Cocktail of the Week: Iceland’s pungent ‘black death,’ Brennivin

While most travelers are familiar with the many specialty foods of Europe, many of these same countries also make their own specialty liqueurs. In Italy, the spirits selection is as varied as its amazing cuisine. If you happen to find yourself in the birthplace of spaghetti, make sure you save some room for Sambucca, Limoncello or Aperol. In Greece, the anise-favored Ouzo is considered a symbol of Greek culture. And in Scandinavian countries, the locals enjoy Aquavit a spiced liqueur whose name is derived from the Latin "aqua vitae," meaning "water of life." Sampling these local elixirs during your vacation can be as much fun and culturally invigorating as enjoying a dinner of local fare. During a recent trip to Iceland, I was excited about trying the local spirit: Brennivin, a type of schnapps made from fermented potato mash and flavored with caraway seeds. The name Brennivin, which literally translates into English as “burning wine,” is also known locally as “black death.” With a name like that how could one not be intrigued? Before landing in the capital city of Reykjavik, I envisioned Iceland as a land of hard-drinking Vikings staving off the frigid climate with loads of alcohol. I had read about the legendary nightlife in Reykjavik, a city where the darkness can last up to 20 hours in the dead of winter. Even though my hotel was situated on Laugavegur Street, Reykjavik’s main party-strip, I decided to get into the spirit of Vikings before trying my first taste of Brennivin. I headed to the Vikingarain restaurant, a themed eatery that also features skits based on Icelandic history. Visitors enter the restaurant through a primitive fort-like wooden gate. Inside, the rooms are covered with rough pieces of raw wood, candlelight, bones and animals skins draped over the rustic tables and chairs. As servers greet you in traditional clothing, you are transported back 1,000 years in time. The restaurant boasts that it presents the same food cooked and served in the same style as the Vikings ate. While I was eagerly looking forward to ordering a whale steak, I was curious to drink what the Vikings drank. While I had pictures in my head of Vikings carousing with giant steins of brewski, my bartender explained that they actually drank mead, a honey wine. While modern Iceland is known for nightlife, the country has had a temperance tradition since the early 1900s. Prohibition was enforced 1915 through 1921 for wine and until 1935 for alcohol. Surprisingly, beer was prohibited until 1989. According to my bartender, on the first day that beer was legalized, more than 350,000 bottles were sold -- more than the entire population of Iceland. It turns out that Brennivin’s lethal nickname stems from the temperance movement. In an effort to scare consumers, the Icelandic government placed a skull and crossbones logo on all liquor bottles. With its stark black label and skeleton, Brennivin became known as “black death.” Today, the label sports an outline map of Iceland in lieu of a skull. Undeterred by the propaganda, I asked my bartender for a shot of Brennivin which he suggested washing down with a cold beer. The liqueur had a bold and pungent taste, heavy on the caraway, almost like drinking a slice of liquid rye bread. As my taste buds were processing this sharp flavor, my bartender explained that traditionally Brennivin was served with dried fish -- specifically Hakral, a putrefied shark -- in an effort to stave off an even stronger taste. Brennivin today is mostly enjoyed as a patriotic drink, most notably on St. Thorlac's Day (December 23), a holiday that honors the patron saint of Iceland. It’s a popular souvenir sampled then brought home by Iceland’s growing number of tourists. Although it’s not currently imported into Washington, Brennivin can be purchased online at NordicStore.com.

Cocktail of the Month: Global Warming

In Poland, bison grass vodka is most commonly served with apple juice in a cocktail called the Tatanka. If the name of this drink rings a bell, you can thank Kevin Costner.

Cocktail of the Month: The Coquito

In Poland, bison grass vodka is most commonly served with apple juice in a cocktail called the Tatanka. If the name of this drink rings a bell, you can thank Kevin Costner.

Cocktail of the Month: The Grasshopper

If you’re looking to celebrate summer’s arrival, head to District Distilling and the bartenders will mix you an impeccable Grasshopper. Or you can take a spin down to the Big Easy and enjoy one at its birthplace, Tujague’s.

The Nica Libre

Rum and Coke may conjure up memories of college fraternity parties or youthful nights sneaking drinks in your parents’ home. It was probably one of the first mixed drinks you tried, back in the day when Natty Boh and Milwaukee’s Best were your choice of beers. But if you head 90 miles south of Florida, the rum and Coke has a more romantic vibe. On Castro’s island, it’s called the Cuba Libre and includes the addition of lime juice. In Cuba, the rum and Coke can trace its earliest beginnings. While the exact circumstances of its birth are unclear, Wayne Curtis, author of “And a Bottle of Rum,” offers a plausible explanation involving Americans soldiers in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. A group of Americans and Cubans were gathered in a bar where the soldiers mixed rum and Coke and called out “Por Cuba libre!” – “To a free Cuba!” The drink migrated north. During Prohibition, Coke was an easy mixer used to mask the taste of bathtub alcohol, and during World War II, when rum was plentiful and whiskey scarce, its popularity increased further. But it was a popular song that blasted the drink into the apex of pop culture. In 1945 the Andrews Sisters’ song "Rum and Coca Cola” entered the charts, where it remained in the number one spot for 10 weeks. The song, which was based on a Calypso song from Trinidad, sold 7 million copies and made rum and Coke an iconic drink for years to come. Its prevalence endured throughout the generic 50’s into the age of Wonder Bread and canned foods. The drink was simple to mix and required no exotic ingredients. Going back to its origins, a proper Cuba Libre, made with fresh squeezed lime, can be a refreshing elixir, especially in the muggy hot Cuban climate. However, while rum flows freely in Cuba, Coca Cola, thanks to the trade embargo, is not readily available everywhere. When your order a Cuba Libre, most bars will mix it with Fiesta Cola, a soft drink packaged in a red can with a white logo that looks suspiciously similar to Coke’s trademark script. A true Cuba Libre should be mixed with Cuban Rum, which is illegal in the states. Luckily, I found a pleasant alternative during a holiday in Nicaragua. While many Americans associate rum with the Caribbean islands, Flor De Cana rum is as ubiquitous in Nicaragua as Bacardi is now in Puerto Rico. Whether you are sitting at an open-air restaurant along the Pacific in San Juan del Sur, a colonial courtyard in Grenada, or at a reggae club on Corn Island, the liquor of choice across the country is Flor de Cana. Any bartender will mix you a “Nica Libre” with Flor de Cana, fresh lime and Latin Coca-Cola. In Latin America, Coke tastes slightly different than what is produced in the states; it’s made with real sugar instead of corn syrup. But there’s no real need to travel afar. This classic highball can be easily mixed at home. However, if you prefer going out (way, way out), I recommend seeking out Isaiah at the Best View Hotel on Big Corn Island. The Nica Libre 2 oz Flor de Cana rum Juice of ½ lime Coca Cola Lime wedge Add first two ingredients in a tall glass. Fill with ice and coke and stir. Garnish with lime wedge. Ingredients to make the Nica Libre may be purchased at Dixie Liquor at 3429 M St. in Georgetown.

New Restaurant From Peacock Cafe Opens on P St.

The modern Persian restaurant near Dupont Circle is named after 1978, the year the Farivar brothers came to the United States from Iran.

The Cosmopolitan: Once the “It” Cocktail

Maybe it’s the appealing pink color, the pleasing tart flavor or the swanky glassware. Perhaps it was the four liberated and stylish ladies of New York who adored them. But for one reason or another. the Cosmopolitan -- or Cosmo, for short -- was the “It” cocktail of the late 1990s and first half of the 2000s. This tipple hit its zenith of fame when it became the favorite drink of Carrie Bradshaw on HBO’s “Sex and the City.” But believe or not, the Cosmo pre-dates the prime time television show by years. It was also another trend-setting celebrity that lent her hand at influencing this drink ‘s destiny before Sarah Jessica Parker started to imbibe on this vodka, cranberry and citrus concoction. The Museum of the American Cocktail recently hosted a seminar on popular vodka drinks, which included the history behind the Cosmopolitan. Phil Greene, founding member of the museum and author of “To Have and Have Another : A Hemingway Cocktail Companion,” hosted the event, which was held at the Warehouse theater inside the Passenger bar. Several recipes for cocktails similar to Cosmopolitan have been uncovered. One recipe for a drink named “Cosmopolitan” that Greene dug up dates back to 1934, from the book “Pioneers of Mixing Gin ?at Elite Bar 1903-1933.” While this early recipe uses gin instead of vodka, its remaining ingredients are comparable to today’s version. Using gin in a cocktail during that time was commonplace. Vodka did not start to get a stronghold in the American drink scene until the 1950s. Another similar recipe from the Ocean Spray Cranberry Growers from the 1960s, was unearthed by Dale “King Cocktail” DeGroff which calls for one ounce of vodka, one ounce of cranberry and a squeeze of lime. The invention of the modern-day Cosmo is generally credited to bartender Cheryl Cook in Miami’s South Beach. According to Greene, “In the mid-1980s the martini was making a comeback, and many customers were ordering them, seemingly just to be seen holding the iconic martini glass. However, for many, including women, martinis were a bit too strong and powerful. So she came up with the idea to create a drink that was visually stunning and uses the martini glass. Using a new product called Absolut Citron, a splash of triple sec, a few dashes of Rose’s Lime and some cranberry juice to turn it pink, the Cosmopolitan was born.” The Cosmo further evolved when cocktail heavyweight DeGroff sampled it at the Fog City Diner in San Francisco. DeGroff decided he could improve upon this formula and created his own version for the Rainbow Room in New York.  According to Greene, he used Absolut Citron, Cointreau, cranberry juice and fresh lime juice, along with a flamed orange peel garnish. It was at the Rainbow Room where the Cosmo’s superstardom began. Its prominence skyrocketed when Madonna was pictured sipping one at the Rainbow Room Grammy party, when the award show was held next-door at Radio City Music Hall. Next came “Sex and the City,” which cemented the Cosmopolitan’s place in drink history. Soon, Cosmos were on cocktail menus across the nation along with various drinks with names ending in “ini” and served in the cone-shape big martini glasses. While the Cosmo’s place in the sun has faded somewhat, it has earned a spot on the list of classic cocktails. Even our favorite New York girl seems to have cooled on her Cosmopolitan. In the film version of Sex and City, Miranda asks why the girls stopped drinking Cosmos. Carrie replies, "Because everyone else started." Dale DeGroff’s Cosmopolitan: 1.5 oz. Absolut Citron Vodka .5 oz. Cointreau .25 oz. Fresh Lime Juice 1 oz. Cranberry Juice Shake all ingredients with ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a flamed orange peel. The Museum of the American Cocktail will be sponsoring evening of stories, cocktails and songs led by Dale DeGroff on Thursday, April 12. For more information, visit www.museumoftheamericancocktail.org

Cocktail of the Month: The Boulevardier

In Poland, bison grass vodka is most commonly served with apple juice in a cocktail called the Tatanka. If the name of this drink rings a bell, you can thank Kevin Costner.

Cocktail of the Month: Sacher Cuveé Gold

In Poland, bison grass vodka is most commonly served with apple juice in a cocktail called the Tatanka. If the name of this drink rings a bell, you can thank Kevin Costner.

Cocktail of the Month: The Tatanka

In Poland, bison grass vodka is most commonly served with apple juice in a cocktail called the Tatanka. If the name of this drink rings a bell, you can thank Kevin Costner.