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!

Craft Cocktails On a Budget – Making Your First Drink

My home bar has a large setup of spirits, shakers, strainers, glasses, garnishes and so on. I love when people visit and I share my enthusiasm for cocktails with them. Guests often tell me “This is really great, and I wish I could make something amazing at home, but I just don’t know where to start.”  This column is for these folks. We’ll walk through some practical and easy steps to making one really excellent drink, as well as build a basis for working up incrementally to additional types of cocktails.

It’s a time-honored tradition for spirits writers to give their version of “Just the basics you need to make cocktails at home”. Usually their lists include a cornucopia of doohickeys and scares off readers who want to start out incrementally and without a large investment.

For the cocktail example, I’m choosing the Margarita, a classic nearly everybody enjoys, is rarely made properly and requires a minimum of ingredients, all of which will prove useful in subsequent cocktails. I remember the first time I made a proper margarita for my mother – She deemed it a “Hotel Margarita” because she associated it with a version she’d one had had at a very swank hotel.

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • A decent tequila
  • An orange liquor, such as Grand Marnier
  • Fresh Limes
  • Ice
  • A cobbler shaker
  • A hand citrus squeezer
  • A small measuring cup or equivalent

Let’s go through the list:

Tequila: Try to use something decent without breaking the bank. Jose Cuervo Gold is a reasonable minimum, Sauza or El Jimador are better. No need for something super fancy like Patron at this stage. Sure, expensive tequilas are amazing, but you’ll be adding in lime juice and another spirit, so the subtleties of fine sipping tequila like Patron will be run roughshod over.

Orange liquor: Ideally, something like Grand Marnier, Cointreau, or Citronage. Less ideal: Triple sec. If you use triple sec, try not to use the $5 bottom shelve stuff like Hiram Walkers. Really, an investment in a bottle of Grand Marnier and Cointreau is a good investment as you’ll be able to use it in many other recipes. Whatever you use, think of it as the “sweet” in the drink, balancing out the lime.

Fresh Limes: I typically use the basic Peruvian limes, typically about 1 1/2 to 2 inches in size. When squeezed, I typically get an ounce to an ounce and a half out of each lime. I buy mine in big bags at Costco for around $5. Please don’t use bottled lime juice – It just doesn’t taste right, and whatever you do, avoid the Rose’s Sweetened Lime juice. Just…. No.

Ice: Believe it or not, “Ice” bears explanation. I have a fancy ice machine that make clear ice cubes. It’s fantastic. You don’t need that however. What you do need is new, clean ice. Either buy “party ice” in bags at the store, or use the ice from your freezer. If you do use homemade ice, for all that good and holy, make sure it’s fresh – Ideally made within the last day or so. Ice quickly absorbs freezer odors. Don’t infest your carefully created margarita with random freezer smells.

Cobbler shaker: There are two primary types of shakers you’ll see bartenders use. The “Boston” shaker is two pieces – one metal cup and one glass cup. The “Cobbler” shaker is thee pieces, all metal, like this:

There’s frequent debate about which type of shaker is better. For the home, I prefer the cobbler shaker as it’s less intimidating, less accident prone, and generally easier to use. Don’t just take my word for it, Jamie Boudreau, a cocktail legend also prefers them. You can get decent cobbler shakers starting at about $20 from Amazon. A good shaker that doesn’t leak is a worthy investment so don’t totally cheap out here. Oxo is a good brand to start with.

Citrus squeezer: A reasonable, metal hand squeezer runs about $7 at Amazon, although you can spend a bit more for a better quality one. I have different sized squeezers, one smaller for limes and a larger one for lemons:

You can also find variations that claim to do both. In a pinch you could use a reaming device, but I find you end up with too much pulp. Get a good hand squeezer. You’ll use it far more than you think.

Small measuring cup: At a minimum, find a shot glass with lines demarcating 1/4, 1/2, 3/4 and 1 oz. Alternatively, you can get a set of jiggers and spend tons of time remembering which size each one is. I much prefer the small angled measuring cups from Oxo which measure up to 2 oz, and which cost in the $5 – $7 range on Amazon. Here’s a small sample of my measuring tools, with the Oxo on the left:

 

Mixing the Drink

First, cut a lime in half then use the squeezer to start filling your small measuring cup to the 1 oz mark. A single lime may be enough, if not, start a second lime. Pour the lime juice into the cobbler shaker base.

Using the measuring cup, measure out 2 oz of tequila and pour into the shaker. Depending on how much you like tequila, and how strong you like your drink, you can go up to 3 oz of tequila.

Add 1 oz of orange liquor to the shaker.

Add enough ice to the shaker so that it rises just a little over the level of the liquid.

Put the top on the shaker and shake reasonably vigorously for about 30 seconds, Squeeze the sides and hold the top cap of the shaker with your thumb or index finger so that it doesn’t fly off.

Take the small cap off the shaker and pour through the built-in strainer into the desired glass. A personal choice is whether your margarita will be served up (without ice), or on the rocks (with ice.) If you chose to serve it up, use something like a martini glass, chilled in advance (hopefully.) If on the rocks, pour through the strainer into a glass, and then add enough fresh ice to come up to the top level of the liquid. Don’t use the ice from the shaker. It will dilute the drink faster than fresh, cold ice.

If you feel fancy and want to garnish the drink, and you really should, an easy garnish is to cut a small wedge of lime (maybe 1/16 of a lime) then make a small notch in the flesh so that it can hang perpendicularly off the side of the glass. Alternatively, cut some very thin circular lime slices (1 or 2 is fine) and float them on the surface of the drink.

Enjoy your Hotel Margarita. Taste carefully. Is it too sweet? Dial back the amount of orange liquor next time. Too tart? Reduce the amount of lime. Can’t taste the tequila? Add more! Figure out what ratios work for you.

Starter recipe:

  • 1 oz lime juice
  • 1 oz orange liquor (Cointreau, Grand Marnier, etc…)
  • 2 oz tequila

What’s Next?

You just made your first sour pattern cocktail and have a minimum set of tools. It’s really easy to expand your repertoire. Here’s some ideas that build on the margarita you just crafted.

Instead of tequila, use the same amount of light rum like Bacardi Silver (but hopefully better). You now have a basic Daiquiri. You can also use simple syrup instead of the orange liquor.

Replace the rum with gin, and the lime juice with lemon juice. You now have a White Lady.

To the basic Margarita recipe, feel free to add additional accent spirits. A variation my friends enjoy uses St Germain, which is a very sweet, floral liquor. Since it’s so sweet, I’ll dial back the orange liquor, as it’s also sweet. A good starting point would be 1/2 oz of orange liquor and 1/2 of St. Germaine.

Swap vodka for the tequila, lemon for the lime, and simple syrup for the orange liquor and you have a lemon drop, best served up.

The important lesson is to start simple and small, building confidence that you can make one cocktail as good as nearly any fancy bar.  When you’re ready for something new, incrementally add new spirits, mixers, and tools as necessary. Soon you’ll have your friends clamoring for you to make one of your amazing cocktails.

To shake or stir, that is the question

Nearly early modern mixed drink involves ice. You can make amazing drinks with rudimentary spirits and MacGyver equipment, but without ice, the drink falls flat. Besides the obvious cooling effect, ice also dilutes the drink, reducing the overall percentage of alcohol and increasing the volume. While dilution might seem non-desirable, trust me – you want it, at least up to a certain point. Our palates are tuned to a particular flavor intensity, and without adding water the flavors would be too intense.

When it comes to using ice in drinks, here’s a fun science fact most folks don’t know:  There’s a direct relationship between the amount of cooling and the resulting amount of dilution. Here’s why: Heat energy naturally flows from warmer to cooler, e.g from your warm(er) liquid ingredients to your colder ice. Let the mixture sit long enough and a near equilibrium is established – The liquid and the ice both at nearly 0 degrees Celsius (32F), and the ice melting only very slowly.  Most of us have observed this firsthand on many occasions with an ice filled glass of soda.

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Trip Report – Boozing in Beantown

My wife Carrie and I were recently in Boston for a good friend’s wedding and to see my son who lives in New Hampshire. Although my wife and met and lived together in metro Boston, we’d not been back to Boston together for any real time since moving to Seattle. Thus we approached this trip as if it were a brand new city – Carrie researched the restaurants and I researched the bars that looked interesting, plotting them on a map, and strategizing how to hit as many of them as we could while working around scheduled events.

While researching the lists of possible bars, I noticed something interesting: Many of the Boston bars that popped up frequently in “best of” lists were a component of a larger restaurant, or were hotel bars. For example, No. 9 Park’s bar was mentioned often, but the bar is just a portion of the restaurant of the same name. Likewise, The Hawthorne is within the Hotel Commonwealth. While there’s nothing wrong with either attribute, it’s in contrast to Seattle where most of the best bars (Canon, Rob Roy, Rumba, Zig Zag, Knee High Stocking Company, etc…) are indisputably bars first and foremost, even though they do serve food.

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Cocktail Componentry – How a drink is built

 

Trinidad Sour

In cooking, we all know that different ingredients play different roles. You’ve got your proteins, starches, vegetables, spices, flavor enhancers like salt, and so forth. In the cocktail world there are similar categorizations. Let’s look at some very broad categorizations of common cocktail ingredients.

Base Spirits – These form the backbone of your drink and usually contribute the majority of the alcoholic content, as they’re usually at least 80 proof (40% alcohol.) Typically these are one (or occasionally two) of the following:

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Reverse engineering a cocktail: The Cup Of Awesome

In this post I’m going to take a little break from posts laying groundwork ideas and wonk out – illustrating the kind of fun you can have once you’ve mastered cocktail basics.

Recently I came across a post on Gizmodo: “Turn Your Favorite Beer Into Your Favorite Cocktail”. In brief, it describes how you boil down (reduce) beers into a much more concentrated form, then mix them with sugar to form a beer syrup. The article starts out making syrup from porter beer, and then expands to other beer styles. Intrigued, and having had some prior luck making other syrups, I purchased some Kona Brewing Company Pipeline Porter, which includes kona coffee in its ingredients. Following the directions, my resulting porter syrup was quite lovely. I was smitten!

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