October 10, 2013

In Korea, drinking is a social art. It is enjoyed in groups, at business dinners, family celebrations and nightclubs. When people get together they often will join in for a bottle (or two or three or seven) of soju.

Soju, a rice liquor made in Korea, is the most popular spirit in the land. It is uniquely identifiable with Korea.The clear liquid has a smooth, crisp and somewhat bitter flavor. While most soju ranges in the 20-25% alcohol content, it’s potency can vary from 10% up to 45%.

While I spent most of my time in Korea, unwinding in a Buddhist monastery in the tranquil Songnisan Mountain National Park, I set aside three nights to explore the bustling fashionable metropolis of Seoul.

Curious about soju, I ask Joon-Tae Kim, my amiable host at my guesthouse in the trendy Hongdae neighborhood, for some recommendations on the best place to try Soju. Knowing that I had arrived solo, his first question was “Where are your Korean friends? ” Unbeknownst to me soju is a social tipple. He told me it would be so sad for me to drink it on my own.

Since I didn’t have a Korean posse in place, I asked Joon-tae to give me a soju tutorial. The first thing I learned is that whenever people are gathered together, usually they are joined by soju.

Drinking soju is a way of social bonding in Korea. “If I drink with you, you are my friend,” Joon-tae tells me. “When going out soju is main ingredient for a good time,”

But soju is not just for social calls, it is also an important part of a business encounters. Whether you are meeting with a client, negotiating a deal or connecting with your colleagues after work, soju is usually included. “It’s good for business relationships,” Joon-tae tells me. “It makes for a more dynamic atmosphere.”

So what to do if you don’t like soju and you’re out with your boss? Drink it, because according to Joon-tae, drinking itis a symbol of politeness.

Korea has some strict rules for drinking soju, he informs me. Some are related to their culture of respecting their elders. Generally the younger person serves the older person.

If you are receiving a glass of soju, you hold your glass with two hands, with your left palm on the bottom and your right hand around the glass. If you are pouring a glass for others, always use two hands.

It is considered rude to drink in front of your elders. You must turn to the side, so that only your profile is seen, and cover your mouth and glass with hands.

After all this formality one would think that you might sip your tipple gracefully like a fussily preparedcup of tea. This is not the case; you are expected to down the glass in one shot. And then most likely the glass will be quickly refilled. An empty glass is considered bad thing. But you never pour your own glass and you never fill a glass unless it is completely empty.

With the younger generation of Koreans, many of these rules are relaxed. Soju is often served mixed because its bitter taste is not as palatable to the youthful crowd. A popular cocktail is a slushy blend of soju with fresh fruit such as strawberry, lemon or kiwi.

My first stop on my soju adventure is Hosi Tam Tam a barwith a bohemian French theme, where I order a bottle of Jinro, the most popular brand in Korea. We drink it straight up. The liquor is potent, but not as strong as a shot of hard liquor. It is bitter and dry. I am glad to have a palate cleanser of crackers nearby.

Next it’s off to Soju Has, achic nightspot. Plush red velvet couches fill this hip lounge. We sample soju mixed in a blender with papaya. Our pitcher looks like a juicy daiquiri from the tropics. The fresh fruit masks the bitterness of the soju, but a hint of its flavor shines through giving the drink a good balance. Plus there is little sugar added which allows it to avoid tasting like a cloying sweet cocktail one would find at an Ocean City beach bar.

As the pitcher winds down, so do I, as I have an early flight to Tokyo. I won’t be experiencing a marathon round of soju drinking, that Joon-tae tells me is fairly typical. But before I turn in for the night at the guesthouse, I say farewellto my newly-minted sojufriend. [gallery ids="101492,151735,151738" nav="thumbs"]

Cocktail of the Month: El Capo

September 25, 2013

The Negroni is my go-to cocktail. As a person who abhors overly sweet drinks, the Negroni (a mixture of Campari, gin and red vermouth) is the polar opposite of a sugary tipple like a pina colada. I just love its herbaceous bitter, tangy taste. Campari, an Italian bitter aperitif , an infusion of herbs, aromatic plants and fruit in alcohol and water. It is characterized by its dark 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 with the vermouth bringing the two together in sweet harmony.

A classic cocktail, dating back to the early 1900s in Italy, variations of this cocktail abound. In Peru, I have tasted the zamboni a takeoff with pisco substituted for the gin. The spicy edge of the pisco made this satisfying variation. At New York’s Saxon & Parole I tried the Champagne Negroni, which was the traditional recipe topped with champagne. It gave the drink a lighter texture and bubbly edge similar to the standard Campari and soda. And just to be cute, it was served in old-fashioned soda bottles.

During my last visit to Bandolero, Georgetown’s temple to Mexican spirits, I was intrigued by the El-Capo, a Negroni-style drink on their menu. In their South-of-the-border rendition, mezcal was substituted for the gin in the timeless recipe.

I had to ponder a moment. the idea of tequila in a Negroni, did not sound appealing at all to me, I imagined that the piquant flavor the agave would clash with the powerful Campari. Then I gave some deep thought of the possibility of mescal, a spirit I learned to love after spending a month the Mexican states of Chiapas and Oaxaca last year.

While both are Mexican spirits distilled from the agave plant, mezcal differs because the agave is roasted in an oven before the distillation process. The cooking of the agave, must like the process of making Scotch, departs a complex smoky flavor to the spirit. This could be interesting, I thought.

Bartender Matt McHale, a mescal enthusiast, described the El Capo as one of his two favorites cocktail at the bar. (The first being the award-winning Jesus Malverde, another tipple made from mezcal) He described the El Capo, which translates from Spanish into the captain, as a “Smoky Negroni.”

McHale was eager to satisfy my curiosity. I watched as he carefully crafted the drink, and stirring it, the way a proper Negroni should be made. The results did not disappoint, the smoky edge of the mescal stood out strong but was tempered buy the herbal bouquet of the Campari. The mixture exulted in an earthy, woody taste. A dash of Laphroaig Scotch gives this drink an extra punch of smokiness.

While Campari can be overpowering in many drinks, the El Capo is a very balanced cocktail. “The Campari is there,” says McHale, “But it’s not the whole drink.”

While Bandolero has quite an extensive list of tequilas and mezcals, McHale adds that it is great place to get a well-crafted cocktail, with any spirit. “We have a little something for everyone,” he says. So whether you decide to sail with “the captain,” or imbibe on the original Negroni, both are superb options at Bandalero.

El Capo

1.5 ounces
.5 Campari1 oz Carpano Antica
Splash of Laphroaig Scotch
Pour ingredients into a glass or shaker, stir, serve in an old fashioned glass.

Cocktail of the Month: The Moscow Mule

September 12, 2013

If you walk into most liquor stores, you’ll notice quite a large space devoted to its vodka selection. Many watering holes will have a rainbow of vodkas on display behind the bar. Vodka is one of the most well-liked spirits in the United States, especially among younger drinkers. Given the tremendous popularity of vodka today, it’s hard to believe that up until the 1950s, gin and whiskey were the preferred liquors of choice.

One of the principle cocktails that propelled vodka into the limelight was the Moscow Mule, a mixture of vodka, ginger beer and lime. This classic tipple was born out of mutual convenience between two men, John Martin and Jack Morgan, in the 1940s.
Martin was trying to introduce his new product, Smirnoff vodka, in the United States. At the time Americans were accustomed to spirits with a more pronounced flavor, making it extremely difficult for Martin to sell his vodka. It is rumored that he had problems giving it away.

One day Martin was having lunch at the Cock & Bull restaurant in Los Angeles. He started a conversation with the owner Jack Morgan, who at the time was trying to sell his Cock & Bull brand of ginger beer, a product he produced on the side.
They decided to mix the two products together, and after a bit of experimentation the Moscow mule was born. Morgan had a friend who had inherited a copper factory and she was trying to unload a huge batch of copper mugs. The two men decided to promote their new concoction by serving it in copper mugs with an image of a kicking mule embossed on it. The cocktail was said to have the kick of a mule.

The Moscow mule became the house special at the Cock and Bull on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. Martin set off to market his new drink to bars across the company. He had a clever scheme, which involved taking Polaroid photos of bartenders holding the distinctive copper mug along with a bottle of Smirnoff. He would leave one copy of the photo at the bar and take another photo to competing bars to show them that their competitors were selling Moscow mules.

Between 1947 and 1950 Smirnoff case columns more than tripled, and nearly doubled again in 1951, according to,
The Moscow mule kicked off a long period of success for Smirnoff. According to Phil Greene, founding member of the Museum of the American Cocktail, as the brand increased in popularity, Smirnoff ran many ad campaigns featuring the Moscow Mule with celebrities such as Woody Allen. The ad campaign touted that Smirnoff vodka will “leave you breathless,” a possible reference to the idea that vodka is undetectable on your breath.

The popularity of the Moscow mule encouraged Smirnoff to promote a variety of cocktails, all of which highlighted the mixability of Smirnoff with other ingredients. As time wore on, vodka became the favored spirit of many leading up to a Renaissance of new cocktails, such as the cosmopolitan, sex on the beach and whole host of drinks served in martini glasses, such as the appletini, flirtini and French martini.

Today, the Moscow mule is a cocktail that stands the test of time, even though its birthplace, the Cock and Bull has closed it doors. The original Copper Mugs are now collector’s items.

It’s a fairly simple cocktail to mix with only three ingredients. Finding the ginger beer can be a bit challenging, but most large supermarkets and better liquor stores will have it on hand. One of the most popular brands is produced by the Black Seal rum company to promote their dark and stormy cocktail. Personally, I prefer Goya ginger beer, which is a spicier than other brands.


2 ounces vodka

3 ounces ginger beer

1/2 oz fresh lime juice

Build in mug, fill with ice, garnish with lime wedge.

Recipe courtesy of the Museum of the American

Cocktail of the Week

August 15, 2013

The Suffering Bastard is a curious name for a drink that I’ve seen on numerous menus in Tiki bars and Chinese restaurants. Aside from the humorous moniker, I never really gave this drink much thought. But like many popular cocktails, there’s a story behind this concoction, which belongs to a man named Joe Scialom, who was perhaps one of the world’s most famous bartenders.

The Museum of the American Cocktail and Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, the author of five books on vintage Tiki drinks and cuisine, recently hosted a lecture, “The Suffering Bastard: Joe Scialom, International Barman of Mystery,” at the Occidental Grill.

Berry’s research began after reading Scialom’s obituary in the New York Times, in 2004. He tracked down Scialom’s daughter Collette and recorded his fascinating story.

Scialom, who was educated as a pharmacist, was born in Egypt in 1910. While working as a chemist for Lever Brothers in the Sudan, he began applying chemistry principals to mixing drinks to entertain his colleagues. Here he found his calling and set out to become a bartender. His career began at the opulent Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo, which was one of the most celebrated hotels in the world. Shepheard’s welcomed royalty, heads of state, and famous celebrities. Scialom, who spoke eight languages, dazzled the elite guests from near and far. He counted Winston Churchill, Charlton Heston, Charles de Gaulle, Conrad Hilton, and Egyptian King Farouk among his many guests.

During World War II, the hotel served as an unofficial officer’s club for the British and became an informal press club for war correspondents. When there was little news from the war, the media
wrote about Scialom’s amusing antics.

Due to wartime supply shortages, drinks were being mixed with poor quality alcohol, and guests began complaining of headaches. In response, Scialom created the “Suffering Bastard” as a hangover cure. According to Berry, the original recipe for the Suffering Bastard consisted of “Black market gin from South Africa, stolen British army-issue brandy, a homemade lime cordial, bitters brewed by a druggist across the street, and ginger ale from a Greek merchant of dubious character.”

The hotel bar, which was now referred to as “Joe’s Bar,” even featured a chart prescribing the number of Suffering Bastards needed to relieve a hangover based on its severity.

Another amusing anecdote that Berry shared involved Scialom making gallons of the Suffering
Bastard for a hungover British army that fought the battle at El Alamein. When the British won, the ever-present foreign correspondents reported Scialom’s hand in the victory.

Following these reports, the Suffering Bastard became internationally known. Trader Vic’s was the first to copy it. Then it began showing up at Tiki bars everywhere, even though the recipe was nowhere near Scialom’s original. According to Berry, Trader Vic’s version was very similar to a Mai Tai. Scialom was the consummate host at Shepheard’s.

When the hotel was destroyed, during the course of the civil unrest of the Egyptian revolution of 1952, Scialom continued to serve drinks and was one of the last to leave.

But Scialom’s popularity did not go unnoticed by the Egyptian authorities. They were suspicious
because he mingled consistently with so many important people. He was imprisoned as a spy and then later expelled from Egypt by President Gamal Abdel Nasser. While Scialom’s illustrious
bartending career continued in Puerto Rico, Havana, and New York, it was his time at Sheapherd’s Hotel that cemented his place in cocktail history.

The Suffering Baststard
Courtesy of Jeff “Beachbum” Berry
1 ounce gin
1 ounce brandy
1/2 ounce Rose’s lime juice cordial
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Ginger beer

Add gin, brandy, Rose’s, and bitters to an ice-filled glass. Fill with ginger beer. Stir. Garnish with orange slice and mint sprig.

Ingredients to make the Suffering Bastard may be purchased at Dixie Liquor in Georgetown. Scialom’s story will be published in Berry’s upcoming book, “Potions of the Caribbean: Lost Cocktails from America’s Playground”. For information visit or [gallery ids="99208,99209" nav="thumbs"]

Cocktail Of The Week

Folk heroes exist in every culture. Their fame, or sometimes notoriety, varies.In the United States some of our mythical figures like Davey Crocket or Daniel Boone are lauded for their pioneering character. Others like Billy the Kid or Calamity Jane capture the outlaw spirit of the Wild West. In Mexico one the most infamousfigures is Jesus Malverde.

Malverde, a bandit from the northernMexican state of Sinaloa, is often compared with the British legend of Robin Hood. Known as “the Angel of the Poor,” or “The Generous Bandit” Malverde was known to steal from the rich and give to poor, making him popular among the region’s underprivileged highland residents. Due to his renegade reputation, Malverde has also been adopted as the patron saint of drug traffickers and is often dubbed the “nacre-saint.”

While Malverde is not recognized by the Catholic Church, Mexicans pray to him for help or healing. Busts, necklaces and scapulars featuring Malverde’s thick bushy mustache and trademark white shirt and black tie are seen throughout the country. In shrines in Culiacan and Mexico City, Malverde’s followers line up to give homage.

Washingtonians looking to pay their respects to Malverde have the unique opportunity to toast him with his own self-named tipple. At Bandolero, M Street’s latest hot spot, one of the best cocktails on the menu, and perhaps one of the best agave-based drinks in DC, shares it moniker with the celebrated Mexican outlaw.

The Jesus Malverde, created Bar Manager Sam Babcock., is an astonishingly refreshing mixture of mescal, lime, cilantro, agave nectar, cucumber and Pork Barrel Hellfire Bitters.

In a case of which came first, like the chicken and egg, Sam confirms that this delightful drink was born before its name came about. He was researching Mexican gangsters when his interest was piqued by the story of Malverde. And since he had already created a badasscocktail with a cool green hue, he realized that his new drinkliterally fit the Spanish translation of the surname Mal (bad) Verde (green).

Imbibing in Babcock’sluscious concoction is a multi-layered experience for your taste buds. “The smokiness from the mescal and the spice from cilantro and the bitters really play nicely with the fresh cucumber and agave, “ Sam says, “ it starts off nice and fresh and clean tasting with a little bit of sweetness and finishes with a nice little punch from the smokiness of the mescal and the heat of the bitters.”

For me sampling this cocktail is like taking off on airplane, the flavor starts rolling down the runway with the first breezy sip and then really takes off with a bracing smack from the liquor and bitters. The peppery Pork Barrel Hellfire Bitters are produced locally by DC mixologist Owen Thompson, of America Eats Tavern.

While Bandoleer’s cocktail list concentrates heavily on tequila and mescal-based drinks, Babcock would like to stress that Bandolero is an excellent spot for craft cocktails of all spirits
“It’s not just a tequila bar where you go to get shots, he says . “We do lot of craft cocktails with tequila and mescal, but I want people to know that they can come in here and my bar staff will be able to make any cocktail regardless of what spirit it is.” In fact, Sam recently updated the drink menu to include a wider variety of classic cocktails. He has also added a few new gin, rye and pisco drinks, just to switch things up a bit.

So the next time you seeking a little irreverence with your cocktail, make a toast to a Mexican desperado at Bandolero.

Jesus Malverde

1.75 oz mescal
1.25 oz. cucumber juice
.5 oz fresh limejuice
.5 oz agave nectar
2. sprigs of cilantro
4 dashes Hellfire Pork Bitters

Mix ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Double strain, pour into glass and garnish with the sprig of cilantro.
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Cocktail of the Week: Play It, Sam

Infusing liquors with flavors is
nothing new. After all, it’s the
aging process in wooden barrels
that impart rum and bourbon
with their unique characteristics.
Adding fruit flavors to vodka started
a new trend that branched out to
instilling spirits with savory herbs,
spices and even vegetables.

The process of fat-washing
liquors took off with the recent
bacon craze, where crafty bartenders
added bacon and pork fat to
create a rich, unami taste. Josh
Berner, mixologist at Cleveland
Height’s Ripple has taken this
movement and pushed it a step
further, by fat washing liquors with
vegetable fats, such as olive and
sesame oils.

Ripple currently has three
fat washed cocktails on its drink menu. They
include the Basil Exposition – an olive oilwashed
vodka, green chartreuse, white wine
and basil combination, Play It Sam, forged from
sesame oil-infused gin, aquavit and a date reduction
and the Chile Manteca y Dulcet, a mixture
of bacon-infused Benevamezcal, cayenne and
toasted pecans.

Berner recently hosted a cocktail class
where participants were taught how to make
fat-washed liquor at home and mix these three
delicious tipples.

Berner demonstrated the vegetable fat-washing
process by making a batch of the sesame-oil
infused gin that is used in the Play it Sam cocktail.
The process begins by using one 750-milliliter
bottle of gin and combining it with two
ounces of sesame oil in a saucepan. Berner
melds the ingredients by cooking them over on
the lowest heat and stirring for 20 minutes. The
heat needs to stay low, because if the gin begins
to boil, the alcohol will burn off.

The mixture is then poured into a container
and placed in the freezer for at least 12
hours, until the fat is solidified. Next, using a
pre-chilled batch, Berner showed the participants
how to remove the solid fat from the gin
with a spoon and then strain it, using wither a
cheesecloth or coffee filter. Once the oil has
been removed, you are left with a smooth liquor
infused with sesame flavor.

The Play it Sam was named after what Berner
calls the correct line from movie, “Casablanca.”
“She never actually says ‘Play it again Sam,’ ”
he said. The “Casablanca” reference is due to the
Moroccan flavors found in the cocktail.

Besides sesame, this potable also features
aquavit, a Scandinavian liqueur flavored with
caraway and anise and a date reduction. The
date reduction is made taking finely chopped
dates, sugar and water and cooking it until it is
reduced into a concentrated flavor.

The aquavit was the main building block
for Berner in creating this cocktail. “I started
off with aquavit,” he said. “It’s a great liquor. It
has a wonderful flavor and it’s underused. So
I thought about what I can do with it to make
it interesting and taste good.” Berner started
researching foods to see what flavors would mix well with the caraway and anise which led him
to Moroccan cuisine. From there, he decided on
the addition of sesame and experimented with
some different fruit mixtures including cherries
and a cherry and date combination.

Another important, flavorful aspect to this
drink is the lemon twist garnish. Berner uses a
channel knife to make lemon twists that are not
only pretty, but serve an important purpose as
well. As he cut the peels over the cocktail glass,
bits of lemon oil squirt into the drink. The oil
gives off a nice scent and imparts a balancing
flavor. He also rubs the peel along the rim to
add a bit more punch.

Berner said that when he first made the drink
without the lemon peel, he was not happy with
the flavor, but once he added the lemon oil, “the
flavors popped, “he says. “A little oil made a big

The result is an exquisite flavor combination.
The lemon lends nice citrus nose that is
quickly followed by the flavor of the aquavit,
which is tempered nicely by the dates. The sesame
kicks in with a subtle hint on the finish. Lick
your lips after one sip, and you will definitely
taste the tangy sesame. Not sweet at all, this is
a dry cocktail, which is spicy yet refreshing at
the same time.

While Ingrid Bergman did not say “Play it
again, Sam,” in the movie, you may find yourself
saying. “Again,” when imbibing this drink.
Its brisk and cool flavor will make it hard for
you to stop at one. ?

1 1/2 ounces sesame-oil infused gin
1/4 ounce aquavit
2 ounces date reduction
Lemon twist
In an ice-filled mixing glass, stir gin, aquavit
and date reduction until cold. Strain into
ice-filled highball glass, garnish with a
lemon twist, rubbing the peel on the rim of
the glass.
Readers may taste the Play It Sam at Ripple,
located at 3417 Connecticut Ave., NW.

Cocktail of the Week: Yes,We Canton!

This year’s inaugural season will be one of the quietest in years. The Obama-Biden inaugural committee has announced that it is cutting back on the number of inaugural balls. There will be just two official parties plus a concert honoring military families. The cutback on festivities is meant to reduce government spending and the amount of security and law-enforcement personnel needed. This will be the lowest number of balls in the past 60 years.

If you aren’t one of the lucky elite that will be spending the evening of Jan. 21, dancing and toasting with the first family, there will be dozens of unofficial balls and parties and no shortage of restaurants and nightclubs looking to cash in on the influx of celebratory visitors.

Several D.C. hot spots have led the way with inauguration-themed drinks. Just steps from the White House, the Hamilton is offering two potables to honor our nation’s 44th President. The “Perfect 44,” a variation on a classic Manhattan, features FEW Bourbon from Chicago. If you’re Donald Trump, you may want to order the Executive Punch, made with rum from Obama’s birthplace of Hawaii, along with a slice of humble pie.

Penn Quarter’s Brasserie Beck is serving an Obama-tini cocktail with a Democratic blue hue. This festive drink is forged from Ketel One vodka, Hypnotiq liqueur, and a float of blue Curacao. Nearby at D.C. Coast, the drink-du-jour is the Sparkling Second Term made with Averell damson plum gin, Leopold Brothers New York apple whiskey, lemon bitters and a splash of bubbly cava wine. This refined sparkler is served in a cinnamon-and-sugar-rimmed Champagne flute.

If these cocktails sound a bit too stuffy for you, swing by Hill Country Barbecue where they will be offering $1 POTUS-pop Jell-O shots all day Jan. 21.

Many folks, going with the subdued nature of this year’s festivities, will choose to host soirees in their homes. In additional to the décor and menu, one of the most important elements of any Obama-themed fiesta will be the choice of cocktails. Toasting the Commander-In-Chief with a sparkling wine or Champagne is a given, but a signature tipple is a special added touch that will make your party memorable.

One of the most obvious choices to serve is the classic El Presidente cocktail. While technically a Cuban creation, this full-flavored rum cocktail includes Curacao, vermouth and grenadine. Another clever choice is the retro Blue Hawaii tiki drink. This concoction made with blue Curacao, pineapple juice, sour mix and either rum or vodka, pays both homage to the Democrats with its color and Obama’s Hawaiian roots.

My choice for a private party would be the “Yes, We Canton,” an opulent sparkling sipper created for Obama’s first inauguration by D.C. celebrity mixtress Gina Chersevani. It was the star cocktail at the Peace Ball in 2009. I was first introduced to this dignified drink at a presidential drink seminar, sponsored by the Museum of the American Cocktail. The stellar ingredient in this cocktail is Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur. Forged from baby Vietnamese ginger, Cognac. Tahitian vanilla, Provencal honey, and Tunisian ginseng, Domain de Canton adds an exotic and a dash of winter warmth and spice to this mixture of pineapple juice and sparkling wine. Elegant and easy, this recipe can be multiplied and served as a punch, freeing up time for the busy host or hostess.

No matter what your plans may be for the inauguration or political affiliation, on Jan. 21 let’s all raise a glass to what we hope will be four years of peace and prosperity.

Yes, We Canton!
½ oz pineapple juice
½ oz Domaine de Canton
2-3 oz. brut sparkling wine or Champagne.
Serve in flute. Can also be made as a punch.

Cocktail of the Month: Mezcal Part II, Creamy Cocktails

May 9, 2013

Cream liqueurs have been popular for decades. The most well known is Irish Cream, a mixture of Irish whiskey, cream, sugar and other herbs and flavors. Bailey’s, introduced in 1974 was the first on the market. It was followed by, among others, Carolans, Brady’s and Saint Brendan’s.

Many people are fond of Amarula, with its eye-catching exotic elephant label. Amarula uses a distillate of fermented South African marula fruit, cream, black tea and spices. In the Caribbean rum creams are the rage. Jamaica likes to brag about Sangster’s original Jamaica rum cream liqueur while St. Croix produces Cruzan Rum Cream.

During my recent travels through the mezcal-crazy Mexican state of Oaxaca, I was not too surprised when I encountered a wide variety of mezcal-based cream liqueurs. You may remember from last month’s column that mezcal is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from the maguey plant, a type of agave, similar to tequila.
As I was hitching from Mazunte Beach, along the Oaxacan Riviera, to the nearest commercial town, San Augustine, I noticed the collective transport truck passed a mezcal distillery. When my local bodega in town ran out of mezcal, I decided to take a ride back to the tienda and investigate.

During a scenic ride along the coast in the back of the truck, my thirst was raging from the hot afternoon sun. As I spied the spray-painted plywood sign outside the shop, I yelled for the driver to drop me off. As I walked toward the small shack, I didn’t see anyone on the premises, except for a friendly dog.

I ventured further down the gravely path towards a table lined with bottles of various colors and flavors. My next reaction was one of disbelief. Not only was there a plethora of bottles on display, there was also a sign offering, “Pruebas Gratis” (free samples) while the owner was sound asleep in a hammock.

My first thought was, “Am I in heaven?” I briefly considered loading up my backpack and catch the next truck out of Dodge, but considering how bad that could be for international relations, I timidly helped myself to a sample glass from an open bottle and woke the man who was clearly enjoying his afternoon siesta.

The owner sleepily wandered over to the table and began to give me a half-awake lecture on the different flavors of mescal creams in his collection I started off with a coffee flavor, which tasted like a white Russian with a smoky kick. The next was a minty green-colored pistachio which did not translate well. The powerful mezcal overwhelmed the delicate pistachio. My next selection, banana, went down with a sweet easy slide, like a frozen daiquiri at a swim-up bar.

The samples kept coming. There were two coffee varieties – mocha and cappuccino. While very rich, they were also heavy on the sweet side. Coconut cream, with its nutty creamy texture, made me long for some pineapple juice. As though he could read my mind, the proprietor immediately poured me a sample of a pina colada that was decadent but strong.

A brightly colored purple mixture followed. Cloyingly sweet, grape, cream and mezcal is not a flavor combination that I wanted to continue imbibing. The lines of bottles on the table seemed to be expanding. So, I knew I was going to have to cut my tasting flight short, before I forgot my way back home. I capped off the afternoon, with a taste of Oaxaca kiss, a pink tropical fruit punch flavor, reminiscent of a TGIF’s blender drink.

I thanked the owner, who had spent the last half hour entertaining me as he wrapped my purchases — a bottle of coconut cream to be enjoyed from my hammock at my beachfront cabana, mocha as a gift for my Peruvian shaman who loves his coffee with lots of sugar and a bottle of aged mezcal for nighttime fiesta on the beach.

While mescal is often noted for its high alcohol content, mescal creams are generally low-proof, averaging between 12 and 18 percent alcohol. Their strikingly pleasing flavor make them a perfect after-dinner treat. Some folks like to enjoy them over ice cream for dessert. Mezcal creams are not widely sold in the USA, but they can be purchased online. Relíquias de Oaxaca, ( has a huge selection that includes, maracuya and guanabana (tropical Latin American fruits) pina colada and coffee varieties. [gallery ids="101285,149564" nav="thumbs"]

Cocktail of the Month: Mezcal Margarita

April 24, 2013

Anyone who has ever been to Mexico has probably been exposed to tequila. Whether it was a watered-down margarita made with low-grade liquor and sour mix at an all-inclusive resort or a glass of quality handcrafted anejo at a high-end lounge, tequila and Mexico seem to go hand–in-hand.

What many outsiders don’t know is that in addition to tequila, Mexico has another similar spirit, and that depending on what state you’re in, is often the more popular option. This sister spirit is mezcal, which is often confused with tequila.

Most people’s exposure to mezcal in the States is limited. If you’ve ever drunk a bottle of “tequila” with a worm in the bottom, you’ve tasted mezcal. The worm is a marketing gimmick which is added to exported bottles. It is rarely sold that way in Mexico.
While I was traveling through the Mexican state of Oaxaca earlier this year, I had a chance to sample many varieties of mezcal.

Both mezcal and tequila are both distilled from fermented agave juice, but the preparation of these spirits is quite different. They are dis- tilled in different regions – tequila in the state of Jalisco, while mezcal is made further south with the majority of it hailing from Oaxaca. Tequila is made from only one kind of agave –blue agave. Mezcal is made from various types.

Mezcal is produced from the heart, or the pina of the agave plant. The pinas are cooked an earthen oven for about three days. This underground baking imparts a smoky flavor. The pinas are later mashed and left to ferment. The distilled liquid is later collected and aged in barrels.

Small producers, using recipes passed down from one generation to the next, make most mezcals. Because of it hand-crafted nature, one can find a variety of flavor and complexity. In Oaxaca, many brands are never sold outside the area where they were produced.

In small villages it is not uncommon to find people distilling and selling mezcal from their homes. These are often sold in recycled tequila bottles with hand-painted labels.

While staying at the laid-back beach haven of Zipolite, I watched one day when as the “mezcal” truck made a stop on the town’s only paved street. Locals formed a queue at back of the truck with empty containers waiting and have them filled. Now, that’s the type of food truck I’d like to see in D.C.!

The taste of mezcal can differ widely as many producers add flavoring agents such as cinnamon, or slices of apple, pineapple or other tropical fruits to the mash, which impart a slight, subtle flavor. (Nowhere near the powerful taste of the mostly artificially flavored spirits popular in the U.S.) Often, at the end of the distillation, a piece of the flavoring agent is added to the bottle. For example, when I bought mezcal distilled with chobocano, the bottle contained seeds from the fruit. Another common practice is adding a piece of the agave leaf to the bottle.

The quality of mezcal also widely varies. The age of both is measured the same way. Either can be made from 100-percent agave or a majority agave mixed with other ingredients. A white or clear liquid indicates a spirit with little aging, while dark un-aged liquor with added coloring is called dorado.

Mezcal or tequila that has been aged between at least two months to a year in a barrel is called reposado while anything aged over a year is anejo. Some of the best are aged from 2-4 years.

The biggest difference between mezcal and tequila is its distinctive smoky favor, almost akin to smoky single malt scotch. Mezcal’s alcoholic proof is generally stronger than tequila, which is usually watered down to conform to the 80-proof standard in the States.
While most Mexicans prefer to drink mezcal straight, I found it to be a stimulating alterna- tive to a tequila-based margarita. The strong smokiness works as an excellent complement to the tart lime.

In the U.S., the most popular brand of mezcal is Monte Alban, but if you have access to a quality liquor store there are much better alternatives. I recommend either Sacacuento or Mezcal Del Maguey.?

•1 1/2 oz mezcal?
•1/2 agave nectar?
•1 oz fresh lime juice
?Mix ingredients well in a cocktail shaker with ice. If desired, salt the rim of your glass. Pour contents, with ice, into glass. Garnish with lime wedge.

Cocktail of the Week, Pisco

November 6, 2012

Superfluous holidays such as Sweetest Day, National Grandparents Day and Boss’s Day are often referred to as “Hallmark Holidays,” because many believe they exist primarily for commercial reasons such as increasing the sales of greeting cards and not to truly appreciate significant people. There are other celebrations that seem downright silly, such as International Pancake Day (Feb. 21), National High Five Day (April 19) and Talk Like A Pirate Day (Sept. 19).

In the country of Peru, there is one holiday that may appear excessive at first, but is truly a celebration of national pride. This is National Pisco Day, which is celebrated on the fourth Sunday in July.

Pisco, which is considered a symbol of Peruvian nationality, is a type of grape brandy or Aguardiente, distilled from Muscat grapes. Pisco is produced and exported from both Peru and Chile, and both countries claim to be the original producers. It has become a fierce source of contention between the two nations. According to, the Spanish conquistadores brought grape vines to South America in order to make wine for their own consumption and export. Distilling Pisco was an easy way to use leftover grapes that were undesirable for wine making.

The patriotic spirit surrounding National Pisco Day is amplified because the holiday falls very close to Peruvian Independence Day, celebrated on July 28, often with a toast of pisco.

I was fortunate enough to be in Cusco, Peru, to take part in the festivities for both holidays. To kick off the merriment, I was given a shot of Pisco from Lizardo Valderrama Gilt, my host in whose home I was staying. The shot had a strong and powerful grape nose to it, but it went down surprisingly smooth. Its dominate flavor was grape with notes of earthiness, spice and tart fruit with a clean and bracing finish.

To further explore this spirit, I met up with my newly minted friends, Suzanne Harle and Sabrina for a few rounds of cocktailing. We started off with the most popular Pisco tipple, the Pisco Sour, a mixture of Pisco, lemon, bitters, a sweetener and an egg white. We headed to the Crown, a second-story restaurant with a gorgeous view of the Plaza Des Armas for their two-for-one happy hour. The egg white gives this cocktail a smooth, full body while tart lemon citrus flavor is a nice compliment to the woody pisco. So good that it is hard to detect the amount of alcohol in the drink. That may explain why we left the bar wearing balloon hats.
Our second stop was the upscale Limo, one the most highly-regarded restaurants in Cusco, which boasts a three-page menu of creative pisco cocktails. Just watching the scene behind the bar proved to be entertaining, with men squeezing, pureeing, muddling, and juicing fresh ingredients.

We sampled three concoctions, one forged from eucalyptus, another from lemongrass and one made with tumba fruit. The tumba is a relative of the maracuya fruit, which is commonly eaten in Peru. The eucalyptus had a cool soothing effect, while the lemongrass mixture was refreshing and uplifting. The tumba had an exotic tropical flavor similar to passion fruit but with a little more punch.

The evening continued with more flavorful cocktails, including a fresh strawberry concoction, one blended with Peru’s potent coco leaves and a South American version of the classic Negroni with pisco substituted for the gin. The evening was capped off with a night of salsa dancing to burn off all the excess alcohol.

If you cannot make it to Peru and would like to try pisco in Washington, I recommend whipping up a few Pisco sours at home. Most liquor store will carry at least one brand of Peruvian Pisco, such as Porton, or Macchu Pisco. This classic tipple is a great way to try this interesting and versatile liquor. If you would like to try something more exotic, Las Canteras in Adams Morgan has a full menu of delicious pisco cocktails.

The Pisco Sour

Place 4 cups ice cubes
1 cup pisco
1/3 cup lemon juice
1/3 cup white sugar
1 egg white
A dash of angostura bitters

Blend on high speed until finely pureed. Pour into two glasses and garnish with an additional dash of bitters.