Avuá Cachaça: A wonky introduction to Brazil’s national spirit

July 2015 – Mrs. Wonk and I are seeking respite from the stifling New Orleans heat and humidity at Arnaud’s French 75 bar. Tales of the Cocktail hasn’t flown into full swing yet, so it’s just the two of us at the bar. I spy a bottle on the backbar unlike anything I’ve ever seen – downright architectural, with angles, lines, and curves all about. What is this mystery bottle? Some new high-concept vodka? I casually ask the bartender, and the bottle appears before me, alongside a small sample in a glass. The aroma hits me before my fingers touch the glass. I smile. Oh yes, this is cachaça.

In the simplest terms, cachaça is made in Brazil from fresh-pressed sugar cane juice. If this sounds like rum, you’re on the right track. More specifically, it very similar to rhum agricole, a style of rum made in the French Caribbean from sugar cane juice rather than molasses. So what’s the difference? In terms of the production process as the average person understands it, not a whole lot. Sugar cane is crushed to extract the juice, which is then fermented and distilled, followed by an optional aging step. Per regulations, cachaça is bottled between 38 percent and 54 percent ABV, and up to six grams of added sugar per liter is allowed.

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A Tale of Two Piscos: Pisco Portón and La Caravedo

Imagine you’ve taken a seat at your friendly neighborhood craft cocktail bar. As you scan the bottles, you see all manner of gins, tequilas, rums, brandies, but only a single bottle labeled “whiskey” – no Scotch, no bourbon, and no rye – just “whiskey.” You opt for a classic Manhattan, made with, of course, whiskey. Your first sip is filled with smoke and brine – it seems it’s a smoky Scotch whiskey, rather than a vanilla forward bourbon or a spicy rye like you’d expect.  Suddenly that classic Manhattan is not such a classic anymore.

You might think it’s ridiculous for a bar to have only one type of “whiskey” when there’s such a broad range of flavor profiles, but something akin to this happens with pisco, the wonderful grape-based brandy from Peru. If a bar has pisco at all, it’s likely to be a single bottle, which is a shame because the range of piscos available have quite a range of flavors. I was vividly reminded of this recently when I sampled two piscos from the same producer side-by-side.

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Checking out Tanqueray’s Bloomsbury Limited Release Gin

With the rise of craft spirits, established brands are finding themselves under attack by an army of Lilliputians, all touting their small batch, artisanal, hand-crafted credentials to great effect in influencing the buying public. The big players like Tanqueray aren’t all standing still, however. In addition to their standard lineup (Tanqueray, Tanqueray Rangpur, and Tanqueray 10), they’ve released a string of limited editions over the last three years, the most recent being Tanqueray Bloomsbury, which I received a bottle of for review here.

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Checking out the La Quintinye Vermouth Lineup

Every so often, a press release for a new product jumps off the screen to capture my attention. Such was the case when I read about La Quintinye vermouths, which claim to be the first vermouths made with Pineau des Charentes. Don’t feel too bad if you’re not acquainted with Pineau — I didn’t know about it myself until a year ago when I learned that certain Plantation rums are finished in Pineau barrels. Pineau is sweet, delicious aperitif from France, a union of lightly fermented grape juice — only specific grape varieties need apply — and unaged cognac. I’ve acquired several bottles of Pineau and savor them, so this vermouth quickly got my attention. Let’s take a look at the La Quintinye lineup. If you’re not familiar with vermouth, you might read my earlier primer on it.

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Minimalist Tiki: What you truly need to make the classics at home

Recently, a torrent of articles in the mainstream press has heralded the re-emergence of Tiki drinks as worthy of the craft cocktail title, and highlighted top-tier Tiki bars like Smuggler’s Cove, Lost Lake, Three Dots and a Dash, and Hale Pele. Readers are regaled with tales of these destination-worthy bars with hundreds of rums and all sorts of exotic ingredients. I’m completely on board with this surge in interest, and I regularly go overboard in my home bar, making libations with ten-plus ingredients, multiple rums, and flaming garnishes.

However, it recently occurred to me that exotic Tiki recipes specifying esoteric ingredients and very specific rums can seem a little daunting to the beginning or mid-level home bartending enthusiast. I imagine it’s easy to flip though a Tiki recipe book (or the incredible Beachbum Berry’s Total Tiki app) and feel deflated that you can’t find a single recipe with what’s already in your home bar.

With this in mind, I set out on a research project: Finding the minimum set of ingredients needed to make a dozen or so of the most popular, beloved Tiki and tropical drinks. By deconstructing classic Tiki recipes and finding the most common elements, I created a minimal working set of ingredients, enabling you to craft all sorts tropical libations without spending a fortune and taking over your living space.  It’s too late for me — the home bar spans several rooms — but with what follows, you can enjoy top- notch Tiki cocktails at home with limited space and budget.

My starting point is a list of Tiki/tropical cocktails I consider the essential classics; as with all “best of” lists, it’s completely subjective. However, I’ve conferred with Jason Alexander, @tikicommando. who makes classic and original Tiki drinks for a living at the Tacoma Cabana. For consistency, my recipe reference is the aforementioned Total Tiki app. Because some Tiki recipes have evolved with multiple variations, when there’s more than one recipe I’ve selected the oldest version. Without further adieu, here we go:

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Cocktail Obsession: The Starboard (Pisco, Suze, and Apricot)

One of the benefits of getting to know your local bartender is figuring out what they’re passionate about and then letting them run loose with that desire. At a recent pisco throwdown at Damn the Weather in Seattle, I learned that Canon’s Dustin Haarstad is a bit of a Pisco freak. Fast forward a few months and I found myself on a slow evening at Canon with Dustin and Chris Goad at the bar. Canon is a place that has an exceptional menu (Tales of the Cocktail nominatedagain for 2015), but is also a bonanza of great mixology when you let the staff run wild. On this particular night, I remembered that Dustin has an affinity for pisco, so I went dealer’s choice, aka “Shrouded Roulette” in Canon parlance. The result was the Starboard – Pisco, Salers and Apricot Liqueur. I completely dig this drink – it’s light yet complex, and not particularly difficult to make. Dustin graciously provided me with the recipe and the okay to publish it.
Conceptually, the Starboard falls into the way-out Negroni category. Wait, what? None of the classic Negroni ingredients (gin, Campari, vermouth) are in the Starboard. However, it’s commonplace to swap out gin in a Negroni for other base spirits: Use bourbon instead of gin in a Negroni and you have a Boulevardier. Using rum instead of gin yields a Right Hand, a particular favorite of mine, especially when it’s a pungent Jamaican rum.
While a classic Negroni is 1:1:1 with its ingredient ratios, a growing trend in Negroni variations is to bump up the base spirit and reduce the bitter Campari and sweet vermouth components accordingly. This helps keep the more delicate, floral base spirits like pisco from being overwhelmed by the bitter component, e.g. Campari. Pisco, in case you’re wondering, is made in Peru and Chile from grapes, making it technically a brandy. Peruvian and Chilean piscos are quite different when examined with more than a casual glance; in general, Peruvian pisco is better suited for a cocktail like the Starboard.
The Starboard trades the firetruck-red Campari component of a Negroni for a slightly more subtle but still powerful bitter French amaro. Salers, which is strongly flavored with gentiane root and offers a bold greenish-yellow hue. (Truthfully, I prefer it to Campari in my drinks.) While Dustin’s recipe calls for Salers, I successfully reproduced this at home with Suze, another gentiane-based liqueur from France with a similar color and flavor profile.
Lastly, the Starboard cocktail replaces the sweet vermouth with apricot liqueur. You’ll want a sweet liqueur here, not a dry apricot brandy or eau de vie. While apricot liqueur is generally sweeter than a sweet vermouth, the overall sweetness is tempered by the larger ratio of pisco to liqueur. Dustin and I both used Giffard Abricot du Roussillon. (Giffard, also from France, makes an outstanding lineup of liqueurs and syrups. The Giffard orgeat is my go-to almond syrup when mixing Tiki drinks.
The Starboard Cocktail
  • 1.5 oz Peruvian Pisco
  • 0.75 Gentiane aperitif, e.g. Salers or Suze
  • 0.5 Apricot liqueur, e.g. Giffard Abricot du Roussillon
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
Stir over ice, strain into chilled coupe. Express a lemon twist over the top, then drop in.

The Starboard Cocktail, as prepared by Dustin Haarstad at Canon, Seattle.