The Displaced Nation

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Some enchanted drinking: Summer cocktails that send you round the world

After spending many a summer in England (summer, what summer?) and Japan (beyond brutal!), I now live in New York City, where summers can best be described as a hot mess.

As the dog days set in, I’ve been known to sing out: “Drinks, glorious drinks! Don’t care what they look like!”

Actually, that’s not quite true.

Well, the part about my singing aloud is true — we’re all barking mad in this city, especially around mid-August.

And the part about drinks being glorious is also true –  what could be more glorious than an icy cold drink that cuts through the moisture-laden air, offering the possibility that this steam bath may end one day.

(I’m talking about alcoholic drinks, of course — anyone of a puritanical frame of mind can slake their thirst at one of the city’s fancy new portable water fountains, connected to fire hydrants.)

But the part about not caring what my drinks look like — that’s simply not true. For me, the ultimate summer refreshment is a well-made, well-presented cocktail.

As Penelope Wisner writes in her introduction to Summer Cocktails: 50 Tantalizing Recipes,

Everything matters: the taste of the spirit, the taste of the ice, the temperature of the drink, and the look of the drink.

My drinking history, in brief

During my expat years, I would happily down a half pint of lager in the pub with my English friends, or drink Kirin beer and sake on outings with my Japanese office mates.

That all changed when I moved back to my homeland.

Maybe it’s in my cultural DNA. The cocktail — a mixed drink with two or more ingredients, one of which must be a spirit — is one of America’s more inspired culinary accomplishments.

Or could it be my actual DNA — one of my earliest memories is of asking my father if I could chew on the lemon peel he put in his night-time martini.

In any case, not long after I became a resident of New York City — home of speakeasies and the only city I know of with a cocktail to its name — I was driven to drinking…cocktails. Particularly during summers.

You see, I’ve never been one of the lucky ones who can escape to the Hamptons or the Jersey shore.

Instead of the sea, sun, sand, and sky, I’ve had to grapple with sweat, smog, dirt, and skyscrapers.

Now, I could have gone the conventional route and drowned my sorrows in a beer. But why do that when a cocktail is so much pleasanter, and can transport you to places you’d rather be in — places much more exotic than an overcrowded beach?

Cocktails are a trip

My hunt for the transcendent cocktail experience has yielded several noteworthy finds, among them:

1) The mojito at Victor’s Cafe on West 52nd St. A single sip transported me to 1950s Havana, where I found myself salsa dancing with a Ricky Ricardo-look-alike. (And that was before I’d sampled the roast suckling pig!)

2) The vodka martini in the Russian Vodka Room, also on West 52nd St. I thought I was in Moscow from the moment I entered this swanky establishment, greeted by the sight of a curved bar at which many natives are downing shots, and behind which are these enormous jars of flavor-infused vodkas. Once I’d tasted my martini, I was well on my way to an enriching cultural experience. Oh, so that’s how they get through daily life in Russia. It all comes down to homemade vodka and to music — sublime combination! (Misha Tsiganov, a prize-winning jazz pianist who studied in St. Petersburg, is the bar’s official piano player.)

3) The classic martini at Angel’s Share, a tiny gem of a bar in the East Village. This drink made me feel I was in Tokyo again, even though I wasn’t really a cocktail person there. The Japanese bartenders had the mix, shake and stir down to an art form — which is soooo Japanese. And no one is allowed to stand at the bar — ditto. But by the time I’d polished off my divinely-inspired drink, I’d left Japan far behind for heaven itself — an effect enhanced by a ceiling mural that appears to have been inspired by Botticelli’s playful cherubs.

4) The Negroni at The Smith on 3rd Avenue. The Negroni — one part gin, one part sweet vermouth and one part Campari — is said to have originated in Florence in 1919, the invention of one Count Camillo Negroni. The first time I sampled one at the bar at The Smith, I fancied I’d become E.M. Forster’s Lucy Honeychurch at the very moment when she witnesses a murder on the Florentine streets, and is about to faint. (Where is George Emerson when you need him?) You see, the Smith version is anything but aristocratic: it packs quite a punch.

Next up? I hope it will be the Mexican martini, which I read about it in the New York Times last month. Basically, it’s a margarita served in a martini glass, with olives on a spear.

The drink is said to have been introduced from Matamoros, Mexico, just across from Brownsville, Texas, when a bartender from Austin visited there and was served a margarita in a martini glass.

It has since become Austin’s signature drink. Being Texan, it’s twice as large as a regular drink, so customers are given the cocktail shaker and urged to pour the drink themselves.

I haven’t been to Austin — and would love to go (though preferably not in the summer). I reckon a Mexican martini may be just the ticket…

The only issue is, the drink hasn’t really made it out of Austin yet.

So if you happen to hear of any Austin expats working behind Manhattan bars (yes, that’s how they’d refer to themselves), be sure to inform me.

For now though would you kindly join me in a refrain of “Drinks, glorious drinks, wonderful drinks!”

QUESTION: Can you recommend some summer cocktails you think have the makings of a mini-escape?

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17 responses to “Some enchanted drinking: Summer cocktails that send you round the world

  1. amblerangel August 10, 2011 at 4:14 am

    I`m with you ML- give me a margarita with salt or a mojito and I`m the most pleasant miscreant around.

    • ML Awanohara August 10, 2011 at 4:36 pm

      That’s the spirit(s), Emily! Makes you wonder why people say we’re so hard to please! (Hahaha)

      Actually, I was thinking today that it’s the classic drinks like martinis, margaritas and mojitos (like the alliteration?) that can “send” me to a wide range of places — everywhere from Japan to Russia to Texas (which I’ve always regarded as another country).

      I would never order a Singapore Sling unless I was seated in the bar at the Raffles Hotel, because it seems like the right thing to drink in that setting. Same with the mai tai — on a Honolulu beach.

      But the classics, they can transport you…!

  2. Jeffrey August 11, 2011 at 11:13 pm

    I second ML. I never drink a mai tai unless I’m in Hawaii.

    We had a bar that we loved to go to in Nagoya for cocktails called Noisy, except it never was. About the only thing you ever heard beside your own conversation (it was very much a couples’ place) was the bartender mixing something in a shaker or the jazz on the stereo at low volume. I endeared myself to “our” bartender by smuggling in a bottle of Rose’s Lime Juice as omiyagi. For some reason it was illegal in Japan at that time.

    The Bubble Years were great for bars in Japan.

  3. Jeffrey August 11, 2011 at 11:25 pm

    I thought of a classic if somewhat cliche spot for a drink in NYC. The drink doesn’t matter so much as the location – the Boat House in Central Park.

    And this one is all bridges and tunnels and Midwest tourist, but Naoko and I had a lovely drink at Tavern on the Green outside on an unseasonably warm early May evening. We’d had dinner at Cafe d’ Artiste to celebrate Naoko’s birthday. We were walking home up CPW and thought we’d stop in since we hadn’t been there yet (we’d been in New York for less than a year at the point). The main rooms there were atrocious, but outside under the trees strung with lights was always nice, particularly on a weeknight.

  4. Jack Scott August 13, 2011 at 9:14 am

    Turkey’s so sophisticated. We have ‘sex on the beach’ and ‘multiple orgasm’ to tempt our tastebuds.I had a Manhattan in Manhattan once but I guess that’s a bit of a cliche.

    • ML Awanohara August 13, 2011 at 10:44 am

      @Jack
      I see nothing wrong with ordering a Manhattan while in Manhattan. It’s akin to my ordering a Singapore Sling at Raffles Hotel — something I wouldn’t hesitate to do. But what I’m currently experimenting with (admittedly out of desperation) is using cocktails as a vehicle for transporting me to other places. I’ve observed that the classics, if executed well, can get me there faster than more gimmicky concoctions. (BTW, I hope you’re not always so literal with your cocktails. “Sex on the Beach” could get you into trouble! ;-))

  5. giddayfromtheuk August 13, 2011 at 10:13 am

    Sea Breeze…deliciously crisp and refreshing…and the name says it all!

    • ML Awanohara August 13, 2011 at 3:27 pm

      @Kym
      Ah, Sea Breeze…the classic mix of vodka, cranberry juice, and grapefruit juice. According to Wikipedia, the Sea Breeze is justly celebrated for having just the right balance between strong (alcohol) and weak (fruit juices); between sweet (cranberry) and sour (grapefruit). To which I would add: balance is rather important for a drink that purports to have you sailing out on the ocean — as who knows were you might land?

      Thanks, Kym — great suggestion!

  6. Marion Clamp August 13, 2011 at 5:10 pm

    Have never heard of this drink before but in Restaurante Piola, Playa del Carmen, their specialty is basil martinis or basil margaritas — very unusual but delicious. Now, whenever I am cooking and go out into the herb garden to pick basil, I am immediately transported to Playa and Piola.

    • ML Awanohara August 15, 2011 at 1:57 pm

      @Marion
      I just now looked up Piola, and I see it’s an international franchise — started in Italy with branches now in the United States, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Turkey and (coming soon) Honduras. So there’s potential for “travel” thru this signature drink even further away than Mexico — though I note that the restaurant you mention, on Playa del Carmen in Quintana Roo, looks especially enchanting! As I’ve never been to the Mayan Riviera and don’t have plans to go any time soon, there’s nothing for it but for me to get some basil at the Union Square greenmarket and see if I can conjure it up through a basil drink of some sort. Thank you!

  7. Kate Allison August 20, 2011 at 7:56 pm

    I still fantasize about an apricot brandy and lemon cocktail I had in a hotel in the former Yugoslavia, in 1987. It set the bar (pardon the pun) for all cocktails after that.

    • ML Awanohara August 20, 2011 at 9:20 pm

      Can you remember what it was called? That said, I’m not sure I want to travel back in time to that era. Wasn’t 1987 when Slobodan Milošević became a force in Serbian politics? No wonder people were pouring the brandy! p.s. Great pun: I’ll drink to that! :-)

      • Kate Allison August 21, 2011 at 8:08 am

        Nope, can’t remember its name. It may not have had one, or not one that is known worldwide, anyway. I keep meaning to experiment and try to recreate it. Better get in a supply of Alka-Seltzer first, though!

        What I remember most about Yugoslavia in 1987 was the runaway inflation, and cashing travelers cheques on a daily basis because tomorrow you would always get a better rate than today.

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