to spend a cultural day communing with this local elixir. It didn’t take long, however, to deduce that the Museo de Pisco was actually a bar disguised as a museum. This revelation did not sour my visit in any way.

While not official guides, I quickly realized that the bartending staff here had an encyclopedic knowledge about pisco and were eager to educate a gringa about their country’s pride and joy. Not only was I given a primer on the distillation process, but barman Ruben Dario educated me about the specific grape varietals used for pisco and the difference the each grape imparts on the finished product.

The bar stocks more than 40 brands of pisco, each of them with their own unique qualities. After asking several questions about the merits of different types, another bartender, Joe Rojas Garcia, was kind enough to offer me a taste of some of his favorites. As a resident of Peru, I had been drinking pisco for nine months at this point, but I had never taken the time to explore the subtle differences in various varieties.

While I was familiar with the most popular cocktails, pisco sour, Maracuayo sour (made from a local fruit), and Te Macho, (pisco and coca tea), I was instantly intrigued by the bar’s extensive cocktail menu.

Overwhelmed by all the choices, I asked Joe what he recommended. In a flirty move, he suggested the Cusquenita Linda, literally translated, “pretty little lady from Cusco.” The cocktail is a mixture of pisco, cassis, lime and aguaymanto juice.

Aguaymanto is a fruit native to Andean region of South America, also known as the capegooseberry, golden berry or Incan berry. It has a tart, yet slightly sweet, flavor. Herbalists have used it as a folk remedy for diabetes, inflammation and asthma.
Not being a fan of sweet drinks, the fruit mixture intrigued me. The red-orange drink was presented in a martini glass with a cheery star fruit garnish. The mixture of sharp Aguaymanto with the piquant blackcurrant flavor of the cassis and sour lime proved a fitting foil for the crisp, clean and tangy flavor of pisco. The overall result was a sublime and unique tipple that was captivating and refreshing at the same time.

As I savored my cocktail, a tour group arrived, and I was able to absorb another education lecture from their guide, as well as sip on a free sample of pisco punch, mixed with lime and pineapple, offered to the group. I also watched as another bartender prepared one of the many pisco infusions made in-house, which include morado (purple corn), eucalyptus, chili pepper and ginger.

It would be easy to spend an entire afternoon or evening at the Pisco Museum, engaging with the friendly staff and sampling the many delicacies. This year, Peru’s National Pisco day falls on July 28. Wherever you may be on that day, celebrate it with a South American pisco treat.

La Cusquenita Linda
2 oz Pisco
2 oz Aquaymanto juice
¼ oz Lime juice
¼ oz sugar
1 oz crème de Cassis
Mix ingredients in a shaker with ice, then pour into a martini glass. Garnish with star fruit. [gallery ids="101372,153206,153204" nav="thumbs"]