I first started visiting notable cocktail locations by accident. Whilst I have been working in bars for the past 18 years, I have also spent a fair few working for a charity involved in plant and animal conservation. Many of the projects i dealt with were in fantastic tropical locations, where it seemed only right to partake of the local recommendations. That’s how I found myself drinking Caipirinhas by Copacabana beach in Brazil, followed a few days later with instruction in how to make them on a farm in a Cachaca producing region to the South of Sao Paolo. This experience transformed the drink for me, from a nice refreshing summer alternative to the Mojito, to a fundamental way of bringing the best out of locally distilled cane spirit, using ingredients that were plentiful and local. The Cachaca came out of a re-usable battered glass bottle and was full of impurities (aka flavour); the limes were picked from the garden, the ice shaved from a block and the sugar locally produced and unrefined. The sugar crystals were ground into the skin of the limes in the glass using an old, worn muddler made from local hardwood, while the ice added on top was a mix of fine shavings that melted quickly adding dilution, and larger chunks that kept the drink cold for the (short) length of time it took to consume.
Not that long afterwards, I was on a similar trip to Mexico, and repeated the experience with Margaritas. Not frozen, fruity or overly sweet, but made with unfamiliar brands of 100% agave blanco Tequila. Again these had a refreshing bite from the local limes and were often served on the rocks to keep them cool. Later in that trip and subsequent ones, I also discovered the art of sipping Tequila and Mezcal with an accompanying glass of Sangrita (orange, tomato, pomegranate, lime and chilli – like a small, sweet Bloody Mary). Again, spirits were often dished out of unfamiliar or unmarked bottles – and in some cases on the roadside next to the still in re-used 2-litre soft drinks bottles. They all tasted fantastic, and were one of the reasons for my return to the world of full-time bartending again.
Since those initial eye-openers, I have tried to sample as many classic cocktails and spirits as possible in their natural surroundings. It’s a great way of understanding how the drink originated, how it was traditionally made and how it should really taste. Fortunately these days there are many bartenders around the world who take a keen interest in these things, and long gone are the days when all margaritas were blended fruit monstrosities made with cheap mixto tequila (although there are plenty still to be found if you must); it’s quite easy to get an authentic Caipirinha or Margarita (and even a Mezcal and Sangrita) from Los Angeles to London or Berlin to Beijing. If you have the opportunity though, I would try and seek out native drinks – partly for the understanding it gives you (it’s the cocktail equivalent of eating chilli-fuelled dishes in Sichuan or drinking Pinot Noir in Burgundy), and partly because some of the world’s most famous drinks come from some of the world’s most exciting destinations, so (budgetary considerations aside) why not?
The following list is a starting point. They are places you might happen to be passing through, or destinations you really must try if you want to take a cocktail pilgrimage seriously. In Part 2, I’ll give you some more ‘advanced’ options for the professional bartender or traveller that are slightly further off the beaten track, but quite an experience if you’re willing to put in the effort (or can persuade a willing drinks company to assist you in your quest…).
So in no particular order:
The Bellini at Harry’s Bar in Venice
Falling firmly into the ‘tourist trap’ category, Harry’s is the true home of the Bellini. Giuseppe Cipriani put the drink on his list in 1945, and it’s a pretty perfect accompaniment to sightseeing on the Grand Canal.
Go in the summer when white peaches are in season.
The Singapore Sling at The Raffles Hotel
The Raffles Hotel Long Bar is where this drink was first made in around 1915 by Ngiam Tong Boon, a Chinese-born bartender. The classic recipe is on the sour side with gin, bitters, Benedictine and Cherry Brandy (or possibly Kirsch) being the predominant flavours. These days however, customers apparently expect (and are given) a sweet pre-mixed drink that’s heavy on the pineapple and grenadine. Before you’re hugely disappointed on this leg of your cocktail tour, find one of the head bartenders and ask them for a traditionally made Sling and the results should be slightly nearer the mark (and the same exorbitant price). The bar itself is a pretty faithful recreation of the 1920s and 30s (if it ever changed).
The Caipirinha in Brazil
Caipirinhas are available wherever you are in Brazil, but Cachaca brand and style of drink vary enormously. If you can find somewhere that makes one with a local brand and using local limes, you may have hit the jackpot. See above for my experiences.
The Daiquiri and the Mojito in Havana
It’s safe to say that Cuba’s food and beverage industry is past its hey-day and eagerly awaiting the next, but no world cocktail tour would be complete without a trip to Havana’s Bodeguita del Medio (spiritual home to the Mojito, even if the drink itself was around for a few hundred years before the bar came into being) and La Floridita, where Constantino Ribalaigua Vert famously reduced the sugar content of the Daiquiri for Ernest Hemingway. In the former, the mint and limes are deliciously subtle local varieties (the limes are sweeter and the mint of a very different flavour to that which you usually find in the drink), but the execution is focussed on speed and efficiency, so as with the Singapore Sling, they might be a disappointment. Having said that, they are probably more like the original drink, it’s just that we’re used to a pimped version these days. In the case of Floridita, another conversation with the bartender is in order (natural Hemingway Special), or you will probably end up with a tasteless slushy, but at least you get to sit next to the Papa while you drink it at the bar!
Bitters and the rum punch, anywhere in the Caribbean
With the tree-related side of my career I’ve been lucky enough to work in a lot of places around the Caribbean, including Jamaica, Dominica and Belize. Along with a wide variety of rums, I’ve also tried a lot of bitters. Every rum-shack invariably contains a jar to one side of the counter which contains local barks, roots and nuts (and sometimes more dubious ingredients). This is kept filled with local spirit which extracts the tannins and aromatics from the botanicals. Whilst Angostura and other commercial bitters are usually added in small dashes, these are designed to be drunk as medicine (as the others were originally) upon entering or leaving the premises, or whenever a pick-me-up is needed. On further enquiry, the effects seem to be rather male-oriented – as I was told, “roots for your root”… These tend to find their way into local punches as well, comprising rum, bitters and fresh juices. Great drinking that’s hard to replicate elsewhere.
The Manhattan at an Art-Deco venue in New York
For city drinking, nothing beats sipping a Manhattan whilst observing the hustle and bustle of the city. Although the origins of the drink are unconfirmed, it was a long time before the Art-Deco period, but somehow this style has always captured New York drinking for me.
The Sazerac in New Orleans
Another example of a drink whose original venue has long departed (The Sazerac Coffee House, 13 Exchange Alley, around 1858), but the current home to the drink is the Sazerac Bar at the New Orleans’ Fairmont Hotel. Ideally go during Tails of the Cocktail New Orleans, the world’s biggest cocktail event, held around July each year.
The Gin & Tonic at a colonial-style hotel in Africa or India
No exact story exists for the Gin & Tonic’s origins, but suffice to say the colonial Brits loved their gin and added tonic for its curative properties in malarial regions. There’s nothing quite like sipping a G&T on the veranda at the end of a long day, whilst mulling over the pros and cons of pith helmets vs Panama hats…
That’s a very provisional list of some of the most famous drinking haunts. I intend to revisit this at some point with an ‘advanced skills’ section for those seeking the more obscure cocktail stories, but I might need a little more time (and a few more trips…) before then!