Somewhere in my year o’ crap, I came to more fully appreciate a finely crafted cocktail, something I'd been dabbling in for the past few years. Not because it’s the latest, bourgie white people thing to do – well, not only because it’s the latest, bourgie white people thing to do, but because I learned a valuable lesson: when life gives you lemons, you should make a sour. Then drink it and watch your problems melt away. It's not alcoholism; it's cocktailism - an important distinction. Cocktailism enjoys the craft of the drink, delighting in the senses and the creative process involved to get to the boozy goodness. But let's not kid ourselves; the tipsiness is awfully nice, too.
I'm little more than a dilettante, but I do know I love a damn good cocktail. Marking my way through cities by exploring cocktail options was one of the most satisfying aspects of my year. So here you go, my top five favorite drinks that I tasted in bars (as opposed to made at home, another list for another day):
Catalan Elderfizz – Xix Lounge, Barcelona
After working yet another schmoozy social event that's really just work in disguise, my European colleagues and I felt we owed ourselves a proper drink. We found ourselves at Xix Lounge, a scene-y kind of place but with a lovely walnut bar the way a bar is supposed to look, thick with smoke (well, that describes pretty much anywhere in Barcelona), and boasting 40 kinds of gin. What I like most about ordering drinks is the relationship you form with the bartender – you start describing what you like and offer that as a challenge for them to expand your tastifaction horizons. Ordering drinks in Spanish is an extra adventure, since it’s way beyond my fairly standard Spanish vocabulary. I tried to describe that my poison was ginebra, that I like a good fizz -- algun coqtel con la leche de la gallina, and that I wanted to try something authentically Spanish, like cava. And then my bartender spoke to me in English and I felt like a compleat tool.
He kindly translated my language fumblings into a take on a gin fizz, combining Xoriguer gin from the island of Minorca, housemade orange bitters, St. Germain, Pernod, and the egg white. Instead of topping it off with club soda, he splashed cava over the top. If I had seen that combination of ingredients on the menu, I would have balked. I set my tent up in the drink minimalist camp, plus I've had some very bad experiences with the former Object serving me Pernod and Chartreuse, liqueurs with a jarring licorice taste, as a practical joke (and then complaining bitterly when later I didn’t like them). But the whole thing blended together smoothly, dry cava balancing the floral notes from the St. Germain, which in turn tempered the strident anise flavor from the Pernod. This was one of my early experiences with St. Germain, which I quickly started incorporating into my own cocktails like Tapatio, which I only leave off food if I'm using siracha instead. It’s pretty amazing, especially with Campari. The St. Germain, that is, not siracha.
Gin and Tonic – Estadio– Washington, DC
I hate tonic water, which means I thought I hated quinine. But it turns out, I just hate all the treacly, syrupiness of gross tonic water. This completely reinvented the classic for me with housemade quinine from cinchona bark. Derek Brown pretty much already said everything there is about this crisp update. Plus, nothing makes the public health officer in me happier than taking prophylactic (well, sort of) measures against malaria and heart arrhythmia. Drinking is very good for you. (The public health officer in me has asked me to toss the word moderation in there, and the lush in me just kicked my inner public health officer in the shins for being such a goody twat.)
Milk and Honey – Drink, Boston
I went to drink for their amazing Old Fashioned, which is perfectly precise and delicious; it’s the perfect application of bourbon. (I thought I hated bourbon, but it turns out I just wanted to hate it to distinguish myself from the Object. One of the joys of singledom is not needing to stake out your own territory). But I told the bartender I needed something homey and comforting for a chilly fall night. He served up a milk and honey – Benedictine, milk, and some secret and proprietary mix of other deliciousness. It might not have been that secret, but this was my third drink in and I forgot to write down the last ingredients. I didn't really need to. I recreated this at home as just Benedictine and milk, served over ice and in front of my fire. That’s key. Simple, homey, genius. You also have to love women who play serious ball in the largely male-dominated world of cocktails, so I've been praying at the shrine of Barbara Lynch.
The Liz – Icenhauer’s, Austin
Texas was far colder than I packed for. I mean, it’s Texas – sunshine, desert, all that jazz, right? But no, I could see my breath. I needed to get fancy for a night out and all I’d packed was a backless halter dress. Although I had my legwarmers (who travels without them?!), I still needed to be warmed from the inside out. Enter The Liz - candied orange peel-infused Maker’s, maraschino liqueur, and brandied cherries.
Somewhere between the candied orange peel and brandied cherries, you might think The Liz sounds disgustingly sweet. What’s important to note here is that maraschino liqueur is not just the juice from the fluorescent-colored cherries you used to get in your Shirley Temple at the Ground Round. (Remember a time in your life when you were excited to pay what you weighed? How does that marketing gimmick work on anyone over the age of 8? And outside of the Midwest?) Luxardo is an Italian liqueur distilled (one of the very few distilled liqueurs) from marasca cherries. Sharing little in common with its gauche American cousin or even sweet, red Heering cherry liqueur from Denmark, marschino liqueur has a dry, almost bitter quality that comes from including the cherry pits in the distillate. Like so many other Italian liqueurs and amari, it was originally produced as medicine in more drinkable form. Mary Poppins almost had it right – it’s not a spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down, it’s a spoonful of fermentation.
The Getaway – The Columbia Room, Washington, DC
Campari is an acquired taste. It was my introduction into the world of Italian amari, herbal liqueurs with medicinal qualities. They remind me of the first time I had a kola nut, which is what they eat after meals in Senegal. It’s insanely bitter. But once you get through the bitter, your whole palate feels clean- hence the term, palate-cleansing and why amari – which have that same bitter quality – are served after dinner (aperitivos). Well, that and the fact that the Italians believe that it stirs up all kinds of good digestive juices. I have come to looooove me some Campari, far more than any cheese or dessert.
So when I learned about Cynar, an amaro made with artichoke as its primary ingredient, I was slightly disturbed, but also curious. Katie Nelson, Derek Brown’s protégée at the Columbia Room whips up Cynar with Cruzan blackstrap molasses rum, lemon juice, and simple syrup. The simplicity of the drink reminds me why I subscribe to the minimalist camp. The Getaway is but a lowly sour, adhering to the classic cocktail ratio – one sour (the lemon), two sweet (the cynar and the simple syrup), three strong (the rum), and four weak (shaking the mixture with ice). But I have never felt a taste so completely round and whole in my mouth – it almost felt like the roof of my mouth was trying to make new tastebuds right then and there to enjoy the complete and balanced spectrum of flavors.