Cinco de Mayo, trips to Mexico, summer, the beach, winter, spring and fall … these are all good occasions to drink a margarita. Obviously, I really don’t need a reason to imbibe one of my favorite (when prepared correctly) cocktails. There’s something irresistible about the agave tang of good tequila — combined with the tartness of fresh lime, balanced out with a hint of sweetness and finished with the salty smack from the salted rim of my glass. For those who may be a bit hesitant to sip this classic tipple in the dead of winter, I’m offering an justification that cannot be questioned: Feb. 22 is National Margarita Day. The margarita — a mixture of tequila, lime and orange liqueur — is an uncomplicated drink. While countless varieties abound (think frozen, flavored and fruited), the basic recipe is an enduring masterwork that continues to stand the test of time. Mystery surrounds the birth of the margarita and speculation has swirled about its inventor. Perhaps the most credible story is that Carlos “Danny” Herrera invented it at his Tijuana-area restaurant, Rancho La Gloria, around 1938, for one of his customers: part-time actress and showgirl Marjorie King, who was allergic to all hard alcohol other than tequila. He combined the elements of a traditional tequila shot — salt and lime — and turned them into a delightful drink. When Hererra died in 1992 in San Diego, the Associated Press referred to him as the man “known locally as the man who topped a tequila concoction with salt and called it a Margarita.” Speaking of showbiz, one story claims the drink was named after actress Rita Hayworth, whose real name was Margarita Cansino, in the 1930s, before she adopted her screen name. As a teenager, she worked as a dancer at the Foreign Club in Tijuana. Another tale alleges that it was invented in honor of singer Peggy (Margaret) Lee in Galveston, Texas. Another credible contender, according to Smithsonian magazine, is Margarita Sames, a Dallas socialite who claimed she whipped up the drink for friends at her Acapulco vacation home. Among her well-connected guests was Nicky Hilton (Conrad, Jr.), who got the drink added to the bar menu at his dad’s hotel chain. Whatever story is true, we do know from the oral history of people who drank margaritas that the cocktail was concocted sometime in the 1930s. The frozen margarita was invented in 1971 when Mexican-American restaurateur Mariano Martinez converted a soft-serve ice cream unit into a frozen margarita machine at his restaurant in Dallas. The original machine is part of the collection of the Smithsonian Museum of American History. Rumors aside, National Margarita Day is a superb reason to treat yourself to the perfect combination of sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Being a cocktail town, D.C. has no shortage of places to celebrate on Feb. 22. Zagat, the food bible, recommends El Chucho in Columbia Heights and José Andrés’s Oyamel Cocina Mexicana in Penn Quarter. Yelp reviewers ranked Tico DC in the U Street corridor as having the number-one margarita, with Georgetown’s El Centro D.F., coming in at number four. Eater DC gives props to Aqua 301 near the Navy Yard. If you prefer to mix your own, the key thing to remember is that the margarita is a simple drink. There’s no need to get fussy. Just be sure to use fresh lime juice and good liquor. The Margarita Recipe from the International Bartenders Association 1.5 ounces Tequila I enjoy a bold flavor, so I use reposado tequila. If you prefer a milder taste, use silver. Only use 100 percent agave tequila. I like La Certeza or Cazadores. 1/2 ounce fresh-squeezed lime juice 1 ounce orange liqueur I’m fond of Solerno blood orange liqueur, but Cointreau is also a great choice. Pour the tequila, lime juice and orange liqueur into a shaker with ice. Shake well. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass rimmed with crusted salt (optional).
The December holidays are a time for indulgence, and — though it’s been villainized in recent years by the calorie police — a glass of spiked eggnog is a sure-fire way to get into the spirit. Insist on counting calories? Then pass on the fruitcake (and the trays of same-old-same-old cookies), and enjoy a creamy nip of spiced nog. Eggnog dates back to pre-colonial times in England, where it was popular with the aristocracy. Dairy products like milk and eggs were costly and scarce — as were the alcoholic ingredients mixed with them, such as brandy, sherry and Madeira. Eggnog and its holiday associations began after the drink crossed the pond. Dairy products were plentiful in the colonies, and rum (which was inexpensive due to the triangular trade) was used to spike it. When the Caribbean rum supply dwindled after we declared our independence, domestically produced whiskey or rum was substituted. According to kitchen records from Mount Vernon, eggnog was a popular drink for George Washington to serve his guests. His version was not for the fainthearted; it included brandy, rum, rye whiskey and sherry. Today, with the craft cocktail revolution, creative versions of eggnog abound. Several D.C.–area locales are offering their own distinctive takes on this holiday-season classic. The most potent version just might be the Egg-N-Grog at Capital Hill’s Balkan restaurant, Ambar. Mixologist Rico Wisner’s version is made from a combination of Hennessy Black, Ron Zacapa, Chairman’s Reserve spiced rum, Hidalgo Oloroso sherry, spiced syrup, whole egg and milk. It will be available until Serbian Christmas (Jan. 7, if you didn’t know). If the cold weather of December makes you shiver and crave a tropical treat, the next best thing to an island getaway is Puerto Rico’s version of the seasonal staple. From the land that birthed the piña colada comes the coquito, an eggnog-like drink constructed from rum, coconut milk, sweet condensed milk, egg yolks and vanilla. Latin hot spot Cuba Libre makes a delightful version featuring coconut rum and cinnamon with a toasted coconut rim. Perhaps the most well-planned version can be found at Magnolia’s on King in Old Town Alexandria. Way back in August, mixologist Zachary Faden bottled eggnog using bourbon, rum and rye and mezcal. These cocktails have been bottle-conditioned for four months, which allows the booze to break down the proteins, round out the drink and provide a silky mouthfeel. Finally, for sheer holiday indulgence, hop a train to Metro Center and visit the ever-elegant Bibiana restaurant. Bibiana’s classic eggnog with a twist sports a unique combination of Pedro Ximénez sherry, Bénédictine and Buffalo Trace bourbon. This tipple is part of the restaurant’s extravagant 25 cocktails of Christmas. Bibiana began counting down to the holiday on Nov. 30, introducing a new, seasonally inspired cocktail every evening until Dec. 24. Other festive tipples include the Fichi, made from Maker’s Mark bourbon, pureed figs, maple syrup and vanilla sugar, and the Hazelnut Old Fashioned, made from hazelnut-infused Filibuster bourbon, orange and cherry. If you prefer to remain in your own abode, you can whip up a batch of eggnog presidential-style. In an article about the history of eggnog, Time magazine published George Washington’s recipe. Apparently the original did not specify the exact number of eggs, but Time suggested using a dozen. George Washington’s Eggnog 1 quart cream 1 quart milk 12 tablespoons sugar 1 pint brandy 1/2 pint rye whiskey 1/2 pint Jamaica rum 1/4 pint sherry Mix liquor first, then separate yolks and whites of 12 eggs. Add sugar to beaten yolks and mix well. Add milk and cream, slowly beating. Beat whites of eggs until stiff and fold slowly into mixture. Let set in cool place for several days. Taste frequently.
Halloween and the arrival of fall signify an array of delightful holiday pleasures. Whether you fill a bag of trick-or-treat goodies or carve a pumpkin, it’s the spooky season of amusement. At one time, Halloween was mostly a child’s holiday, but those days are long gone. According to Fortune magazine, more money — $1.4 billion — will be spent on adult costumes than on children’s costumes (just $1.1 billion). Considering this trend, it’s not surprising that now there are now grown-up versions of your childhood delights. Being a chocoholic, my favorite girlhood Halloween memories involved foraging through my bag of goodies and discarding or trading all of my non-chocolate loot. Nowadays, my tastes have evolved from Mr. Goodbar and 3 Musketeers to Belgium’s finest. A sophisticated way to satisfy your cravings is a trip to Co Co. Sala chocolate lounge on F Street NW, where the cocktail list boasts a variety of chocolate-infused tipples, including a chocolate malted milk martini, the Libido, which comes with chocolate ice cubes, and the Apollo, prepared with 72-percent dark chocolate. Perhaps the candy most synonymous with Halloween is a bag of cone-shaped cloyingly sweet candy corn. Better Homes and Gardens magazine reports that George Renninger, a candymaker at the Wunderle Candy Company in Philadelphia, invented the revolutionary tricolor candy in the 1880s. When candy corn was first produced, it was called “Chicken Feed.” The boxes were illustrated with a colorful rooster logo and a tag line that read “Something worth crowing for.” According to the National Confectioners Association, more than 35 million pounds (or nine billion pieces) of candy corn will be produced this year. An adult version of this time-honored sweet can be found at Cuba Libre, on 9th Street NW. The restaurant’s Candy Corn Martini is formulated from a combination of vanilla vodka, butterscotch schnapps, crème de cacao and fresh orange juice, which are layered and served in a triangular-shaped martini glass so it resembles the familiar sweet. Guillermo Pernot, Cuba Libre’s chef-partner, says, “The idea for Cuba Libre Restaurant and Rum Bar’s festive candy corn martini was inspired by everyone’s favorite Halloween candy, the classic candy corn, but then converting it into a fun seasonal drink … for adults.” As they say in Willy Wonka (quoting Ogden Nash): “Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker!” Another universal symbol of Halloween and fall is pumpkins. Making jack-o’-lanterns is a long standing ritual and pumpkins are also used to make soups, desserts, breads and pies. One of the most anticipated G-rated seasonal inventions is the artificially flavored pumpkin latte from a ubiquitous coffee chain. A far superior choice to quell your longings is the pumpkin spice margarita from El Centro D.F., in Georgetown and on 14th Street NW. The drink is forged from tequila that has been infused with roasted pumpkin and spices such as nutmeg, allspice, sugar and cinnamon. While these seasonal essences may seem an odd match for tequila, remember that the folks at El Centro are experts at marrying tequila with flavors. Their extensive list of tequila infusions includes grilled pineapple, serrano, lemon tea and strawberry basil. Another option, which combines pumpkin with another fall staple, apple, is the Oval Room’s Grim Fandango cocktail, named for the video game and made from a combination of Gala apple cider, pumpkin puree, ginger root, honey, brown sugar, cloves, cinnamon stick and rum. Finally, to cure your holiday overindulgence ills, head to Macon Bistro and Larder on upper Connecticut Avenue for their Isle of the Dead cocktail, inspired by the classic Corpse Reviver No. 2. The Corpse Reviver family of definitive cocktails were intended as “hair of the dog” hangover cures. Popular during the late 19th and early 20th century, they began to die out after Prohibition. The Corpse Reviver No. 1 and No. 2 were first listed in the “Savoy Cocktail Book” by Harry Craddock in 1930. The Isle of the Dead is made from a combination of Damoiseau VSOP Rhum, Dubonnet, orange juice, Cointreau and Laphroaig Scotch. The combination of both rum and Scotch should pack a powerful punch — enough to scare the ghosts and goblins away until next year. Candy Corn Martini 1.25 ounces vanilla vodka .5 ounce butterscotch schnapps .5 ounce crème de cacao 2 ounces fresh orange juice Pour a splash of grenadine slowly over a bar spoon for a layered effect. Garnish with candy corn.
A 30-tap martini dispenser? It sounds like something fabulous from Willy Wonka’s adult playground. Or like I’ve died and gone to cocktail heaven. Fortunately, one does not have to visit the next dimension to encounter this extravagant invention. The Met Bar & Grill in Bethesda recently unveiled its Met Martini Bar, which melds flavorful drinks using fresh fruit purees. The innovative on-tap system was designed by restaurant owner Kathy Sidell. In fact, it is one of a kind. Sidell hired Custom Beverage Service in Boston to create her vision. What makes the system unique is the customization of a CO float system traditionally used for beer, tweaked to store and pour a variety of house-made purees through chilled glass tubes and out the taps. This allows for a quick infusion, creating refreshing drinks that can be enjoyed with or without spirits. The system can pour up to 30 different selections. Much like draft beer, the purees, kept in kegs that hold 18.9 liters, are pumped via nitrogen gas. Even though they are kept at 36 degrees, the purees are dispensed into a shaker with ice in order to craft a well-balanced cocktail when added to the base liquor. With all these choices, how are newbies to decide what’s best for them? The bartenders are well versed on all the flavors and ready to guide you. According to general manager Susan Spiwak: “We ask first if they are in the mood for a sweet, refreshing, bitter, sour or tart drink. The answer to this will automatically take us in a direction. For example, if they said, ‘refreshing,’ we would stay away from the sweeter purees like lychee, coconut or white peach, while leaning towards the citrus flavors or passion fruit. Then we ask what kind of liquor. If they choose bourbon, we have to be aware of the sugars in the spirit and how it will react to the puree. Same with the floral notes of gin. “This is where some coaching and some control goes back to the bartender. Part of the bartenders’ training consists of tasting each individual puree.” She added, “This is a critical part of their training so they can understand how sweet, sour, tart or bitter each puree is.” The customers seem to enjoy the control they can exert over their drinks. Spiwak said, “I had a guest who wanted a coconut mojito with a splash of El Corazon (a blend of passion fruit, pomegranate and blood orange). This used three purees: coconut, lime mint and El Corazon. This particular guest loved the creative input he was able to contribute to his experience. He created three more.” It’s not just the customers that are having fun with inventing new tipples. “One of the cocktails that became very popular after one experimental afternoon was the moco loco,” Spiwak recalls. “This consisted of Old Overholt, caramelized pineapple puree, jalapeño powder and ginger beer.” The flavors currently offered are: blood orange, lychee, Meyer lemon, blueberry, cherry, caramelized pineapple, coconut, passion fruit, El Corazon, pomegranate, white peach, lime mint, pink guava, apricot, green apple, mango, prickly pear, raspberry, strawberry, papaya, cranberry, hibiscus and tangerine. Most are pretty consistent, but some may be swapped out with the change of the season. Any drink that calls for lemon juice or cranberry juice is made with the Meyer lemon or cranberry puree. With all the different purees, spirits and other mixers, the possibilities are endless.
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.
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 singani.com, 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 websitesinganiusa.com, 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.
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 African.org, 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.
“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!
As we kick off a new year, the phrase “out with old, in with new” is often heard. I decided to follow this advice during my recent journey to Singapore. As a cocktail geek, whenever I’m in Singapore, I always make a pilgrimage to Raffles, the birthplace of the Singapore sling. While Raffles will always have history and a colonial elegance, the Singapore slings have a lost a bit of their magic, as throngs of tourists, cameras in hand, belly up to the bar for these now mass-produced tipples. It’s time to let go of the past, I thought, and time to find a new cocktail spot in the lion city. A friend suggested I try Ku Dé Ta, a rooftop hotspot located in the Marina Sands resort. This ultra-lux restaurant/bar/lounge provides stunning 360-degree views of the city from the 57th floor of its waterfront location. While the venue was impressive indeed, the handcrafted cocktails made an even more striking imprint. The menu, created by mixologist Knut Randhem, features a selection of tropical-tinged coolers, each one light and fresh, which pair to perfection with the food and climate. I start off with their most popular drink, the Storm Cooler, a mixture of vodka, passion fruit, honey and raw Persian licorice powder. While licorice in a drink may seem out of place in Southeast Asia, I am reminded that Randhem hails from Norway and Denmark, where this flavor is more common. The result is quite remarkable. “Very refreshing,“ says Mae Ng, Ku Dé Ta’s marketing executive. “It’s a sweet cocktail but not too overbearing.” I couldn’t agree more. While a drink forged from sweet passion fruit and honey could easily turn into a sugary jumble, the Storm Cooler finds a perfect balance with the piquant licorice powder, which gives it a sassy kick. This cocktail would be the ideal accompaniment to watching the sun set from the Skybar’s breathtaking patio. It’s served with large ice cubes, which melt slowly in the humid climate, keeping the flavor profile intact and not watered down. While the drink’s ingredients combine flavors of Scandinavia with a tropical flair, its moniker comes direct from Denmark. It is named in honor of a Norwegian sailor who saved a man from the sea near Denmark. The sailor later opened a beach hotel, one of the oldest in Denmark, where Randhem has worked during the busy summer season. The second drink I sample, named after Christopher Columbus, is a cultured mixture of Tahitian limes, Madagascar vanilla, pineapple, Spanish orange, vodka and sage. Given all its exotic flavors, I try to imagine if Columbus had made his way to Asia – instead of stumbling upon the Americas – if this would have been a cocktail he brought back to Europe. While pineapple is usually found in sweet drinks, this super-cool drink is wonderfully tart and brisk, based on a classic cobbler. The key is the sage, which imparts a zesty tang that compliments the tart lime and muddled pineapple. This unique combination was the brainchild of Randhem. “Pineapple works well with dry flavors like sage,” he says. “It breaks up the sweet fat flavor of the pineapple and opens it up.” The last drink I try is the Honey Rose Daiquiri. To the customary ingredients of rum and lime, Randhem adds honey and rosewater to give this standard an exceptional spin. I really enjoy this drink, because as in a well-made daiquiri the taste of the rum shines through as the other flavors harmonize perfectly – like the backup girls in a Ray Charles song. Randhem custom-blends the rum at Ku Dé Ta in order to achieve the desired flavor profile for his cocktails. The daiquiri is typical of many of the cocktails on his menu. “I like to take something that people are used to and present it in a completely different way,” he says. “I like to have lots of fun with odd flavor combinations.” Randhem’s modern take on cocktails makes for a stimulating experience, just right for a new year. When I return to Singapore in March, I’ll be heading straight to the bay for a delicious liquid treat at Ku Dé Ta.
Without a doubt, winter has arrived in our nation’s capital. Whether it’s a Georgetown preppie clad in cashmere and Burberry plaid or a hipster walking down 14th Street with boot socks, fringed jacket and infinity scarf, everyone in the metro area is bundled up and trying to beat the cold. My December visit came as a shock to my body. As a D.C. expat living on a tropical island, I am accustomed to temperatures of 30 degrees Celsius, not Fahrenheit. While dressing in layers and pulling warm clothes out from my storage bin helped my plight, I found a more jovial cure: hot cocktails to soothe the soul and defrost my frozen bones. On the weekend before Christmas, I felt like I was turning into a snowman while shopping at the outdoor holiday market downtown. Fortunately, a remedy was close by. Across F Street, Nopa Kitchen + Bar features a diverse menu of winter-warmer cocktails. I sampled three of their hot tipples, each one completely different. The first was called Nopa’s Punch, their version of mulled wine, a Northern European winter staple. Served hot, this beverage is usually made with red wine, various mulling spices and citrus fruits. It is often enhanced with another flavored liquor such as schnapps or brandy. It immediately took me back a few years, when my partner and I strolled through the Christmas market in Belfast, Ireland, admiring the local crafts, riding a Ferris wheel and taking a break from Guinness as we stayed cheerful with a soothing glass of spiced hot wine. Nopa’s version starts off with a good quality red wine. Beverage Director Jesse Hiney says that doing so is important because the flavor comes through in the finished product. The wine is mixed with a spice mixture, Granny Smith apples, orange, lime and Becherovka, a Czech liqueur spiced with ginger and cinnamon. The result is a drink that is a bit bolder, with a more pronounced spicy flavor than most of the mulled wines I have tried. It is served with a gluten-free ginger cookie that echoes its snappiness. Hiney says he has received many compliments from European customers accustomed to drinking mulled wines, who call Nopa’s version especially nice. Nopa also offers a classic hot toddy with a striking twist. The base liquor for this drink is a cardamom-infused bourbon that dominates the flavor. According to Hiney, whole cardamom pods are left to infuse in bourbon for a month. The whiskey is combined with lemon juice, spiced apple syrup, honey and hot water, then topped off with an amaretto meringue made by Nopa’s pastry chef, Jemil Gadea. The final result tasted like a hot lemon meringue pie from an exotic land, the cardamom flavor shining through. The fluffy topping merged seamlessly into the hot liquid, with the amaretto and spiced apple syrup tempering the strong spicy flavor. Finally, for a truly decadent treat, one should not miss Nopa’s adult version of hot chocolate. Starting off with 65-percent, single-origin Ecuadorian chocolate, this delicacy is served with a choice of liqueurs including Frangelico, Grand Marnier and Kahlua. By using superior chocolate, Nopa has created a delectable and incredibly rich dessert in a glass. Hiney suggested I sample it mixed with Patrón XO Café Incendio, a liqueur forged from arbol chiles, Criollo chocolate and Patrón tequila. This newly created spirit magically combines the flavors of spicy and sweet with a touch of heat. When used in Nopa’s hot chocolate, the result is extraordinary. It comes served with a light and pillowy homemade marshmallow, a special touch. The marshmallow easily blends into the rich and thick chocolate, giving it a smooth, silky finish. By the time I had sampled all three of these warmers, my body had thawed. I had shed my alpaca poncho and faux fur jacket. I was ready to face the bitter chill and carry on – full of cheer – with my holiday errands. Readers can sample these cocktails at Nopa Kitchen + Bar, 800 F St. NW.