Booze of the world

Booze of the World 6: Chile

Sandwiched between the sparkling Pacific and the majestic Andes, Chileans are surrounded by so much beauty that it’s impossible not to raise a glass or two to Mother Nature

Pisco: Ah, Pisco. I first came to love Pisco in Peru but it wouldn’t do to admit that in front of a Chilean. The neighbouring countries have had a few beefs over the years, not least of which is the (at times legal) dispute over which country is the birthplace of the stuff.

Pisco is a type of brandy invented by 16th-century Spanish sailors and most commonly drunk in the form of my favourite cocktail, the Pisco Sour.

In Peru, the recipe is pisco, lime, sweet syrup, ice, egg white and Angostura bitters. The Chileans miss out the egg white and Angostura, a mistake in my view.

A Pisco sour

Pisco Sour WITH egg white. Sorry Chile, it’s just better this way.

A great way to find out more about Pisco, and enjoy some stunning scenery besides, is to visit the Elqui Valley near the seaside town of La Serena.

Here you can visit some of the oldest Pisco distilleries. I did the day trip alone, as Franki was feeling under the weather, but still had a marvellous day out. I mean…just look at the place.

Elqui Valley

Pisco vines in the beautiful Elqui Valley. Stunning.

OK, one more Elqui Valley picture because…well…damn…
I  took a cheap shared collectivo taxi to the town of Vicuna, from where you can get the bus to Pisco Elqui, or even further to the wonderful Fundo de los Nichos distillery, founded in 1868. Foolishly, I walked the three miles from Pisco Elqui in blazing sunshine, not realising that the bus route continues along the same road.

The distillery tour was in Spanish, as I happened to arrive at the wrong time for the English tour, but it was still fascinating. The place is dripping with tipsy history. Here’s a mural commemorating (if my Spanish serves me well) the day when women were allowed into the distillery for the first time.

Mural at Fundo de los Nichos

I’m not sure if this is a good advert for Pisco but why not?

A kindly Chilean family gave me a lift back to Pisco Elqui (having seen me tramping along in the heat earlier). There I also visited the Pisco Mistral distillery, named after Nobel prize-winning poet Gabriela Mistral, who came from the Elqui Valley. This is a larger operation than Fundo de los Nichos, with a fantastic restaurant attached. Their English tour was a fascinating insight into the distillation process…

Pisco distillation vats

When the tour guide isn’t looking, you can dive right into those vats.

…and the tasting enlightened me to the fact that premium Pisco can be drunk neat, like any other brandy.

Anyway, the Elqui Valley: Education, booze and scenery, what’s not to love?

If you’re in Santiago, check out the Chipe Libre restaurant on Lastarria. The food wasn’t stunning but they offer both Peruvian and Chilean versions of the famous drink, plus a tasting flight for would be connoiseurs.

Wine: While Argentina is the home of Malbec, Chile is probably better known for reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenere. It also has a reputation in some parts of the world (I’m looking at you, hypocritical Australia!) for producing some cheap and terrible wines.

Britons will probably be most familiar with Casillero del Diablo, famous for being the wine people bring to a dinner party chiefly because of its ubiquity on the shelves of every corner shop in the country.

Chile certainly does export some rubbish, as anyone who has travelled in Asia will know. But it’s such a large country (well, north to south at least) that it has plenty of top wine-making regions, such as the Maipo and Colchagua valleys.

We weren’t here for long enough to sample that many but one recommendation is this Novas Viognier from the organic Emiliana vineria.

Novas Viognier

My notes also include a smiley face next to a picture of Hoyco del Limor Reserva Especial Pinot Noir 2013. I can’t for the life of me remember anything about it and a Google search suggests it doesn’t exist. Perhaps I dreamt it.

If you’re in Santiago, do not miss the wonderful bar/resto Bocanariz, where delicate tapas dishes are paired with an excellent selection of wines from all over Chile.

Beer: Chile is a very wealthy country by South American standards and as such, it has a wealth of very good craft beers. One great place to sample them is the kaleidoscope of colour that is the UNESCO heritage town of Valparaiso (read about this beautiful town here).

The Casa Cervecera Altamira has a wonderful range from light ales to smoky German Altbiers, right in the bustling heart of Valparaiso and, thankfully, at the bottom of one of it’s extremely steep hills.Altamira beer menuMost bars also have a decent range of bottled craft beers, such as this crisp and refreshing Granizo, seen here being menaced by a two-headed dinosaur.

Granizo beer

Alcoholism, not meteorites, killed off the two-headed dinosaur. True story.

The verdict

Top tipple: Seeing as i’ve already declared it my favourite cocktail, the winner has to the Pisco Sour. I’ll confess to preferring the Peruvian version but the Chileans do a fine job too.

Bubbling under: Altamira’s American Pale Ale went down a treat with Franki so we’ll go with that.

Gourmet’s choice: Pisco Mistral 35. Dark yellow, woody, a very expensive and delicious way of clearing out the cobwebs from your entire respiratory system.

What to slur drunkenly: Pisco de Peru? Andate a la chucha! This is best left untranslated.

Next up in Booze of the World, it’s a 13-hour flight across the Pacific to New Zealand as the wine leg of our world tour continues…

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What to do in Argentina

Argentina: The Debrief

A quick guide to what we did and what you can do too…

Eat: Lamb

You expected us to say steak, didn’t you? Well yes, Argentinian steak is world renowned for a reason. The quality of the beef is amazing. But when Patagonian lamb is done right… dios mio it’s good. Juicy, flavourful, tender… you can’t beat it.

Patagonian lamb

Drink: Torrontes

Again, we defied your expectations right? Don’t get us wrong, the Malbec is divine but Torrontes was a new one for us, a white wine we hadn’t had outside Argentina and for that reason we have to recommend it as the most “local” experience.

We’ve covered both grapes extensively in our round-up on the Mendoza wine region and Rob’s latest installment of Booze of the World.

Try: At least one Patagonian hike

Patagonia is heaven for walkers and climbers of all abilities. Even if you’re not much of a hiker, you’re bound to find a trail that works for you and believe us, whichever you choose, the pay-off is sure to be spectacular.

Cerro Catedral Bariloche

In the north of this wild and lovely region is Bariloche, an Alpine-style haven for skiers in the winter and walkers and campers in the summer. The walk to Refugio Frey is steep and challenging but rewards you with the delightful glacial lake beneath the jagged peaks of Cerro Catedral.

A touch easier is a trip to Llao Llao and the loops around it, which affords amazing views of Lago Moreno.

Lago Moreno Argentina

Down south, El Chalten is the place to visit. Check out the best of El Chalten in our Patagonian blog, here.

Buy: A mate cup

If you really want to blend in in Argentina, forget the red wine and tango and get sipping on one of these.

Mate (pronounced “ma-tay”) is a sort of bitter – and highly caffeinated – tea made from the leaves and twigs of the yerba mate shrub. It is traditionally served in a hollowed out gourd with a metal straw but you can also get some stunning engraved metal versions.

Mate cup

It is not uncommon to see people walking around the streets carrying one of these as you might see people in New York or London carrying take-away coffee cups. Seriously, walk into a shop, police station, customs office, hospital (ok, I don’t know about the last one) and you will see someone sipping mate as they work.

It has no known health benefits but given the caffeine content it is presumably a stimulant and potential appetite suppressant. Either way, the Argentinians love it so much that they can’t bear to be parted from it. They actually carry it around in thermos flasks so the mate cup never runs the risk of being empty (and you thought the British loved tea!)

Do: Change money on the ‘blue market’

When we were there (Jan/Feb 2015) you could get 8 pesos per US dollar in the bank and 13 on the street. Frankly it’s a no-brainer. Even the best steak and red wine tastes better when it’s almost half the price.

The reason for this is rapid inflation, due to the dismal economic record of Cristina Kirchner’s government. Frustrated Argentinians would rather hold foreign currencies such as US dollars and Euros as savings, because unlike their pesos, they know they won’t depreciate.

Technically the blue market isn’t legal but it is completely accepted all over the country (hence “blue” not “black”). Head down to the shopping streets of Lavalle and Florida in central Buenos Aires, you’ll hear “Cambio, cambio! Change money!” every five yards. Go with them into a nearby shop to do the transaction, rather than on the street, it’s safer. And make sure you check the count and watch out for counterfeit notes.We only had one fake in the entire month-and-a-bit we were in Argentina but it was annoying and furthermore embarrassing when we unwittingly tried to pay for our dinner with it.

US dollars are accepted and some will change British pounds and Euros as well. Larger notes will get you a better rate so withdraw your cash in 50s and 100s if possible.

San Telmo Buenos Aires

NB you cannot withdraw foreign currency once in Argentina so make sure you bring it with you. We were able to get ours at the Bureau de Change in Sao Paulo airport when we left Brazil. We’ve also heard of people making the trip across the border to Uruguay to get dollars but didn’t try it ourselves.

If all that sounds too hairy, you can also use Azimo, an online service that gives you a good rate. You transfer your money online then then pick up the pesos at an office in one of Argentina’s larger cities. We did this in Mendoza and it went off without a hitch… unless you count the fact that we over-estimated how much we’d need. Let’s just say our week in Mendoza was preeeeeeetty goooood.

Don’t: Mention the war.

To be fair, in our experience when the Falklands came up in conversation, most people really didn’t seem to have strong feelings on it… but perhaps they were just being polite.

This 30-year-old conflict is referenced EVERYWHERE you go and anger about the war is still simmering away in some communities, stoked by a government that needs a bogeyman to distract from its own failings. Best avoided unless you’re sure of your company.

Las Malvinas son Argentinas

And not forgetting…

…the time we ran out of money in the middle of Patagonia. No cash machines that would accept British cards for hundreds of miles, no food and only half a tank of petrol.

Were it not for the help of a kindly petrol station worker, who agreed to ring up a petrol transaction and give us cash instead of gas, we would still be working in a hotel in the one-horse town of Gobernador Gregores. Yikes.

Hasta luego, chicos!

Mount Fitzroy El Chalten

Booze of the World 5: Argentina

It’s finally here! After three long months of wine-free gloom, we arrive in Argentina, home of the world’s best Malbec and plenty more Bacchanalian delights besides.

Wine: We’ve been greedily awaiting this moment like vultures circling a wounded wildebeest. Argentina’s wines are many and marvellous. They are also inexpensive as long as you’re changing your money on the blue market (read about how to do that in our upcoming blog Argentina: The Debrief).

Malbec

The Malbec grape was brought to Argentina in the 19th century at the request of Argentine statesman Domingo Sarmiento. They’re still naming streets after the guy in Mendoza, where wine is such a big part of the culture that they even have fountains of the stuff.

Wine fountain

Disclaimer: Didn’t actually try it but i’m pretty sure this isn’t actual wine.

The city of Mendoza is the beating red heart of wine country and its dry, hot and mountainous terrain makes for some incredible Malbecs. From here you can tour the traditional wine-making valleys of Lujan de Cuyo and Maipu, or the Uco Valley, which is globally renowned for the art of high-altitude wine-making. Check out our post on Mendoza wine tours here.

Alta Vista winery Argentina

It would take a whole separate blog to go into the glory of Argentinian Malbecs but here are some of our faves, either from tastings (in which case potentially unaffordable to buy by the bottle!) or meals out:-

Alta Vista Premium (any year)

Domaine Bousquet Gran Reserva 2011

Pulmary’s Donaria Reserva 2008

Gimenez Riili Gran Familia 2014

Altos Las Hormigas 2011

Domaine Bousquet

Visit Domaine Bousquet on the Ampora Wine Tour

Not Malbec

Malbec isn’t the only red wine in town. You can find good Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo and Bonarda. And while red wine is dominant here, we fell in love with Torrontes, Argentina’s only native grape. It makes a delicious white wine, sometimes nicknamed ‘The Liar’ because it is very sweet and fruity on the nose (reminiscent of Gewurztraminers or Muscat) but crisp on the palate.

I was partial to Sol Fa Sol and the Sylvestra (pictured below), but Alta Vista also do a nice Torrontes.

Sylvestra Torrontes

Goes beautifully with the fish at Maria Antonieta in the city

Remember, if you’re in Mendoza, you mustn’t miss out on the fantastic wine tours, which you can do by bus or by bike, visiting beautiful wineries set in stunning scenery. Tastings are cheap and generous, while there are also great places to have lunch along the way too. We did no fewer than three tours while we were in town – read about them here.

One last thing to mention… Argentina is the only place we’ve ever been where you can buy wine by the pinguino. This is obviously an opportunity not to be missed.

Pinguino of wine

It might look like this penguin has suffered horrific internal injuries…

Beer: The omnipresent local brew is Quilmes, nothing too special but a cut above the watery pilsners available in neighbouring Brazil.

However, there is a delightful range of craft lagers and ales as well. In Buenos Aires, the Antares restaurant and brewery serves up bar-snack style food with a large range of brews such as Stout, Porter, Koelsch and IPA (pronounced ‘eepa’ here).

But the real highlight for beer-lovers is Patagonia. This wild and beautiful region is home to some amazing small breweries churning out cracking cervezas artesanales.

For the most part, you’re offered a simple choice of rubia (meaning ‘blonde’ but really just a golden ale), roja (red/amber) or negra (bock). The quality varies greatly as some of these places are really small operations out in the middle of nowhere.

El Bolson craft beer

The El Bolson brewery in the hippy town of the same name has an incredible malty red ale that I absolutely fell in love with.

The Berlina cerveceria, in the small village of Colonia Suiza near Bariloche, is another winner.

Berlina beer Patagonia

They also sell it in bars

If you find yourself in the trekking and back-country skiing mecca of El Chalten, way down in the south, there’s a wonderful little bar called La Vineria that has a huge range you should check out.

But I’ll reserve particular praise for the Manush bar and restaurant in Bariloche. Unlike Antares, you won’t find their stuff selling for top dollar in Buenos Aires supermarkets. I didn’t see it anywhere but in the bar itself but my God was it good. Their IPA is rich, powerful and smooth, erring on the right side of uber-hoppy. My favourite though, German lager fanatic that I am, was the Koelsch. Smoky but fresh, it was the best example of the style I’ve sampled outside the Ruhr.

Fernet: Very popular among locals, this is an incredibly bitter spirit usually drunk with full-fat Coke, presumably the only thing sweet enough to render it drinkable. I can see how it might be an acquired taste but when there’s Malbec and craft beer on offer, I can’t fathom why you’d opt for this.

The verdict

Top tipple: It ought to be a Malbec oughtn’t it? But that Manush Koelsch lager won my heart. Name your price Manush, I’ll have that stuff shipped over by the boatload when I get home.

Gourmet’s choice: Alta Vista Reserve Malbec

Bubbling under: Sol Fa Sol Torrontes

What to slur drunkenly: ‘Las Malvinas son Argentinas’. They are literally never going to stop going on about this so you may as well join in.

Colonia Suiza Argentina

Rob enjoying a local brew at a festival in Colonia Suiza

Malbec grapes

Mendoza: A feast for the soul in Argentina’s wine capital

Whether you’ve been scaling mountains in Patagonia or dancing a frenetic tango in Buenos Aires, Mendoza is the place to come and indulge in the less wholesome pleasures of stuffing your face with food and glugging gallons of wine.

To be fair to Mendoza, there’s more to this city than just wine and meat. It is blessed with wide, leafy streets and a large, attractive central square, surrounded by four smaller plazas designed in contrasting styles.

But most people come here to visit one of Mendoza’s hundreds of wineries, so here’s a rundown of how to do it.

Wine tours and tastings

There are plenty of tours to choose from but the best way to check out the local wine hotspots (assuming you’re blessed with moderate levels of fitness) is by bicycle.

Lujan de Cuyo: This valley is a wonderfully green stretch of some of Argentina’s best vineyards, usually known as bodegas, all within a few kilometres of one another.

It’s pretty easy (with the advice of your hostel or a friendly local) to get a local bus for the 45-minute trip out to Chacras de Coria and rent a bike from Baccus.

Bacchus bikes Mendoza

They’ll give you a handy map of local bodegas and some suggestions on where to go.

If you arrive around lunchtime, stop in at Pulmary for utterly delicious Argentinian steak and a tasting tour.

Steaks at Pulmary bodega

This is an organic winery, usually a red flag for me as my experience with European organic wines hasn’t been great. But the reliable climate means they can produce delicious wine without the need for additives.

Pulmary bodega Mendoza

Wine and sunshine in Pulmary’s pretty garden

On the larger and slightly more upmarket side, check out Alta Vista.

Alta Vista Premium

The Alta Vista Premium Malbec is among the best we had and we liked the Torrontes (pictured) so much we went back for seconds.

Here’s a quick wine porn pic for you…the personal collection of the owner (who also owns Taittinger champagne and Hungary’s Tokay dessert wine).

Wine collection at Alta Vista

Further down the road there’s Carmelo Patti, a small operation where Senor Patti offers free tastings, partly for the sheer, unadulterated love of wine and partly as cheap publicity. He’s a charming old fella and his wines aren’t bad either. Here’s Franki enjoying his patter and his wine at the same time.

Franki at Carmello Patti

Valle de Uco: This is the place to pair top quality high-altitude wine with stunning scenery. At up to 1200m, this is high by any standard of viticulture but it makes for some amazing wines. It’s far from Mendoza though so a bus tour is the best way to do this (and ensures you can sleep on the way back).

We splashed out with Ampora wine tours but it was certainly worth it. They whisked us around some breathtakingly beautiful wineries and plied us with plenty of tastings.

Gimenez Riili Mendoza

Sampling young wine straight out the the vat

Lunch, one of the best we had in Argentina and included in the price, was at O Fournier, a striking hotel of ultra-modern design set in the grounds of a large vineyard with views of the snow-capped Andes. These were unfortunately hidden from view, as we visited on one of Mendoza’s dozen or so rainy days per year. In the absence of a great Andes shot, here’s the annual harvest getting underway.

Harvest time at O Fournier

Another highlight was Bodega Gimenez Riili, where the tasting was accompanied by some light snacks. One of the elder statesman of the family dropped by and took a liking to me because I spoke some Spanish. He was kind enough to top me up with a bit extra of the most expensive wine on the tasting, so that’s as good a reason as any to speak Spanish.

Rob and winery owner
Me, one of the Gimenez Riili clan and some random Australian bloke.

Maipu: This valley boasts some of Argentina’s oldest vineyards. We got here by public bus and rented bikes from Mr Hugo, a jovial character who has become something of an institution in these parts. There is a fantastic range of wineries here, from historic old places such as Di Tommaso, to snazzy glass and concrete bodegas such as Tempus Alba, where we stayed for an extra glass.

Last glass of the day at Tempus Alba

Despite being one of the best areas for great tastings and tours, Maipu sadly isn’t as easy to get around as Lujan de Cuyo. The road is long, potholed and busy with heavy goods vehicles so cycling can be arduous and hair-raising at times, especially after the first few tastings. I reckon we cycled about 20km on the day, not something that should be accompanied by alcohol. So I’d suggest taking a bus tour for this one.

Mendoza bike tour

Our new Dutch friends were better at cycling while drunk

Back in the city, try the tasting room run by The Vines of Mendoza for a tasting in a more relaxed setting, where you can stagger home on foot rather than having to weave around startled pedestrians on a bike.

Tasting at The Vines

Eating out

In most parts of the world, wine accompanies the meal. In Mendoza, their priorities are reversed. However, there are some mouthwatering meals to be had at the city’s upmarket eateries if you really must have something to go with your wine.

We went above our usual budget here, as a mix-up with currency meant we had a lot of pesos and not much time to spend them before leaving for Chile. As no-one wants Argentinian pesos (the exchange rate on the Chilean border is miserly) we felt we might as well spend the cash on great food rather than lose half of it at the bureau de change.

Here are our highlights. Click on the restaurant name for TripAdvisor reviews:-

Siete Cocinas 10/10

The undisputed king of our Mendoza meals. The ethos of this classic and peaceful establishment is to draw together the cuisine of seven regions in Argentina (hence the name, meaning Seven Cuisines). It was here that we fulfilled our ambition of managing two bottles of wine with dinner, a degustation menu packed with a succession of delights.

Azafran 7/10

Meaning ‘saffron’, this place is listed among Mendoza’s top restaurants but we thought it was a touch overrated. They make a big deal of the sommelier’s wine suggestions but by the time he got to us, we were halfway through the meal and it was too late to order a bottle. However, the lamb cutlets were juicy and delicious, which is about as important as anything else in life.

Anna Bistro 8/10

Less pretentious (and cheaper) than the first two but a really nice spot with a beautiful garden. I’d say it’s better as a lunch venue, with a good value Menu Ejecutivo (best translation: ‘working lunch menu’). Try a delicious pasta nicoise and indulge yourselves with the macaroons and other pastries from the bakery a few doors down.

Maria Antonieta 7/10

A great spot to sit outdoors and watch the world go by as you feast. This place seemed very popular with locals and for good reason. I wouldn’t call it haute cuisine exactly but the simple fish dish I had was cooked to perfection, flaky but with substance and bags of flavour.

* A quick word as well for Hostel Lao, one of the best hostels we found in Latin America. Friendly, helpful staff, clean and quiet room, fast WiFi, good kitchen, nice guests and a decent location, all for good value. Stay here if you can.*

Booze of the World 4: Brazil

Unlike we reserved Englishmen, the Brazilians don’t need a drop of alcohol to start dancing in the streets. Still, once the caipirinhas are flowing, the party ramps up a notch…

Caipirinha: Where else to start but with Brazil’s most famous poison. Bewilderingly strong and insanely sugary, the main ingredient of this simple cocktail is cachaça, a spirit made from sugar cane. Mix it up with lime and yet more sugar, and you’ve got yourself a Samba party in a glass. The big difference between caipirinhas is the quality of the cachaça. At one end of the scale there’s the eye-wateringly potent stuff you get from street vendors for about 8 reals a pop (about £1.80). Here’s a Peruvian guy we met who set up a little stall in Lapa after someone sold him the cart.
Caipirinha stall in Lapa

We met this guy a few times but i’m damned if I can remember his name…

At the other end of the scale, ‘The Original’, available at the prestigious Skye Bar at the top of the Hotel Unique, will set you back a wallet-busting 38 reals (£8.50), largely because it’s made with the extra premium Cachaca Yaguara.

'The Original' caipirinha at the Skye Bar, Hotel Unique, Sao Paolo

Posh caipirinhas may not be authentic but they’re tudo bem. Tudo bem indeed.

The Skye Bar version (a birthday treat for me) was certainly the smoothest and best tasting. But for value and authenticity, give me the three-in-the-morning street caipirinha in Rio’s party district of Lapa.

Beer: The first thing to know about Brazilian cerveja is that they like it so cold that you can hardly taste it. That’s good news though, as most of it is dishwater. Itaipava, Schin, Devassa, Skol, Bohemia, Antarctica…it wouldn’t come as a surprise to find they were all the same weak product with different branding. Mind you, when it’s 40 degrees and you’re thirsty, flavour has to take a back seat sometimes.

Not all is lost. You can find a great range of craft beers, mostly hailing from the south, which has a substantial population of German descent.

Trouble is, good quality is just as expensive, if not more so, than what you’d find in London or New York. Still, if you’re fed up of the Pisswasser on offer elsewhere you’ll be ready to fork out. My recommendation is the Therezopolis Gold, smooth with a lightly sweet malt finish. Yum.

Therezopolis Gold

Smooth, golden and tasty. And the beer ain’t bad either…

For a huge range of Brazilian and foreign brews, head to the Boteco Carioquinha on Rua Gomes Freire in Lapa. It’ll set you back a bob or two but if you’re splashing out on beer, this is the best place to do it.

Beers at Boteco Carioquinha

Brewdog is just as expensive in Brazil…nice taste of home though

One last thing to know about Brazilian beer is that it tends to be served in two forms. One is Chopp, roughly a half-pint usually with a sizeable head. The other is Longneck, a large bottle of around 500ml, usually served in a cooler to keep it as near to freezing as possible.

Other: Coconuts abound anywhere near the coast, so there’s always the default Latin American beach tipple Cocoloco (see Booze of the World: Central America), a coconut with the top hacked off and some rum mixed with to the delicious nectar inside.

I’m sure the Amazonian regions have some crazy local firewater but we didn’t venture that far.

There is Brazilian wine but, for the most part, stay well away if you value your taste buds. However, over Christmas at the stunningly awesome Capim Santo hotel in the hippy beach town of Trancoso we stumbled upon the Casa Valduga ‘Indentidade’ Gewurztraminer, which was fairly complex, floral but not too sweet and very very drinkable. Wonders never cease.

Casa Valduga Gewurztraminer

Try saying Gewurztraminer in a Brazilian accent. Go on, try it!

The verdict

Top tipple: Street caipirinhas. Cheap, authentic and damn effective.

Gourmet’s choice: ‘The Original’ at Sao Paolo’s Skye Bar

Bubbling under: Therezopolis Gold

What to slur drunkenly: Brazilian Portuguese sounds like drunken Spanish anyway, so pretty much anything works. However, ‘tudo bem’ is your all-purpose expression of merry contentment.

Special ‘Actually that’s not too bad’ award: Casa Valduga ‘Identidade’ Brazilian Gewurztraminer.

Booze of the World 2: Guatemala and Nicaragua

The second instalment of Booze of the World sees Rob take on Central America, including the world’s best rum

Guatemala

Beer: Back when I first visited in 2003, there were pretty much two beer choices: Gallo (the cockerel logo adorns a million backpackers’ T-shirts) or Moza. Both are made by the Cerveceria Centro Americana, owned by Guatemala’s powerful Castillo dynasty.

Gallo, at 118 years old the country’s first brew, is the archetypal Central American beer: weak, pissy sub-lager with zero flavour and enough gas to power a small industrial city. It resembles Budweiser in that it tastes of nothing, but plasters its name across everything. I was always a Moza man and to this day it’s my favourite of what Guatemala has to offer beer-wise. It’s a dark Bock-style beer, richer and more flavourful than Gallo with a slight brown sugar aftertaste that suits my sweet tooth.

There are a few other brews finding their way onto the menu in most bars and hostels these days though. The first is Brahva, owned by global giant AB InBev who (according to this BusinessWeek article) are keen on buying Cerveceria Centro Americana.

Unsurprisingly, given that AB InBev make Budweiser, Brahva is if anything like a watered down version of Gallo and to be avoided at all costs. AB InBev’s muscle allows them to undercut Gallo on price too, which should worry anyone who values local production over many-tentacled multinationals. Brahva makes me want to drink Gallo and that shouldn’t happen to anyone with tastebuds.

CCA’s Victoria is also growing in popularity. I prefer it to Gallo but it doesn’t offer much in the way of choice given that it’s also a pale lager. Same goes for their Cabro and Monte Carlo brands…different label, same marginally tweaked weak fizz.

I’d stick to the Moza every time but that’s very much a minority view in Guatemala. And ales? Forget it.

Beer with a twist: One odd quirk I was introduced to in Guatemala this year – although I believe it comes from neighbouring Mexico – is the Chelada and its spicier cousin the Michelada. The former involves adding lime to your beer and salting the rim of the glass, as you would with a Margarita. The latter is much the same only with a variety of spices, or tabasco, added as well.

They both sound hideous. Which is because they are, although i can imagine the limey Chelada might work on a very hot day. Still, if you’re drinking Brahva or Gallo, any added ingredient short of cyanide might be an improvement.

Rum: NOW we’re talking. You’d expect the world’s best rum to come from Jamaica or perhaps Cuba. Not according to many rum experts, who put Guatemala’s Ron Zacapa at the top of the tree. Or should I say the sugar cane.

Its success is despite the fact that its history is relatively brief. It was first produced in 1976 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the eastern Guatemalan town of the same name. They say its quality is down to being stored at altitude in the volcanic highlands. I sampled the stuff in a little wine and rum shop in Antigua, Guatemala almost directly under the famous arch of Santa Catalina.

When I was last in Guatemala there was no way I could have afforded a glass of Ron Zacapa. Much the same is true now but I felt I had to do my duty for Booze of the World. Altruistic, right?

I sampled both the 6-to-23-year-old Zacapa Centenario and the XO, the premium option at 6-to-25 years old. Both embrace you with their warmth from the first sniff, the vapours filling your lungs and circulating a fuzzy glow around your whole body. While the XO is the super-premium brand, I found it almost too subtle. It was so smooth that it lost something of the sugary mouth-burn I like about rum.

The Centenario was a revelation though. Multi-layered, nutty and caramelly without being sickly, with a long aftertaste. You’ll pay top dollar for this stuff anywhere outside Guatemala but if you like rum, you need this in your drinks cabinet.

NB: If you even THINK about putting ice in this, please reseal the bottle and give it to someone who deserves it. And if the word ‘Coca-Cola’ enters your mind, seek professional help.

Quetzalteca: Every country has at least one traditional drink of the people and this is the main one for Chapins (Guatemalans). Named for the Quetzal, the colourful bird that also gives Guatemala’s currency its name, this is a bit like an eau de vie. There are several flavours but I tried the Rosa de Jamaica. It packs a punch but not the body-shuddering donkey-kick you get with some traditional hooches of the peasantry. Surprisingly drinkable although i’m not one for neat spirits.

Nicaragua

Beer: Guatemala ain’t great for beer but Nicaragua is worse. On the first night I tried the Toña, which tastes like someone spilled a thimbleful of Budweiser in your Evian. That’s being kind. A step up from that is Victoria, a pilsen which has a bit more character but is still (can you sense a pattern emerging in Latin America) a pretty uneventful pale lager.

Still, in the baking heat after a long hike in the mountains, it might as well be Ambrosia. Ever seen the film Ice Cold in Alex (look it up here)? Extreme heat is the only way to make Nicaraguan beer taste good.

Oh, there’s also one called Premium aimed at the higher end of the market although the only thing premium about it is the name. All three are produced by Compania Cervecera de Nicaragua, which is in serious need of some competition.

Rum: Nicaraguans are proud of their Flor de Caña and you can’t blame them. It’s got much more character than your bog-standard high-street rum and there are some premium versions too. I can’t say I gave this one the same consideration as Guatemala’s Ron Zacapa but then, once you’ve had Ron Zacapa, everything else pales in comparison.

What else?: It’s usually not worth ordering wine with dinner in Guate or Nicaragua unless you want to drink something dreadful or pay top dollar. Franki and I chose to have a few dry meals rather than shell out the same price we’d pay in London for some dodgy ‘vino tinto’ from the part of Argentina they clearly reserve for ‘countries we don’t mind offending’.

As a footnote, no country with a Caribbean coast is ever without the option of a Cocoloco, a coconut sliced in half with a machete and then sloshed with rum to add to the delicious nectar within.

The verdict

Top tipple: It can only be Ron Zacapa. I prefer the Centenario but if you’re the kind of person who likes the most expensive label, give the XO a whirl. Either way, you’ll be feeling more cosy and warm than a Werther’s Original advert.

Gourmet’s choice: Ditto. In this case the most expensive is also the best.

Bubbling under: I’m a sucker for Guatemala’s Moza. Slips down nicely after a day in the limestone pools of Semuc Champey, climbing a volcano or sweating through the jungle of Tikal.

What to slur drunkenly: Arriba, abajo, al centro, pa’dentro (Rough translation: “Glasses up, glasses down, glasses to the centre and down it”, said as you slosh your glass about to the relevant motions. Very touristy but fun.)

Next stop on Booze of the World: Colombia

 

Booze of the World 1: California

In the first instalment of a regular feature I’m oh-so-cleverly calling Booze of the World, here’s a run-down of tremendous tipples and wonderful watering holes from LA to San Francisco.

Californian wine gurus may not want to admit it, but there’s not much they can do that the French haven’t done first.

As a Brit who has holidayed in France, where even a dirt-cheap vin de table can be delicious, it’s going to take something pretty special to measure up to what’s on offer just a short hop across La Manche.

When it comes to beer though, the US can claim to have blazed a trail. The old cliche in the UK is that Americans swig watery Budweiser by the gallon without stopping to taste the stuff, with flavour sacrificed to the greater aim of getting legless. Why else would you drink that swill, right?

But while bearded British ale snobs have been cocking a snook at our American cousins, for the past decade and more they’ve quietly been leading a craft beer revolution. So what’s on offer?

Los Angeles

If we’d stayed longer than three days i’m sure there would have been more bars to tell you about but the casual tourist can’t go wrong with the Venice Ale House, a beachside people-watching venue mentioned in LA: The Debrief.

Still getting used to the novelty of hot sunshine in October, I went for a cooling slow-fermented Alaskan Amber Ale, which proved thirst-quenching and not too hoppy. I instinctively feel like hoppiness is better on rainy cold days, don’t ask me why.

India Pale Ale fan Franki opted for the Stone Ruination, which did the job without being spectacular. To be honest, we were so jet-lagged that our tastebuds weren’t firing on all cylinders just yet.

If you’re in Hollywood, it’s also worth dropping into the Snake Pit Alehouse on Melrose Avenue. It’s fairly short on variety but still stocks some delicious craft beers, albeit nothing that out of the ordinary. On Abbot Kinney Boulevard, pretty much hipster central, there’s a great selection at The Other Room, although i’m always suspicious of any bar so darkly lit that you can’t see your own shoes.

My only regret about drinking in LA (Remember that song? Wasn’t it awful?) is not managing to sip a White Russian at a bowling alley, Big Lebowski style. What can i say Dude, i was out of my element.

San Francisco

This easy-to-love city’s blend of groovy nonchalance and youthful creativity makes for some fine watering holes.

Every bar or pub serves a strong selection of ales and lagers to put the average British pub to shame. I was particularly glad to find plenty of examples of an old favourite of mine from living in Germany – a refreshing Koelsch lager.

Putting beer aside for the moment though (it’s alright, you can pick it up again later) it’s also worth stopping into flavour-of-the-month eatery Nopa. In this ultra-popular spot, a late brunch can be accompanied by some pretty special cocktails.

My poison was a simple and refreshing Montenegro Lime (Amaro montenegro, lime). Franki sipped a Poinsettia (Cranberry juice, Gran Classico, Cava).

Make sure to reserve, or you might find yourself waiting an hour or more for food while sifting through what’s on offer at the bar. Which may not be a bad thing, of course.

Magnolia, on infamous Haight Street, is a pub-brewery-restaurant bearing architectural vestiges of its previous incarnation as a 1920s pharmacy. There are plenty of quality ales here should you need refreshment after wading through the thick cumulo-nimbus clouds of marijuana smoke suffusing original hippie hangout corner Haight-Ashbury. Try the Spud Boy IPA, brewed on site.

By far the highlight of San Francisco (booze-wise) was Monk’s Kettle, the daddy of San Francisco gastroboozers. We happened to visit this spot in the Mission district on the night that San Francisco’s baseball team, the Giants, won the World Series.

We walked straight from a raucous street party (imagine what it would be like if England won the World Cup) into this Mecca for beer-lovers. If such a notion isn’t inherently blasphemous.

The beer menu is so door-stoppingly large it could be serialised in a Sunday newspaper. Browse it here in all its glory.

The Levitation Ale is a smooth-drinking amber that slips down like ambrosia, the crisp Reissdorf Koelsch was a taste of the Rhine-Ruhr, while IPA-lovers should enjoy the Idiot, a well-rounded Double/Imperial offering draft that impresses without trying to do too much in any one aspect.

The knowledgeable waiting staff here are happy to help you choose and tables close to the bar have blackboards and chalk, for tipsy games of hangman. This is where beer lovers who have been extra good go when they die.

Highway 1

We drove from San Francisco back to LA, taking the scenic Highway 1 through beautiful Big Sur, staying in Monterrey, Morro Bay and Santa Barbara.

Special mention should go to The Libertine, a rough-and-ready tavern in the picturesque fishing village of Morro Bay with a wide and rotating selection of rare and local beers. ’48 rotating draft handles’, boasts the website.

But no trip down the Cali coast would be complete without visiting a winery along the way. Perhaps i came across a bit sniffy about Californian wine earlier in this post and that wasn’t fair. Inspired by a bottle of lush, apricotty Viognier from the Victor Hugo Winery (served at the excellent The Galley fish restaurant in Morro Bay), we stopped at the Roblar winery in the Santa Ynez Valley.

We enjoyed a tasting of five wines each, although sadly i was driving in the afternoon and had to donate part of my allocation with heavy heart to Franki. Here’s a picture of me with a heavy heart.

Highlights were a mouth-dominating cherry-noted 2011 Grenache and the 2012 Santa Rita Hills Chardonnay, which offered rich fruit flavours rather than the minerality i usually dislike about this grape. Both went very well with Roblar’s delicious flatbread pizzas. The winery itself is in a peaceful sunny estate that wouldn’t look out of place in the depths of rural Provence, despite being only a stone’s throw from the freeway.

The wining/dining area itself is rather less rustic but stylishly decorated in the manner of an old farmhouse renovated with modernist flair.

The verdict

In our limited experience, California is something of a tippler’s haven, with beer, wine and cocktails to write home about. It’s also hard to get about without driving though, so make sure you have a designated driver or enough greenbacks for a cab/Uber.

Top tipple: Work your way through those local Californian IPAs but i loved the Reissdorf Koelsch.

Gourmet’s choice: 2011 Grenache (14.9%, $32 a bottle), a blend from Roblar and the Camp 4 estate.

Bubbling under: Irish Coffee was supposedly popularised by the Buena Vista Cafe near Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. It’s a creamy treat.

What to slur drunkenly: “Hey careful man, there’s a beverage here!” [The Dude, 1998]

Next stop on Booze of the World: Guatemala