Boozing in Buenos Aires – Part 1, Observations on Spirits in Argentina

 

A relatively well-stocked high-end Buenos Aires Bar

My wife Carrie and I are travel junkies, always looking for the next international travel destination. Since we’re both still Workin’ for the Man, we use US holidays to take two day weekends and turn them into 4+ day weekends.  With luck and planning we can get 9 straight free days while only using three vacation days. Over Thanksgiving 2013, we jetted down to Buenos Aires with a side trip to Uruguay. As usual in our international travels there was plenty of good food (Carrie handles that part of the planning), and plenty of time at bars- my bailiwick. There’s lot to tell about this trip, liquor-wise, so I’m splitting it over several posts. This first post is my general observations about what spirits are found in Buenos Aires.

It’s been said that “Argentines are a nation of Italians who speak Spanish and think they’re British living in Paris.”, and that was certainly my experience.  There were many moments walking down the street where I snapped to with the sudden realization that I wasn’t in Europe.  As with France and Italy, wine and beer are produced domestically, are plentiful and inexpensive, and so are the dominant types of alcohol consumed. Spirits are a much less straightforward story as I discovered while talking with many bartenders and stopping into countless stores while hunting for an elusive bottle.

What I saw over and over in bars were the same well-established brands, but with many gaps that surprised me. Spirits like Fernet Branca, Campari, and Bacardi are everywhere while other well-known spirits were nowhere to be found.  I’ve heard that a large reason for this is massive taxes on imports. It’s prohibitively expensive to get certain brands, even though a competitive brand may be available relatively cheaply. I’d also bet a large number of Argentine Pesos that back room deals impact what’s available.

With some local exceptions discussed later, nearly everything I saw while scanning backbars was well-known, established brands from major liquor groups – Campari, Diageo, Bacardi, etc….

I rarely saw anything that I didn’t recognize or that I’d call boutique or artisanal like you’d see in high-end bars in the US.

The big vodka brands were well represented including the usual rogues gallery of flavored vodkas – no surprise there. The gin selection is decent, likely because Gin and Tonics seem to be the rage, as they are in Spain. One surprising find for me was Bols Ginebra (genever) as I’m a big genever fan. Bols isn’t owned by a major liquor group like Diageo, but I saw it in stores everywhere. More striking was its price – About US $3 for a liter. You read that right! I constantly re-checked the shelf label, thinking I had misread it.

As with most other international locations I’ve been to, the high end liquor in Buenos Aires is Scotch, although a relatively limited selection compared to what I see in the US. The big American bourbon brands seemed woefully underrepresented, with Jack Daniels being the dominant player. I don’t recall seeing Tequila anywhere and certainly no mezcal.

Being a rum aficionado, I was quite interested in what rums were available. Sadly, the basic Bacardi variations (Silver, Gold, Bacardi 8), and Havana Club were consistently the only rums I saw on bar and store shelves. The only exception was at a private dining club where after dinner the proprietor rolled out a special covered wooden cart with about fifteen sipping rums, of which he was obviously very proud of. Alas, while a nice selection, there was nothing I couldn’t readily get at home. I’m sure his collection was acquired the hard way, one bottle at a time from friends or from his own travels.

The Italian influence on the available Argentine spirits is quite strong – Campari group products are huge in Argentina, with Campari, Aperol, Cynar and Cinzano vermouths nearly everywhere.  Some of them are now being made in Argentina so they were extremely inexpensive relative to what I’d pay at home. A 700 ml bottle of Campari for US $6? Yes please! Interestingly, for a country that consumes as much vermouth as Argentina (the Italian influence again), I never saw a bottle of Carpano Antica Formula anywhere, despite its Italian provenance and the very high esteem that cocktailians hold for it.

And what of Fernet Branca? You may know that Fernet Branca is huge in Argentina and it’s frequently said that Fernet and Coke is the national cocktail. What you might not know is that Fernet Branca is made in Argentina, in addition to Italy of course. As with other locally made spirits it’s very inexpensive by US standards. I purchased a liter of it for 82 pesos, which works out to about US $10 at the prevailing “blue dollar” rate. What really surprised me was that Fernet Branca has competitors in Argentina, and that they’re even more insanely inexpensive. In the little bodega across the street from our hotel, I saw two or three Fernet competitors.  For US $3, I purchased a half-liter of Fernet Capri just to consume with Coke in our hotel room. It was literally so cheap that even if it was horrible I was only out $3. It was a reasonable facsimile in case you were wondering.

Hotel Cocktails! The Coke nearly cost more than the Fernet Capri.

Besides Fernet Branca there’s also a handful of other spirits made in Argentina that I consistently saw. Given the Italian-affinity of the country, the majority fall into the amaro/bitters category. One exception people seem particularly proud of is Principe de los Apostoles Gin, which is made with Yerba mate, eucalyptus, peppermint, and pink grapefruit. It’s relatively new to the scene, very popular and I’ll have more to say about this gin in a subsequent post.

Another non-amaro-style spirit made in Argentina is rum. There’s an Argentinian brand called Isla Ñ that I’d hoped to pick up. Unfortunately, despite much looking and asking, I couldn’t find it anywhere. Most people had never heard of it, and the one who had dismissed it as not being particularly good. I found this rather strange given the intense Argentine pride I saw elsewhere.

Tracking down novel bottles for your collection while in Buenos Aires requires tenacity and planning. Spirits are treated as an offshoot of wine so finding a wine store that happens to carry a decent spirits collection is your best bet. Searching for Vinoteca is a good place to start. There weren’t any large “liquor stores” like BevMo or Total Wine and I didn’t encounter a single store that focused predominantly on spirits.

No single store had a fairly complete selection of spirits, at least for the indigenous spirits I was after. There is a few chains (“Winery”, “Ligier”) with a number of shops throughout the city, however their spirits selection, while large by Argentine standards, didn’t seem well stocked with Argentine-specific spirits.

Typical Argentine liquor store. About 1/5th is devoted to spirits.

On the other hand, many grocery stores carry an assortment of local spirits, so if you’re focused on bringing back unusual bottles the trick is to scope out a number of locations, including grocery stores.

Hunting spirits in grocery stores. Prices are in pesos.

The best store we found was in Palermo, Malambo Vinoteca Y Almacén Criollo. The owner (or at least he seemed to be) spoke reasonably good English, was very helpful, and once he understood my mission (“Bring home unusual, local spirits!”), pointed out several bottles I would have missed otherwise. I was surprised to learn that some bars will actually sell you an entire bottle, although we didn’t take an opportunity to do so before it was too late.

Stay tuned for my next post on all the cool bars and cocktails we experienced in Buenos Aires!

A Basic Spirits Taxonomy

Walk into any halfway-decent bar and glance at the back wall – Chances are there will be more bottles with names you don’t recognize than those you do. Recently I was in Seattle’s Vessel and did a thorough run-through of the cocktail menu – For every scotch or rum listed in a recipe, there was a Salers or pampelmousse that I needed to look up on my phone. For me that’s the fun part of going to a bar- Coming across something new with a good excuse to learn it. However, many people get uneasy and scurry back to the comfort of what they know – “Uhm… Gin and Tonic please?” Seeing as you’re reading this blog, I know you’re not one of those people.

As I’ve learned about spirits and cocktails, I’ve built a basic framework that helps me understand what I’m looking at and gives me a place to place new liqueurs I come across. It turns out Salers is an “amaro”, a class of liqueurs with common characteristics (lots of herbal notes) from the Mediterranean. And pampelmousse is a grapefruit infused liqueur in the same broad category as Grand Marnier, which itself is one of the great “sweeteners” of the cocktail world.

To help you start your own mental framework, let’s start with the basics of how raw organic materials are turned into consumable alcohol. In nearly all cases, yeast and frequently water is added to some plant matter such as wheat, rye, grapes, potatoes, or sugar cane juice. The yeast converts some of the natural sugars in the organic material into alcohol. If you did this with grapes, you’d have wine. If you did it with barley, you’d have beer. Easy, right?

What differentiate “spirits” from beer and wine is the next step – Distillation. I’ll talk about distillation in detail in a subsequent post, but for now it’s enough to know that distillation uses heat to separate and concentrate the various organic compounds in the fermented slurry. For example, if you made beer, it would have roughly 5% alcohol. However, if you took the beer and boiled it, carefully collecting certain parts of the vapor, you’d end up with the starting point for whiskey, including a much higher alcohol content.  

With the science out of the way (whew!), let’s see some specifics. Nearly all alcoholic ingredients used in cocktails fall into one of these categories:

  • Plants which are fermented then distilled. No other flavoring added other than though aging in wood barrels. Not all spirits are aged however.
  • Starting from previously distilled liquor (above), additional flavors are introduced by soaking materials such as fruits or herbs in the distilled spirits.
  • Wines infused with herbal essences.

Into the first category falls spirits including, but certainly not limited to:

  • Bourbon

  • Scotch

  • Whiskey

  • Rum

  • Vodka

  • Tequila

  • Brandy/Cognac

Some folks refer to these as “base” spirits, a useful term I’ll use later in this blog.
Into the second category are infusion-based spirits such as:

  • Gin
  • Campari
  • Grand Marnier
  • Amaros such as Fernet Branca
  • Pick your flavored schnapps variation  – Peach anybody?
  • Lemoncello
Often times you’ll hear these referred to as “liqueur”

The crucial element of an infusion based spirit is that the flavor comes from adding flavorful organic materials such as oranges, herbs, flowers, etc… and letting the alcohol pull the flavor out over time. It turns out that alcohol, being a natural solvent, does an excellent job of extracting flavors from things.

The third category above is commonly known as vermouth, although the broader category would be called “aromatized wine”. Briefly, vermouths is wine in which barks, spices and other tasty things are soaked. Additionally, a bit of distillate, typically brandy, is added. While this blog doesn’t aim to cover wines, the importance of vermouth in cocktails warrants an exception to the focus on distilled spirits in this blog.
Of course, there are spirits that don’t fall neatly into the above categories, but it’s easier to remember them as exceptions to the above. The most clear (and unfortunate) example is the trendy but oh-so-wrong category of flavored vodkas. Whipped-Cream Vodka and Donut vodka are but two of the more execrable examples:

Flavored vodkas, rums, and such frequently get their additional flavor by adding chemical flavor compounds into an existing distilled spirit.  It just seems like cheating – If you want the flavor of grapefruit in your drink, use grapefruit juice, not grapefruit vodka. We shall speak no more of these things.

A Spirits Taxonomy

As I’ve learned about spirits I’ve developed a notational system to distill the essential elements down to consistent, categorical descriptions, free of grandiose marketing stories of monks with flower baskets or ancient recipes with 200 different herbs. The taxonomy uses the key questions that could be answered for any sprit and helps make it very clear how one spirit differs from another. Here’s the basic set of questions I use:

  • What organic material is fermented and then distilled?

  • Is the resulting distillate then aged?

  • Is the distillate infused with some other flavor? If so, what?

  • Is it sweetened?

  • Is there a specific region this spirit comes from?

Before jumping into some examples, a disclaimer: In these categorizations below I’ve made very large generalizations about each type of spirit – There often are legal definitions and they often differ from country to country.  And there are countless exceptions to any attempt to categorize. Instead of trying to be a Wikipedia entry for each type of spirit, I’m aiming at the generally accepted sweet spot of the category for the purpose of introducing the concepts to people who just want to learn.

Scotch
Base organic material: Barley
Aged: Yes – Oak barrels
Infused: No
Sweetened: No
Specific Region: Scotland
Bourbon
Base organic material: At least 51% corn, with other grains making the rest
Aged: Yes – Charred Oak barrels
Infused: No
Sweetened: No
Specific Region: United States
There are certain similarities between Scotch and Bourbon – The starting materials are different, and the types of barrels have differences, but they’re similar enough to be categorized under a broader category: Whiskey, which I’ll talk much about in later posts. This is just an intro. Let’s continue:

Rum
Base organic material: Molasses, a byproduct of sugar production
Aged: Yes
Infused: No
Sweetened: No
Specific Region: No.


Rhum Agricole

Base organic material: Sugar cane juice
Aged: Yes
Infused: No
Sweetened: No
Specific Region: No.

Cachaca

Base organic material: Sugar cane juice
Aged: Optional
Infused: No
Sweetened: No
Specific Region: No, although predominantly made in Brazil.

It’s easy enough to see that Rum and Rhum Agricole are very similar – It’s really whether the sugar cane juice was processed into molasses before fermentation. And Rhum Agricole and Aged Cachaca are very similar – It’s really just where they were made.

Brandy
Base organic material: Grapes
Aged: Typically
Infused: No
Sweetened: No
Specific Region: No.

Cognac

Base organic material: Grapes
Aged: Typically
Infused: No
Sweetened: No
Specific Region: Cognac region of France

It’s easy now to see that Cognac is a subset of brandy – All cognacs are brandy, but not all brandy is cognac. And referring back to the earlier examples, it’s clear that the primary difference between Scotch, Rum, and Brandy is what the starting organic material is. The rest of the production process is very similar.

And two more, just for fun:
Gin:

Base organic material: Neutral grain Spirit
Aged: Typically not
Infused: Yes- Juniper and other botanicals
Sweetened: No
Specific Region: No.

Limoncello

Base organic material: Neutral grain Spirit
Aged: Typically not
Infused: Yes – Lemon peels
Sweetened: Yes
Specific Region: No.

Gin and Limoncello couldn’t be further apart to the average drinker. However, initially they start out very similarly. The term “neutral spirit” or “neutral grain spirit” needs some explanation first. The “neutral” part of the name essentially means that during the distillation process, it is distilled to as high a proof as possible. At that level, there should be very little difference between spirits that started out as grapes versus one that started out as wheat. However, for it to be a neutral grain spirit, it had to have started out as a grain – wheat, rye, etc…
So, with a starting point of some very high proof alcohol, you then have a choice of what to put in it. If you add juniper berries and other things (flowers, cucumbers, etc…), you’ll get gin. But if instead you added lemon peels, sugar and water, the end result of limoncello. Obviously in both case the infusions steep for a bit and are then extensively filtered.
The possibility for more examples is endless here but I’ll save them for more targeted columns where I discuss a particular spirit category in more detail. The important thing here is that we’ve established a common lingo for describing spirits in a simple manner.