Authentic pisco sours, popular throughout the Andes, showcase the unique flavor of pisco, an unaged grape distillation. Egg whites add body and an elegant foam topper. Photo courtesy of perfect puree of napa valley. Drink discoveries can infuse the beverage menu with flavors of Mexico, Central and South America
By Chris Koetke
As chefs and menu developers continue to look to global influences to ignite innovation in American food items, more beverage developers and mixologists are realizing that these cuisines can offer great inspiration to drink menus as well. In my travels to different corners of the world, I have tasted unusual fruit juices freshly made at juice stands, sampled delicious local mineral waters, and sipped a wide range of wines, beers and fiery distillations. The following beverage experiences from Mexico, Central and South America represent those that stand out in my memory not only because they were unique and delicious, but because they have potential to inspire menus in our part of the world.
SOUTH AMERICAN SIPS
Walking through the old city in Quito, Ecuador, one cannot help but notice pots of fragrant simmering liquids at the entrances of small, family-run restaurants. Canelazo is a traditional Ecuadorian beverage named for the Amazonian cinnamon that was highly coveted by the Incas and which has a flavor similar to common cinnamon.
Canelazo combines diverse fruit juices, including strawberry, raspberry, peach, grapes and indigenous fruits (most notably naranjilla, a South American citrus varietal), water, sugar, cinnamon and other spices. Some recipes rely only on naranjilla and not other fruits. The beverage is simmered like mulled wine. If desired, a shot of local white rum adds another layer of warmth. The drink is soothing and sublimely comforting. Envision canelazo and warm fruit/spice concoctions served as a seasonal hot beverage, especially in colder climates.
In the Andes, there are many indigenous varieties of corn. One in particular is known for its large, deep-purple kernels. It is typically purchased as an entire ear of dried corn. When the kernels and cob are boiled along with water, pineapple, quince skin, other fruits and sugar, the resulting liquid is called chicha morada. Chicha morada is inky purple and loaded with anthocyanins, which have attracted much attention for their positive health attributes. Chicha morada would be an excellent addition to the growing list of nutritionally functional drinks. Restaurants could even get ahead of the trend by making their own chicha morada, since purple corn is available in the United States. Imagine the mixed drinks or kitchen preparations that could be concocted with such a deeply colored and tasty ingredient.
The South American canelazo drink combines fruit juices simmered with Amazonian cinnamon and other spices to create a warm, comforting, fragrant beverage. Photo courtesy of K&M / wearealivemom.com. MEXICAN REFRESHERS
On a recent trip to Villahermosa, Mexico, where the heat and humidity leave you completely parched, my colleagues ordered frosty mugs of Michelada. I was at first taken aback by the thought of adding ice cubes to beer, much less lime, chamoy (an intense acidic and chile-hot powder), salt and other ingredients. The combination, though, excites every part of the palate and is both thirst-quenching and satisfying — no wonder it’s so popular throughout Mexico.
What caught my attention was the common concept of beer as the base of a refreshing mixed drink. It reminded me of the panaché that I routinely drank in Switzerland, which mixed equal parts lightly sweet lemon soda and beer. As the beer revolution has brought us exceptionally well-made and diverse beers, maybe it is time to explore beer’s potential to be combined with other ingredients beyond a squeeze of lime. Many beverage menus would benefit from a mixed beer cocktail list alongside a microbrew list.
Continuing our beverage foray into Mexico, another standout beverage is the sangrita. To many Americans, tequila is still a shot, followed by a lick of salt and a lime wedge. In Mexico, this borders on heresy — or at least just bad taste. Created in Jalisco, the heart of tequila production, sangrita is served in a large shot glass alongside a shot of white or reposado tequila. What makes sangrita especially fun is that the recipe varies by restaurant. The basic sangrita consists of tomato juice, lime and/or orange juice, hot sauce and other ingredients like onion, Worcestershire sauce, sugar and spices. The shots of tequila and sangrita are sipped alternately so that one may appreciate the flavor of each and how they complement each other. (Sometimes a third shot glass of lime juice is also offered.) As a side note, combining sangrita and tequila, which is not traditional, does make a great alternative to a Bloody Mary.
As America continues to embrace authentic Mexican cuisine and ingredients, it is time to bring the traditional tequila experience to our country.
Every country has a distilled beverage of choice. In Brazil it is cachaça, a liquor made from fermented sugarcane, which most often winds up in caipirinhas. Throughout the Andes, pisco is the common distillation, made from grapes and most often unaged. Some high-quality piscos are enjoyed straight up, especially after a large meal, to settle a full stomach much like grappa or eau de vie. Most often, though, pisco becomes the main ingredient in a pisco sour.
The pisco sour has a flavor profile similar to the margarita, but looks classier. The key is making the drink correctly. As I learned in Lima, Peru, a true pisco sour combines pisco, lemon juice, simple syrup, ice (which is strained out) and egg white. Small, tart and fragrant lemons are used in Peru and add a unique flavor to the real thing. Unlike some pisco sours that are mixed in a blender, the authentic drink is vigorously shaken until a light foam forms. When poured into an elegant wine glass or flute, the foam sits majestically atop the drink.
Another tradition is that of infusing pisco, which could also find a happy home stateside. Not only do jars of pisco infusions make great eye candy behind the bar, but the flavored piscos could be used to create alternative pisco sours.
Before leaving Peru, I have to give a shout out to the native pisco infused with coca leaf — yes, that which is the raw material of cocaine. It is not to be missed, but beware, moderation is advised.
Much has been written about mezcal lately as America is discovering that there is more to Mexico than tequila. Mezcal is a rustic distillation made from many different varieties of agave. Much of it is made in Oaxaca, but six other Mexican states also produce mezcal. It is made by roasting the agave hearts (often in an underground oven with wood fires), crushing and fermenting the hearts, and then distilling the fermented liquid.
Certain mezcals have an inherently premium positioning that comes from the tiny productions of geographically differentiated varieties made from old, wild agave plants that are very rare. The emphasis on the age of the agave is important, as the best mezcals come from older plants — even older than a decade. Since the plant is destroyed when harvested, there will continue to be only small amounts of these super-premium mezcals. Unlike other coveted distillations, these mezcals are often sold unaged to better appreciate the flavors of these rarities.
As we learn more about the intricacies of this distillation, it’s clear mezcal has all the attributes necessary to become part of the club of coveted and collectable beverages, much like great cognacs or scotches. It’s only a matter of time before high-end bars will need to include a few choice mezcals. And right behind mezcal is another distillation from a completely different species of agave: sotol. We’ll likely see a similar growing interest level in this Mexican spirit.
Salud! Cin cin! Skaal! Santé! And “Cheers!” in whatever language helps to raise the glass.
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