Cocktail of the Month: The Year of the Monkey

March 18, 2016

Along with the hope of an early spring from Punxsutawney Phil, February also ushered in the Lunar New Year. 2016 is the Year of the Monkey, which is also my Chinese zodiac sign. In accordance, I have decided this should be a year of celebration, requiring a signature “monkey” cocktail.

Perhaps the best-known tipple with a primate name is the brass monkey, which was made famous, or infamous, by the Beastie Boys song of the same name in the 1980s.

The brass monkey wasn’t necessarily something you would order at a bar; it was a premixed bottled cocktail manufactured by the Heublein Company and sold in retail liquor stores.

A magazine ad from the 1970s tells the story of a World War II spy named H.E. Rasske who frequented a bar called the Brass Monkey in Macau. The bar was named for a brass figurine and its specialty was its self-named cocktail.

While the contents of the drink at the fictional Asian club are unknown, Heublein’s version contained orange juice, dark rum and vodka. Dark rum, when mixed with the orange juice, produced a golden “brassy color.” Variations of this recipe sometimes include triple sec, grapefruit juice, Galliano and gin.

Other chimp cocktails exist. Many of them are sweet creamy concoctions made with bananas (no doubt because of the fruit’s identification as the preferred primate provender).

For example, the mocha monkey, created by Baileys liqueur, is a frozen drink composed of Baileys, vanilla ice cream, chocolate syrup and fresh banana. A slightly more potent concoction is the cheeky monkey, made with Baileys, crème de cacao and crème de banana.

The funky monkey, marketed by Bacardi, is a similar drink with the substitution of rum and coconut cream for the Baileys.
Absinthe is another common factor in monkey cocktails, perhaps due to the antiquated notion of absinthe making drinkers crazy. In 2012, during the height of the gin craze, Esquire magazine published a recipe for the flying monkey, which contained gin, lime, orange marmalade?and absinthe.

Another gin/absinthe combo is the monkey gland, created in the 1920s at Harry’s New York Bar in Paris. According to, its moniker is derived from an archaic surgical technique of grafting monkey testicle tissue into humans. The practice was started by a French doctor, who was convinced that testosterone was the key to a long and healthy life. A precursor to Viagra, perhaps?

I found my signature monkey drink for 2016 in Singapore, where I went to celebrate Chinese New Year. The streets of Chinatown were illuminated with monkeys holding peaches (which symbolize immortality), and people were jammed into restaurants eating spring rolls and whole fish for good fortune.

In Singapore, I discovered Monkey Shoulder, a blended Speyside malt whisky. The name is a reference to a condition that maltmen from the distillery sometimes picked up while working long shifts, turning the barley by hand. Because this tended to cause their turning arm to hang down a bit like a monkey’s, they nicknamed the condition ‘monkey shoulder.’

Straight up, this scotch has a mild taste with hints of nutmeg and honey. The promotional materials claim it tastes like 007 wearing a tuxedo wetsuit. I also tried the ginger monkey, an uncomplicated mixture of scotch, ginger beer and orange. In Chinese culture, displaying and consuming oranges is said to bring wealth and luck (plus the spice of the ginger beer gives this cocktail an Asian twist).

If none of these tipples tickles your fancy, you can still toast the Year of the Monkey by garnishing your drinks with tiny plastic cocktail monkeys — miniature versions of the characters from your childhood game, Barrel of Monkeys. Vanity Fair last year declared the plastic cocktail monkey the “new cocktail umbrella.” [gallery ids="117186,117180" nav="thumbs"]

Cocktail of the Month: The Bob Marley

February 18, 2016

Aaaahhhhh! I let out a deep sigh as I leaned back in the cushy, raised lounge chair which served as a barstool at One-Eyed Jack’s, the newest bar-restaurant in Moalboal, a lazy beach town on the west side of Cebu island in the Philippines. I spent the entire day diving, watched a vibrant sunset and now I was eager to enjoy an evening cocktail.

Before I had the chance to talk to a bartender, my eyes were immediately drawn upwards to the drink list scratched onto chalkboards above the bar. Being a spirits writer, my eyes are always on the lookout for a cocktail menu, but this seemed a little too easy to spot. As it turns out, it was. After meeting the owner, Wayne Bruey, I discovered that the menu was specifically positioned to be in direct eye contact with customers lazing about on the comfy chairs. This is my kind of bar, I decided.

While many of the selections were geared towards the “party hardy” crowd, I found a few gems. I quickly found out that the positioning of the recliners and overhead menu was not the only visual trick in this joint. Colorful layered drinks appeared to be their specialty.

Take for example, the reggae-inspired Bob Marley, a tricolored offering that mimicked the hues of the Rastafarian flag. I watched as bartender Jocel Dionaldo carefully layered this creation with red, orange then green. After sipping one of these tipples, it was easy to determine that the red came from grenadine and the yellow was fresh fruit juice. But the green had me perplexed. I detected notes of candied orange and an oaky vanilla vibe, but I couldn’t pinpoint it. The flavor didn’t match any green liqueurs that I was familiar with, plus this drink packed a kick, so I ascertained there was some type of hard liquor.

I soon learned that the jungle-green layer was created from the mahogany color of barrel-aged rum blended with bright blue curacao. Being a rum lover, I was intrigued by the local Philippine rum, Tanduay. Their 5-year dark offering had the typical dark sugary and mature flavor, but it finished with slightly nutty and smoky notes.

Another visual trick was the Shark Bite. On an island catering to divers and famous for its population of whale and thresher sharks, a shark bite may be the last thing a visitor wants to experience, but at Jack’s it was a pleasurable experience.

This drink had an added bit of showmanship. It was forged by inverting a shot glass of vibrant grenadine in a tumbler, then filling the glass to the brim with ocean-blue curacao. For the performance, Wayne carefully removed the inverted shot glass, allowing the grenadine to mingle with the curacao, creating the illusion of blood seeping into the sea.

The other peculiar drink that caught my taste buds was the Duck Fart. I never got a good explanation for the name, but it featured a layered combination of Kahlua, Baileys Irish Cream and Jack Daniels. It had a sweet coffee shop smell but with lingering scents of a whiskey bar. Truly an international effort (Mexico, Ireland and USA), this concoction started off with a strong bourbon smack that was followed by the mellow notes of the coffee and cream liqueurs.

During my weeklong holiday, I managed to make it through the cocktail list, all the while enjoying the local brew, San Miguel. With live music and tasty American comfort food, like chilidogs, tacos and massive plates of fish and chips, One-Eyed Jack’s offers a bit of home for a westerner living (or vacationing) in the Philippines. Wayne hails from Austin, Texas, and he compared the people of Cebu with his crowd from Texas. “Like Austin,” he said, “The locals here love to sing and have fun and enjoy life.” And I certainly found a lot to enjoy at this rustic seashore spot.

The Bob Marley

1 part grenadine (Stirrings or homemade preferred)

1 part orange juice

1 part aged rum (I prefer Flor de Cana) mixed with blue curacao to form a green color

1. Pour the grenadine into the bottom of a narrow liqueur glass.
2. Using a spoon, gently touch the bottom layer and slowly pour the juice over to form the next layer.
3. Repeat the second step using the rum-curacao mixture.

If done correctly, this will form a layered cocktail.
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Cocktail of the Month: Toasting National Margarita Day, Feb. 22

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).

Cocktail of the Month: Eggnog

January 11, 2016

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.

Cocktail of the Month: Candy Corn Martini

November 5, 2015

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.

Cocktail of the Month: Met’s 30-Tap Martini Dispenser

September 2, 2015

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.

Chefs Go Fresh

August 17, 2015

Yesterday, a long row of motorcycles sat in the hot morning sun on the sidewalk framing the doors of Brasserie Beck on K Street. The Washingtonians hurrying past in skirts and suits spared little more than a glance for the tough-looking bunch in black T-shirts and leather vests who smoked cigars and shot the breeze while two photographers circled, snapping their pictures.

This motley crew was a gathering of some of D.C.’s best chefs, all of them there for the “Chefs Go Fresh” event presented by Georgetown Media Group, publishers of The Georgetowner and The Downtowner, and Loudoun County, Virginia Department of Economic Development. The event was a resurrection of the popular “Chefs on Bikes” event which was last held four years ago, and was brought back with the intention of bringing D.C. chefs closer to local farmers and produce.

The day kicked off with a breakfast at Brasserie Beck hosted by Chef Robert Wiedmaier, co-founder of the original “Chefs on Bikes” event. Before the chefs took off on their ride touring Virginia farms such as Endless Summer Harvest, Notaviva Vineyard and Stoneybrook Farm, The Georgetowner took the chance to ask these restaurant personalities a few questions.

We asked the chefs what is their favorite fresh ingredient to work with, and got a varied list of produce that is in season now and ingredients that are staples year-round. Chef Peter Russo of Chef Geoff said that his favorite ingredient is foie while Chef Clifford Wharton of Matchbox went with ginger and Weidmaier said he prefers white asparagus from Belgium. Tomatoes and potatoes were also given mention while two votes were put in for garlic.

“[There are] way too many things have to have garlic in them not to give it first billing,” said Chef Thomas Elder of Harth Restaurant.

When asked whose kitchen they were in when they weren’t in the kitchens of their respective restaurants, the chefs responded with an almost unanimous answer of their kitchens at home. Chef Vinod of Indique Restaurant said that he could be found in “my mom’s kitchen.” Elder and Chef RJ Cooper of Rogue 24 both said that Weidmaier’s kitchen was a favorite of theirs, while Weidmaier himself said that you’re most likely to find him “at home with my family in my kitchen.”

Finally, we asked each chef who their personal “Top Chef” is. Wiedmair gave a list of four: Chef Paul Stearman of Marcel’s; Chris Watson, the chef de cuisine at Brabo; Matt Hagen, the chef de cuisine at Weidmair’s Mussel Bar, and John Engle, the chef de cuisine at Weidmair’s Brasserie Beck. Vinod named Chef Mike Isabella of Graffiato, Chef Roberto Donna of Galileo III replied with Pellegrino Artusi, author of the famous Italian cookbook “La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiare bene,” and Cooper said that his “Top Chef” is the famous Ferran Adria. Weidmair, whose kitchen’s hot Belgian waffles and fresh scrambled eggs the chefs ate while answering these questions, was nominated at “Top Chef” several times, and Russo answered diplomatically, saying “my wife.”
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Summertime Refresher: Gin and Tonic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jody’s Gin & Tonic

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

Cocktail of the Month: Peru Meets Bolivia

May 21, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Chuflay

1.5 ounces singani

4 ounces lemon soda or lemonade

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

Cocktail of the Month: The Spirit of Africa

April 23, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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