Making Tonic Water

The heat, light and humidity of summer can sometimes make you feel like you’ve wandered into Hell. It can be disorienting in exactly the opposite way that you might feel when you can’t find the exit in an ice hotel or a hedge maze. The likelihood that you may lose your faculties and drift into a malarial fever is practically nil if you live more than a degree or two latitude off the equator. All the same, better to be safe than sorry. And while quinine is present in miniscule quantities in tonic water, the amount of gin-and-tonic you’d have to drink to actually protect yourself against malaria would do you more harm than the disease itself. But one should never discount the placebo effect.

If you’ve started drinking gin and tonics seriously, you’ll quickly become bored and frustrated with the fact that almost all available tonic waters are basically soda pop, full of high fructose corn syrup. It’s time for you to grow up and stop drinking soda pop. Also, you’re spoiling gin pouring that sugary fizz over top of it.

Yes, there is now an increasing number of quality tonic waters vying for your attention. Eventually, though, you might start to wonder if you can’t just make the stuff yourself. The good news is that you can. The worst that will happen is that you will discover the limits of what’s worth doing yourself, and what merits outsourcing. Try anything once, though.

Here are your ingredients:
Four cups water
1 cup chopped lemongrass (approx. 2 stalks)
¼ cup cinchona (that’s the powder measurement, so account for a bit more if you can get it in bark form)
Zest and juice of 1 orange
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
Zest and juice of 1 lime
1 teaspoon whole allspice berries
¼ cup citric acid
¼ teaspoon Kosher salt
¾ cup agave syrup

Cinchona bark (or powder) can be a challenge to find. In Montreal, you can get the bark at Herbistorie Desjardins, which is set up kind of like a naturopath pharmacy. Don’t bother searching the aisles when you walk in. You have to walk up to the counter and ask for a specific amount of “Quincina”. (I asked for 250 grams, which is way more than I needed.) Then someone wearing a lab coat goes in the back and fills a little bag with bark and hands it to you. Bottom line, I don’t think this stuff is available off the shelf at health food stores. It requires a dispensary license, so you’re looking for a shop that’s part herbologist, part pharmacist.

In Peruvian (where the bark comes from), “kina-kina” means “highly sought after bark”. We have to set the bar somewhere. It’s no good if everything is just available all the time.

You’ll only be using ¼ cup of the cinchona bark per batch, so better to err on the side of ordering a small quantity. It’ll take me two summers at least to work through 250 grams. In any case, I’m glad I found the bark because most of what I read online about people substituting cinchona powder involves increasingly maniacal descriptions of how impossible it is to filter the silt from the liquid.

All you really need to do is combine the ingredients (except the agave syrup, which comes later) in a saucepan and bring it to a low boil. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 20 minutes.

Then you’ll want to strain the mixture. (If you only managed to find cinchona powder, you’re going to spend the rest of your day filtering and straining the liquid until you’re satisfied with its clarity.)

Now that you have a concentrate, you can bottle that up and make your tonic syrup by mixing in the agave as you need it. For each cup of tonic concentrate, mix in ¾ cup agave syrup, and heat both in a saucepan until the agave appears fully dissolved. It’s this concentrate-agave syrup mixture that you’ll be adding carbonated water to.

With the basis for a recipe in place, you can continue to tweak ingredients here and there. Try messing around with star anise, juniper berries or cardamom.

What you’ll notice is that your syrup is kind of orangey-brown. This is what I meant earlier when I talked about the limits of what’s possible before you start seeking professional help. Even the small-batch professionally made tonics are clear. Your houseguests may look at your bitter-tasting, cloudy orange mixture skeptically.

Making tonic syrup is almost all of the battle. The remaining piece of the puzzle is going to be your method of carbonating the water to mix it with. If you’re not planning on drinking industrial quantities, you’re probably not in need of a tabletop carbonator, like those that have come to market recently. You could alternately get a siphon, like the kind clowns use to spritz each other after they pile out of the funny car.

Or if you’re only planning on getting through the tonic syrup you have, you can just use pre-prepared soda water. This does defeat the purpose of the DIY approach to making tonic water a little. But if you let yourself get carried away, you might find yourself in Peru before long hacking down a tree in the jungle. Your summer is better spent drinking gin and tonics.

Le Canuck: Another Use for Maple Syrup

One bad experience with a certain type of booze can put you off forever. One time a friend and I split a bottle of maple-infused whisky. Big mistake. The flavour was sickly and the hangover definitely more devastating than it might have been if it were just straight whisky. (Don’t even ask about my experience with Slivovitz. It makes me heave a little just thinking of it.)

Anyway, with spring in full swing, and maple season so short, it’s fun to come up with as many ways to consume maple syrup as possible. The sap is on the rise, and so should you be.

So flipping through my old Jean Faitout cocktail book the other day, imagine my surprise landing on a recipe entitled “Le Canuck”, featuring a mix of whisky, lemon, bitters and maple syrup.

The recipe calls for 1 oz. of rye whisky, ½ oz. lemon juice, ½ oz. maple syrup and 2 dashes of Angostura bitters.

To fill up a glass, you’ll want to double those measurements. But I’ve found that the lemon juice is a little powerful in those proportions. Better to increase it to ¾ of an oz. rather than a full ounce (in proportion to 2 oz. of whisky).

This is surprisingly tasty, and very much in keeping with the flavour of spring.

Against Flûtes

Whenever I hear that champagne coupes were “once used to serve champagne”, it makes my face twitch like Herbert Lom in the Pink Panther movies. The idea that the coupe has been replaced by the flute is wrong. Not factually wrong. But morally wrong. Stating the case for this presents a good opportunity to examine first principles. What, after all, is drinking for? What is it about?

Champagne is a beverage in motion. It makes you feel lively going down your gullet. It is lively. Champagne is not intended for reverential sipping. It’s not scotch. It’s not port sherry. It’s not even vodka. It’s barely even wine. It’s a type of wine that explodes and refuses to let you sit down. Can you remember the last time you drank champagne sitting in a chair? Dress up. Talk to people. Smile. Wake up. You’re going to feel terrible tomorrow, but this is fun, right now.

Champagne is made for libidinous drinking. Appropriate uses for champagne other than drinking it are 1) smashing against the sides of ships and 2) spraying all over victory platforms at speedcar races. You’ll notice that they don’t waste “sparkling wine” at those events. No, they waste the expensive stuff. What would it say about their attitude towards celebration if they balked at cost? Your ship deserves its doomed fate on the sea floor, the final resting place of anyone unlucky enough to sail upon it, if you opt for anything other than champagne. Champagne is a drink of celebration.

A good champagne, obviously, is produced by skilled craftspeople who have bottled a product that is ready to be evaluated by the toughest critic, using the driest, most rigorous means of determining excellence. That’s their job. Your job is to drink the stuff in the spirit in which champagne is meant to be drunk, which is fast and without a thought for tomorrow.

The idea of the flute being ideal for “nucleation” and preserving the precious little bubbles ought to make one sick. The problem with drinking champagne from a coupe has nothing to do with the preservation of bubbles. Bubbles, by their nature, are ephemeral. They’re supposed to rise to the surface and die, and tickle your nose in the death process. The solution to the problem of hanging on to bubbles is not to figure out a way to make them last. It is to drink the bubbles down. The point of drinking champagne is to embrace that ephemerality. Nothing lasts forever. Let’s drink to it.

They say that the champagne coupe was designed from an imprint of Marie Antoinette’s breast. They’re wrong, but it’s a good thing to wish for, isn’t it? The coupe was actually designed in England circa 1663. The Marie Antoinette factoid likely stems from a custom-built milk bowl called a jatte téton (breast bowl) purchased for her by her husband Louis XVI. Shaped like a breast with a small nipple at the bottom (and supported by the heads of three goats), this bowl is reputed to be shaped from her majesty’s udder, thus at least placing the misleading myth of the coupe’s origin into the ballpark of factitude.

The flute, on the other hand appears to be shaped from the penis of Iron Man. Don’t drink from it.

So we come back to the why of drinking. We drink for all kinds of reasons: to take the edge off, to even out the day, to argue myth into reality, to forget, etc. The story about the coupe being shaped like Marie Antoinette’s breast? Have a drink. It’s not true. But you kind of want it to be true. Have another drink. It’s getting truer and truer.

Champagne, more than any other drink, is meant to highlight life’s elusive joys by putting the ephemeral in a glass. It reminds you to enjoy it. Hurry up and drink.

Your Ad Here (or “How Product Placement in Films Destroyed the Martini for Several Decades”)

Like a recurring bad dream, a new James Bond film, Skyfall, is filling the theatres and has been getting good reviews. Increasingly, I am measuring my own lifespan according to Bond films, hoping (like Warren Zevon used to) that I merely survive long enough to see the next one. But I probably haven’t actually enjoyed a Bond film since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and yet there I am, dutifully watching each and every instalment in the series, like a joyless duty I must perform, the reason for which I’ve long forgotten. A bit like Christmas, which I probably haven’t enjoyed since I was 12, but still solemnly endure time after joyful time. And with each passing year, I wonder whether it isn’t time to just say No.

I hated this new Bond film for all kinds of reasons: the new actor’s scowl and the franchise’s lurch towards “realism”, the new Q, the next M, the depiction of China which is slightly less nuanced than a Tintin comic strip, the tuneless and horrible theme song, the insane and pointless recital of a Tennyson poem as M’s defense of her department against a parliamentary oversight panel (doubtless a moment of hack relief for the writers, letting a bit of public domain English greatness slummily flesh out some idea they failed to articulate), and above all the camped-out, agent-of-chaos villain, whose actions make no sense whatsoever unless he is M’s biological son (in which case, they make a bit of sense). I mean, of course, none of it makes any sense. It’s a Bond film. There isn’t a moment during any of these films during which you’re not asking, “Why are they doing this? Why doesn’t he just shoot him?” And you run the risk of admonishing yourself, “You just don’t get it, do you?” He’s James Fucking Bond, all right? He’s got his reasons for needlessly dragging things out. The filmmakers’ need to advance to the next set piece is greater than your need for logic or expedience. If you want narrative coherence, you’re better off watching the Marx Brothers.

There were two bits that I enjoyed: the drinking scene in the beach hut with the scorpion, and the introduction of the Moneypenny character. Those are exactly what I will retain from this particular go-round. The rest is already a tortuous haze in my mind, almost completely forgotten the next day. I’ll probably also remember the unintentionally funny moment when the Shanghainese temptress tells Bond that something is “inevitable”, which put me in mind of Team America’s Kim Jong-Il.

My special hatred, however, for this particular episode is reserved for its more craven than usual product placement. During his “I’m dead” beach interlude, Bond grimly ingests a post-coital Heineken while lying next to some randomly generated woman. Craig himself has apparently spokesmodeled for Heineken before, so it isn’t entirely a left-field endorsement. Later on in the film, while Q and the actor who played the pigfucking Prime Minister in one of Charlie Brooker’s TV shows try and lure the villain (who is absolutely intent on killing M) towards her location to try and aid him in that objective, they signal the afterhours nature of their espionage by enjoying an at-work Heineken. None of this makes any sense. Okay, listen, it’s very simple. They’re leading the villain to M, up to where she’s hidden in an isolated house in rural Scotland (which happens to be Bond’s childhood home). Anything could happen. The villain really, extremely wants to kill M. And the MI6 guys are drinking Heinekens. But it’s a trap, see. The villain will arrive, destroy the house, there’s no backup whatsoever, and then M, Bond and the old groundskeeper will spring their trap, using an arsenal of two rifles, a knife and some patriotism. It could have been worse. At least the surviving Broccoli didn’t make a deal with Corona.

In this film alone, there is also some kind of placement deal with a watch manufacturer, a brand of nail polish (worn by the Orientalist French actress), as well as with Sony Vaio, a laptop of whose the pigfucker actor uses, which perhaps clears up the mystery of a) why MI6 was so easily hacked and b) why nothing its employees do outstrips the competition.

The Bond franchise got an early start in its brand worship with Dr. No, depicting old Sean Connery gamely slurping on a Red Stripe beer, presumably to get in to the spirit of his Jamaican surroundings. In that same film, Bond demands that his hotel’s room service make him a martini, shaken, not stirred, using vodka. The official partnership with Smirnoff, cemented by the Broccoli clan during that first Bond film, remains into the Craig era.

Now, in case you think that entertainment is a harmless confection which contains absolutely no real-world repercussions for your life, think back to Dr. No. This seemingly innocuous and completely eccentric command to a bartender, who would have been within his rights to respond, “Look, I’ll make your drink however you like, mister, just don’t call it a martini, okay?”, has done more to destroy and warp the pre-eminence of the greatest cocktail of the 20th century than prohibition and the film Cocktail combined. All through the 1990s, bartenders taking bartending courses were taught how to make a martini: put some vodka and vermouth in a shaker with a bunch of ice and shake it as hard as you can and as long as you can, until your hands can no longer stand the freezing pain. Now, see those little flakes of ice floating around in the glass? Well done. You’ve made a perfect martini, just like James Bond, but ‘90s style.

And we are just now collectively waking up from this hangover today, in the second decade of the 21st century, knowing that a martini is nothing but gin and vermouth, in variable quantities, stirred in a shaker with ice (for about 40 seconds to a minute). Finally, we have our drink back.

The sheer greed of it is not the only reason that product placement in films is horrible. There is also the matter of insulting the audience. The film’s director, occasional social critic Sam Mendes, insists that he doesn’t know what the fuss is about, that these deals are a fact of modern filmmaking reality. Even the audience, he implies, is savvy enough to resign themselves to it. So, the next time you see a tiny, shrunken Sam Mendes in your cereal bowl, clinging to a Cheerio as if it were a life preserver and begging you for help, just know that neither he nor the Cheerio are there by accident. It’s only a bit of placement. Scoop him up and crunch him down, like the insect that he is. If you don’t, you’re sending the wrong message to filmmakers.

And the next time you order a martini and the bartender reaches for the vodka, think of that first James Bond film and just say No.

À la recherche du vermouth perdu

Following on from the traumatic loss of the Noilly Prat brand of vermouth from my (everyone’s?) life, the search for a new thing to drop into some gin every night gradually shifted from frantic and desperate to resigned, cold and futile. To recap, they changed their formula in 2009 without telling anyone, reverting back to their original 1813 formula under the name Noilly Prat Original Dry. I kept buying it and drinking it, and never noticed the change until the vermouth was removed totally from the market in May of 2012 or so. I still have no word on the company’s rationale or reasoning, and feel quite betrayed by the loss of a beloved ingredient. Also, I felt quite stupid not to have noticed in 2009 that the taste of Noilly Prat had become quite different from what everyone now called vermouth. It was more like a very light fortified wine, kind of straw coloured and fruity tasting. Not like the jet fuel they made before.

So the search for a replacement went very badly, because all the other vermouths still tasted a bit like jet fuel. Eventually, I settled, more or less happily on the Dolin brand, from France, which is actually a great replacement and I’m happy to have found it. I still resent having been forced by Noilly Prat to crawl through the desert eating sand, hoping to taste something like the sand I had become used to, only to spit it all out disgustedly each and every day. Dolin, in my desperation, proved a nice oasis from all that sand for a good long couple of months.

However, I think we have a new winner. From Quebec, a “wine-based apéritif” called Les Folies du Vigneron from Vignoble de la Bauge hit all the right notes that my old Noilly Prat used to hit. It’s got a very clean, citrusy burn through on initial contact, with a nice bitter finish. And it makes a martini taste right, like it used to. The world is almost back to being complete. But I still don’t know what’s up with Noilly Prat. And no one else seems to care.

Hotel de la Montagne

Nothing lasts forever. And so it goes with the Hotel de la Montagne, a storied final piece of the history of old, weird Montreal, now gone. Montreal kept alive so much of what used to be referred to as local colour for so long in North America that its last nostalgic residents who’ve hung in there watching the decline can count on nothing now but their memories. Even the very best of the sad old man bars, the Pub Dominion, has since given way to the admittedly excellent food, cocktails and overcrowding of new, rich Montreal. All cities change. But the way Montreal is changing feels especially dispiriting, given that we still barely have the elusive wild character that most major North American cities have long ago shrugged off and forgotten.

Hotel de la Montagne gave birth to and was a mausoleum for memories. The median age of the clientele was probably about 50. It will all be replaced by a new condo development. They may as well fill it with cement.

I started going to the place because it used to be just a few doors up from the Fine Arts graduate program building (which moved to a different part of town several years ago). So you could often count on seeing one or two, if not a small group of, groovy looking art types sitting in amongst the usual greying crowd, sometimes to laugh ironically at the kétaine surroundings, but mostly to appreciate one of the last places in town that wasn’t a monoculture.

There was a waitress there of indeterminate age, with short red hair and the most ambiguously amoral smile, that I used to refer to as “mother”. Seeing her begin to chuckle (in response to a simple question like “What’s good tonight?” or “Qu’est ce qui ce passe?”) meant the world to me. Perhaps I should have stopped going to Hotel de la Montagne when she retired. The busboy, however, probably in his mid-40s with a curly mullet type haircut, was there until the end. I saw him about a month after the hotel closed, and thought about crossing the street to ask how he was doing.

While there were other bars downtown, there was no other bar with a spectacular water nymph spinning slowly in the middle of a fountain in the lobby, or a doorman wearing a safari hat and beefeater jacket, or the sheer breadth of experience and shared joy brought to the place by its regulars.

As strange and exciting as the downstairs bar was, it wasn’t as weird as the rooftop pool, 22 stories above street level, with great views of the mountain observatory and south shore. The tiny swimming pool was overrun with skinny women in bikinis, with a junkie air about them, who’d wander over to sit at your table and ask for cigarettes.

Upstairs, the drinks were never on special. Part of the attraction of the downstairs bar for students was the lure of the cinq-à-huit (not the cinq-à-sept, like at most places), in which all drinks were two-for-one. So part of the fun was in the spectacle of all the tables around you and each person at them carrying on a casual conversation with duplicate bottles, glasses and umbrellas in front of them. It felt like there was always six of everything at every table. It also meant that when the waitresses went around announcing “last call” at quarter to eight, you would find yourself wandering out at 8:15 absolutely loaded in broad daylight at the height of summer. It was at moments like this that you wondered, “What am I doing?”

Towards the end, my friends Lynne and Bernie and I contemplated getting a room for the last couple of days of the hotel’s existence. The cheapest rate available was $225, so we decided against it, opting instead for spending quality time in the downstairs bar. Noting the preponderance of slightly past it pretty women in the room who would shove off on a regular basis to go upstairs with their distinguished older companions, our friend Anthony wondered, “What’s the hourly rate?”

He observed, too, the strange architectural effect of the open, spacious lobby dropping suddenly into the “bunker-like effect” of the low-ceilinged bar.

The place had a lot of bizarre classical touches, such as the portraits of the Greek “Graces” adorning the overhang between the bar and upstairs restaurant. And the Moorish lamp-holders standing sentinel at the bottom of the staircases. And of course the water nymph. The Graces, according to Greek myth, were goddesses of charm, beauty, nature, human creativity and fertility. The Hotel de la Montagne had all of these qualities in spades.

For my part, I divulged to the group on our final evening there my long-standing fantasy of living in the hotel. Coming down the elevator in the morning, wandering past the fountain to ask the front desk staff if I had any messages waiting for me in the old wall-sized rack of wooden mailboxes. Not exactly the wholesome bohemian Montreal that Leonard Cohen mythologized, but a kind of shabby gentility that would have suited me well.

Indignant commentators sometimes question the impulse in Quebec to form a new country inside North America. But what places like the Hotel de la Montagne kept alive perhaps longer than feasible was the notion that each person is different and unique. It’s one thing to declare a difference at the official or mass level, and quite another to keep that difference vital on an individual basis. With the disappearance of this bar, one more refuge for that ideal is gone.

An Open Letter to Noilly Prat

It’s so long ago now that I don’t remember how Noilly Prat vermouth came to be the other ingredient, along with gin, that I use to make martinis.  But it has become indispensable.  I have never been one of these Churchill/Buñuel martini drinkers who talk about letting the light pass through a bottle of vermouth to infuse their gin.  It’s a charming idea, but that drink is not a martini.  It’s straight gin.  Now, to reinforce the slogan that you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone, Noilly Prat began disappearing from store shelves (in my part of the world, at least) in May.  And now the shop keeps a hole on the shelf where it used to be with a sign underneath that reads “Disponible sous peu”, rather than replacing it with something else.  I check the empty spot every time I go in and occasionally ask an employee, what’s up with Noilly Prat?  No one seems to really know.

Eventually, I found out from a blog on the internet (rather than any official source, which is baffling) that Noilly Prat is re-introducing its old-old formula sometime this autumn.  The story of the different formulas is a little confusing.  However, what frustrates and engages more than that saga is that the company simply decided to let its old supply run out months in advance of the new supply arriving, leaving nothing in the shops in the meantime.  So from May until roughly September (I think that’s their deadline), no Noilly Pratt, which has sent me trying out every other type of vermouth with very high and very low and extremely mixed results.

In capsule, the story of Noilly Prat’s changes involves switching out the New World formula for the Old World formula, which I noticed happening back in 2009 only because the shape of the bottle had changed.  I thought it was just a cosmetic uplift, and then eventually noticed that the colour and flavour of the vermouth had changed (for the better).  Now they’re going back to their old formula, in which it’s one vermouth for North America and another for the rest of the world.  The American formula was always cleaner and less characterful than the European, which was slightly golden in colour and could credibly pass for a fortified sipping wine.

I have to say that I’m going to miss the old Noilly Prat.  And now that I’ve had a few months off from its flavour, we’ll have to see how it stacks up against the sickly sweet likes of the Martini brand and its cousins.  It will have to win back its crown from Dolin vermouth, which is easily the most pleasant vermouth I’ve had to drink in the meantime.  Noilly Prat must be bargaining that its loyal customers will return, even after a long absence and the substitution of a “new” product for something that we’ve now had a couple years to get used to and enjoy.  I hope the risk they’re taking will merit the reward.

Making Caipirinhas

Some weeks ago, I was over at my friends Jenny and Eloisa’s place for a summer party, and Eloisa was operating an assembly line in the kitchen cranking out caipirinhas.  At some point in the evening, she said to me, “Here, I’ll make you a real one.”  I don’t know the difference between a real one and a phony one, so I said, “Sure.”  She had been making the caipirinhas with vodka all night because her own supply of cachaça, much scarcer and more expensive to get here than in Brazil, was very low.  Anyway, at that point, having consumed half a dozen or so of them, I may not have appreciated the subtle difference imparted by an alcohol fermented from cane sugar, rather than a neutral spirit such as vodka.  But I was certainly intrigued enough to go back and ask for a lesson.  If you want to know something about Brazil, ask a Brazilian.

Over the past decade, the drink has gone from being available mainly at common roadside stands, beach huts and bakeries to high end nightclubs and bars outside Brazil.  Likewise with the spike in popularity, different varieties of the drink have evolved.  A caipirinha made with vodka instead of cachaça has always been popular and is called a caipiroska.  Then there are the fruit-flavoured versions, passion fruit being the most popular, with strawberry a close second.  You can also substitute rum for cachaça and call it a caipirissima.  No matter how refined it gets, the caiprinha can’t escape its origin as a drink of the common people, its name derived from the word caipira, which means “hick, yokel, hillbilly” or whatever colourful pejorative you can think of for a hayseed.  “-inha” just supplies a diminutive suffix for anything you feel affectionate about, so the translation for the drink just about means “cute little country bumpkin” or words to that effect.

While purists will shun anything but the classic cachaça, lime, cane sugar and ice recipe, many people prefer the vodka version for the very practical reason that, according to Eloisa, “vodka gives you less of a hangover.”  This jibes exactly with my experience with sugary alcohol drinks (or Champagne) which can pretty much kill you the next morning, compared with the relatively pain free morning-afters inflicted by purer spirits.

The obvious secret ingredient is cachaça, which can be bought either mass-produced or as very small-batch, almost homemade brands.  I begin to get confused during the process when Eloisa starts using the word pinga interchangeably with cachaça.  She tells me, “Cachaça and pinga are synonyms.  Apparently, there are more than a thousand names for it.”  Just like snow.

As for all the brands of cachaça available in Brazil, in North America we’re sort of hostage to whatever the local liquor authority decides to stock.  Some cachaças are better than others, however, and similar to the way you don’t necessarily want to use the finest bourbon when making an Old Fashioned, if you spot a pricey bottle of cachaça it might be better reserved for reverent sipping than mixing into a caipirinha.  Says Eloisa, “When you make really good pinga, then you put it in barrels, to age them.  So they get a lot more character because then they get woody and they get softened.  It softens the taste, so it seems less alcoholic, but it also acquires a character, so you really don’t want to use that for caipirinha.  Sometimes you do it because you’re desperate, you just find a bottle, a super nice one and you make it and just go, ‘Yeah, not that great.’”

There’s a social component to having a drink in Brazil that goes beyond bar culture.  I’m most surprised by the idea that people go drinking in corner bakeries, padarias in Portugese but informally called padocas.  Eloisa explains, “In São Paulo, you go drinking a lot in bakeries.  There’s like the bread section, which is also like a lunch, dinner section.  You can sit at a counter and order a sandwich, or you can order a full meal, rice and beans and meat and salad.  And they have, when you go pay, around the cashier, there’s always a big glass thing that surrounds the cashier, like aspirin and cigarettes, you know, that stuff.  It’s a mix of bakery and that and a bar, so it’s three things at once.  Not all bakeries are like that, but many are.  They put two tables on the sidewalk outside.  And this is probably the cheapest way of drinking, and bars.  You end up going to bakeries because you’re there and your friends say, ‘Let’s go have a beer.  There’s a bakery on the corner of my place.’”

To begin assembling a caipirinha, you have to evaluate your lime.  If you can find key limes (called limão galego in Brazil), those are your ideal.  And if you’re using regular limes that seem like they might be a bit hard or dry, you can help them along by rolling each lime under your palm on the cutting board with some force, to loosen it up a little.  Some people cut the lime into slices and others cube it.  In either case, the white pith running through the centre should be removed.

Then you add sugar to the lime in the glass and gently crush the whole thing with a wooden muddler.  Ideally, you’ll use cane sugar, but can substitute plain white granular sugar.  Using simple syrup would probably work, too, as a sweetener, but Eloisa advises, “you sort of use the sugar as a grit to get the oil out of the skin.”

Then add your cachaça (substituting vodka if you can’t find it) and stir.  Fill the glass with ice.  The ice should be quite small, not like snow or slush in its consistency, but smaller than full-size ice cubes.  Give that a stir and it’s ready.  Transfer it to a serving glass if you’re worried about presentation.

Bartenders who work at beach huts will use these small glasses called americanos.  They fill one glass with the mixture above, put an identical glass on top, wrap a hand around both, sealing the gap, and then shake (see video for demonstration).  Your technique has to be pretty good to avoid spillage, not to mention that it helps if you have hands big enough to do the job.  These bartenders no doubt make hundreds of these per day, so I imagine they have it pretty much down.

This has all made me want to look into booking a flight.  If you do get the chance to go, there is a city that lays claim to being the caiparinha’s home.  “The specialty stores in Paraty,” says Eloisa, “they have everything.  If you go to those stores, they have everything that’s produced in the region in the state of Rio.  They have a wall of just cachaça.  You talk to the guy, because they have cachaças from that area.  You just ask them, ‘I want a very soft one, just to have by itself.  Or I want one to make caipirinha.  I want one with a lot of character, that’s like smoky.’  And they just bring it to you, and they give you to taste, so you leave the store kind of drunk.”

Short of making such a trip, though, you can get by making your own and enjoying Brazil’s national drink in this hemisphere.

Shrubbing It

The shrub (a fruit-flavoured vinegar for use in a cocktail, typically involving rum and soda water) is a portal to another time, another place, the 19th-century American South, to be exact, front porches, white suits, and all that.  It is also, with its perfect combination of lightness (the water), strength (booze) and tart (vinegar), a beautiful summertime drink.  Looking it up, one finds that it’s an anachronism, hardly drunk by anyone, and not very well known even among the drinks cognoscenti, which is a pity.  But clearly it’s also a drink on the rebound, or at least a drink with nowhere to go but up.  And so it goes.

Paradox rules in life, and summer heat adds a layer of delirium over top of even the most counterintuitive drinking decisions.  You might reach for a drink that seems like a good idea in that moment, but what you need is to clear the cobwebs.  A dose of sour, administered by a fruit-flavoured vinegar, is just the corrective to get your head right in the midst of the haze of mid-July.

Following the recipe in How’s Your Drink?, the great book by Eric Felten, we begin by making the shrub itself, which is a fruit-flavoured vinegar concoction.  Readymade shrubs are apparently available in many flavours and can easily be had, thanks to the Internet and mail order service.  But why not make one, in honour of those who enjoyed the innocent pleasures of this drink in pre-industrial times.

One must:

-Stir together 1 cup of sugar with 1 cup of water in a saucepan over brisk heat until the sugar is dissolved.

-Add 2-3 pounds of raspberries (or any kind of fruit, actually), reduce heat, stir occasionally over 10 minutes.

-Add 2 cups white vinegar and raise heat again.  Boil for two minutes.  Remove from heat, cool, strain and bottle.

The bottle of shrub can go in the refrigerator for summer-long use, but the whole point of the vinegar is to preserve a flavour without refrigeration.  Like confit de canard, this is a recipe that, strictly speaking, is obsolete, but it’s a pleasure all the same to go through the ritual of keeping jars of duck parts suspended in fat in the larder.

Once you’ve got your bottle of shrub, you’ve got the basis for a raspberry rum shrub “cocktail” (though this drink predates the formal beginning of what we now know as “cocktails”, and therefore deserve a different style of drinking as those more metropolitan drinks).  The fruit-flavoured shrub feels essentially rural, a pastime of innocent summer.

The drink itself calls for ice in a glass, topped with 1 oz. of shrub vinegar, 2 oz. of rum, 4 oz. of either ginger ale or soda water (I find that soda water works better at showcasing the shrub), a brief and not-too-vigourous stir, and perhaps a garnishment of one or two leftover raspberries.  Delish.  Long live the shrub.

Hard to Get: The Appeal of Pimm’s N°. 1

Wimbledon is said to be the right time to enjoy a Pimm’s N°. 1, custom mandating that tournament attendees slurp the quintessentially English drink out of a jar, which seems a perverse reinforcement of snobbishness.  You imagine a bunch of people standing around in their idea of formal dress, holding these drinks in their hand and, in the words of Simon Amstell, talking as if their mouths were full of pound coins.  I first drank Pimm’s some years ago when in London a friend of mine and I were wandering around looking for a bar.  We came across an appealing looking place called the Sherlock Holmes Pub, and since it was a sunny afternoon, he asked if I wouldn’t like to have a Pimm’s.  “A what?” I replied.  Simultaneously freakish and plummy sounding names for things is another mark of the English character, like we’d be drinking it with men called Chuzzlewit or Balls or Jagger.  I’ll admit the appeal of the drink wasn’t immediately evident to me, like a fruit salad floating in a slightly bitter off-red stew, but that’s the way it has been with a lot of my favourite things:  Brussel sprouts, Elvis Presley, watching tennis.  Now when I dislike something, I often wonder if there might be a pearl lurking in there.  Usually, though, and seriously, my initial judgement is correct.  And Pimm’s is appealing exactly the way a shabby English rooming house is elegant (nice if you squint ).  What I mean by quintessentially English, too, is that its refinement stems from its vulgarity. It is both reassuring and baffling at the same time, just like the highs and lows of British culture.  The comfortable fug of the drawing room is interrupted by the appearance of a Miss Havisham in the doorway with a bit of decayed cake frosting on her lip.  A sporty man in tennis whites and a sweater tied round his waist is only five years from becoming a paunchy sea monster with rotten teeth reminiscing about his fondness for a bit of the old argy-bargy, his hands motioning in front of him as if turning an invisible steering wheel.  Pimm’s embodies these English polarities well, refreshingly so even.  It is the best of drinks and the worst of drinks, redolent of the nation that gave us Shakespeare and Benny Hill, both equally revered.

When I got back, I had a hard time finding Pimm’s.  In my case, it’s because I live in Quebec (not known for its anglophilia).  In Ontario, however, it’s all over the place.  Figure that.  So it being a hard-to-get ingredient created a sort of mania on my part.  But it’s a well-known fact that the attainment of a sought after thing contains as much disappointment as satisfaction.  In the words of the immortal song, “Is that all there is to a fire?” as the singer watches her childhood home burn to the ground.  Quite often, I prefer for some things to be just out of my reach, so that they become special occasions.

Pimm’s is one of those “top secret ingredients” formulas, gin-based, with some kind of herby bitter component.  The most famous iteration of it is a slice of cucumber, slice of lemon, slice of orange, a couple mint leaves, and two parts lemonade (keep reading, British surprise ahead) to one part Pimm’s No. 1 Cup.  The British notion of lemonade, of course, is basically their version of 7Up, not to be confused with the North American soda pop.  So an acceptable substitute (because I’m not big on soda pop) might be to use a lemon/lime flavoured soda water.  Better yet, get your hands on some French limonade artisanale, like Lorina, Elixia, or Rième.  There are, as with any drink worth its weight, a lot of opinions, argument and variations, including the idea that it must be drunk out of a jar, as if it were some kind of working-class summer cocktail.  Not being English, I don’t have much of a stake in the debate except to enjoy the beverage.  And I do.

In the ballpark of other summery bitter drinks, the Pimm’s cocktail comes off pretty extravagant. Compared to the clean, uncomplicated Italian joy of a Campari and soda, Pimm’s piles on its pleasures like a retired colonel telling stories about the war, like a downed fighter pilot stumbling towards an oasis in the desert, like a slightly spiritual woman wearing a couple too many scarves, like a writer drunk on cheap allusion.  I can’t say when I drink Pimm’s that I see the face of Margaret Rutherford, but something of the ex-empire shimmers in the piling up of contrasting elements.  A little bit of sunny conceals an overall dankness; and that’s England exactly.

Which brings me back to my original problem of disappointment.  To want something and to have it is one thing.  If it’s a tangible thing, then you’ve got it and that’s the end.  But to desire a bottle of something is to have that thing for as long as it lasts, a few fleeting hours of enjoyment, before it disappears into your memory.  The desire for it starts fresh and lives there until the next Wimbledon.

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Marcel Duchamp photographed by Eric Sutherland at Walker Art Center, October 1965