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Spirits, Cocktails, and Booze Archives

Our Apartment in Marrakech

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I mentioned before how much I loved our Marrakech apartment. It was really too much space for us, with three bedrooms surrounding a kitchen. But we got such a deal that it was irresistible, and the extra space did allow us to have a friend visit without feeling cramped.

I probably enjoyed the patio most. I tend to wake up a little earlier than Pallavi, so I could start my mornings with a cup of coffee out on the patio, checking my mail and getting a little bit of writing done. Coffee time ended once the sun had risen high enough to shine directly onto the table and, more importantly, my head. Two more months of this and I could have finished entire novels.

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Likewise, the combination of a simple kitchen and fresh, fragrant vegetables made for easy culinary experimentation. In truth, I know very little about cooking with spices. But Pallavi would come back from the market with a little bit of this and some of that, and one or the two of us would whip up lunch or dinner by spicing some meat or legume and heating it up in a huge wok. And given the quality of the ingredients, it was really hard to screw anything up too badly.

The fruit and the mint were best of all. Oranges the size of softballs made a mess of my hands when I tried to peel them, and I picked up the Moroccan habit of glazing them with a bit of cinnamon and sugar. One morning I broiled grapefruit in the toaster oven, covering the half-globes with the same cinnamon sugar mix, and the sweet/tart taste turned out surprisingly well.

Then there's the mint. Moroccan mint has more flavor than any I've tasted. Combine with juice from the tart, fragrant limes, and you have the makings of a wonderful mojito. And if you happen to be in the country for Cinco de Excuse To Drink Margaritas, they make this too.

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Our apartment's only downside: no freezer, and thus no ice

Cairns teems with backpackers, hostels, cheap hotels, dive centers, more backpackers, tourist shops, spas, coffee shops, yet more backpackers, faux-Irish pubs, nightclubs and the occasional additional backpacker. Pallavi sits just about at the top of the average age range for visitors to Cairns, and I felt very much like the creepy old man at the club. This didn't matter, of course, because we were there to dive the Great Barrier Reef, we stayed at a cheap tourist hotel instead of a party hostel, and we only incidentally took in the other attractions (and oddities) of Cairns. Nonetheless, we still managed to find Sydney-class drinks at Society, which I consider Cairns' finest bar.

The first thing you need to know about Society is that it is set up for youngish people looking to drink, dance and hook up. Decorated in a modern metal-and-plastic style, with only a bit of hard wood, the bar and the menu are ridiculously woo-girl friendly. The drinks veer heavily towards the sugar bomb: even their negronis are, as standard, mixed with a sweet syrup. Society is a product of its society.

That said, the bartenders can mix the classics, and enjoy showing off their skills when asked. They're also very friendly: one had spent a few years in Detroit, and he and I traded Michigan stories. Another wanted very much to try his hand in bars in the States, and we talked about what we thought might be the best markets for him. It's a shame that he probably won't be able to get a work permit: some fine bar in the States is currently missing a great employee.

As for the drinks, Society is quite creative with concoctions for the sweet-tooth set. Their absinthe-based signature drink manages to be sugary and yet not smother the strong anise flavors of its principal ingredient. On the other hand, Pallavi tried a yellowish concoction which captured the essence of a Starburst fruit chew in a glass. This drink almost doesn't taste alcoholic, which makes for one of those potions that every young girl's mother warned her about. These aren't normally my thing, but Society has elevated cocktail-as-sugar-delivery-mechanism to an art form. Don't drink too much, have plenty of water to ward off the almost inevitable hangover, and brush your teeth afterwards.

What's the word for those not-really martinis: appletinis, espresso martinis, mangotinis, and all those other overly-sweet concoctions? I'm generally not fond of such "something-tini" drinks, at least if they don't involve gin (or maybe vodka) and a whisper of vermouth. [1] I'll admit that this is a kind of name snobbery: it's not that such things can't sometimes be good drinks, but they're not martinis. I'm glad I let curiousity overcome my natural dislike of fauxtinis when we had our Valentine's dinner at Nahm, or else I would have missed the Met Bar's "C3 Martini" due to a silly prejudice.

IMG 0403The C3 perfectly captures the coconut and spice flavors of tom kha soup, a common Thai dish of which I'm very fond. The drink is served very cold: the humid Thai air had covered the glass in a thin sheen of condensation before the drink had reached our table. Garnished with what looked to be a floating kaffir lime leaf, its consistency is distinctly thick and soupy, and the pepper gives a sharply aromatic flavor lacking in many mixed drinks. Unsurprisingly, this cocktail perfectly complements Thai food, even moderating the hellish spiciness of some dishes.

Unfortunately, it's a bit of a sausage-factory drink: the effect is magical when you don't know what's in it, but loses its charm once you've seen it made. We went back to the Met Bar last night because I wanted to figure out the recipe. In case you don't want to know how it works, I've put my observations after the cut. 

In the spirit of catching up, I figure that I ought to review a few of our favorite drinking holes that I've missed out. We visited Margarita Resto & Bar twice, the last time on the night before I won my first poker tournament . The restaurant has an old fashioned crimson and dark-wood theme, and the kitchen serves tasty and not-too-expensive Argentinian food. Behind the bar hardwood bar, like little liquid soldiers, stand row after row of bottles containing spirits and beer from across South America and the world.

I doubt most of the bottles have been touched in decades, but the multitude of available options hints at the creativity of the bartender. While mostly offering common classics (as well as backpacker staples like Sex on the Beach), the back page of the drinks menu holds the bartender's personal inventions. Most of these were fun and fruity, but he recommended his Martini Malbe to me as his greatest creation. Sadly, it's only occasionally available, as it takes him a while to prepare the malbec reduction, and this ingredient doesn't keep. The wine and whiskey combination works surprisingly well, however, so I've included the recipe below.

Malbec Martini (Puerto Madryn, Argentina)

  • 1 part reduction of malbec
  • 1 part juice of 1 grapefruit (and one teaspoon of pulp)
  • 2 parts whiskey
  • A dask of lemon

Mix ingredients with ice in a shaker, in the order given. Shake, strain, and serve in a cocktail glass. Garnish with starfruit (although I think an orange or a bit of grapefruit rind would work as well).

Despite having spent our first week in Thailand catching up on our to do list, we had time to see a few parts of the city, ride the train, and check out one of the local favorites: trendy rooftop bars.

We decided to take in sunset at the Sky Bar at LeBua and failed because we arrived a few minutes too late. One note when using an iPhone maps function in Thailand: the program will sometimes interpret a street number as a zip code, and deposit you at entirely the wrong end of the street.

While Thailand is generally a low-cost tourist destination, this business district bar swings high market, high-in-the-sky, and high-priced. Waiters in suits and waitresses in long fancy dresses greet you at the bottom of a flight of stone steps, then escort you past the outdoor dining area to the bar. On a weekday evening, it's an interesting mix of afterwork business people, elegant diners on a night out, and tourists in jeans. We ran into a very nice Australian couple who described to us their recent trip to Burma.

The view from the bar is unquestionably superb. On the sixty-fourth floor of the State Tower, the Sky Bar looks down over the bustling city and its neon lights. Bangkok skyscrapers are few and far between, which means that the skyline is mostly uninterrupted, and from here the haze of pollution that nestles over Bangkok is hard to miss. It was impossible to tell if the gibbous moon was red from normal atmospheric conditions or the smog, but either way it was pretty. As you turn away from the balcony, the gold-domed restaurant that caps State Tower is itself an image worth seeing at night.

That said, don't come for the drinks: what we tried ranged from disappointing to an outright titanic disaster. Pallavi's spicy gin and tonic wasn't horrible, but overdid the pepper to the exclusion of all other taste. "Earth," another Sky Bar specialty, claimed to be a mix of whiskey, a few other spirits, and lime juice, but was drained over crushed ice that watered it down to a thoroughly forgettable concoction: all that sticks in the mind is a sugary flavor of syrup. I moved to classics, but while the mojito was merely so-so, the Manhattan introduced me to the unpleasant concept of a fifty-fifty bourbon/vermouth split. It's a horrible potion that I hope never to suffer again, and I can't understand why any bartender would offer it to a customer, unless she wanted that customer never to return. By the way, all of these drinks are at New York prices (upwards of $12), and certainly not worth it.

We'll probably try another rooftop when we're back in Thailand, but while the Sky Bar is an architectural wonder, save yourself some money by buying a soft drink, watching the sunset, and heading for some other bar.

For instance, walk up the block to Jameson's Irish Pub Bangkok, where you can buy a relatively inexpensive glass of Hoegaarden that's about as big as your head.

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Nest: Great Restaurant in Siem Reap

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As a celebration of my ability to escape the hotel, yesterday evening we dined at Nest, a well-reviewed establishment in the heart of Siem Reap. I was genuinely impressed by the layout: the dining area sprawls underneath a series of interlinked canopies such that it feels outdoors without being open-air. A curved stone walkway meanders through the middle of the restaurant, dividing the lounge area and bar on the left from the dining area on the right.

We didn't sit in the lounge, but I'd like to go back and try it: some of the seats are practically beds made from wicker frames, and couples were cuddled up on them drinking. It looked like a cozy, comfortable place to have a cocktail.

On the other side of the stone path, dark wood dining tables are covered in white linen, while dark-stained wicker decorations carry over the motif from the bar. The overall effect is one of relative luxury and comfort.

And for Siem Reap, this is certainly luxury: even the set menu will run you $20 or upwards, which sounds like a good snack to a Manhattanite, but extravagant for a meal here. The food is fantastic, however, and I highly recommend the set menu. The salads were fresh, well-presented and spicy. The meat dishes--Pallavi had a finely flavored pork shank, while I had a nicely peppered cubed-steak dish--show signs of a French/Cambodian influence.

Hopefully Pallavi will say a little more about the food--I'm not much of a gourmet [1], and so I lack the vocabulary to really do Nest justice. I'll stick to my strengths and note that I'm very impressed by their cocktail list, which shows a delicacy that I haven't seen since we left Hong Kong. Most Cambodian bars have your standard fare--mojitos, caiparinhas, cosmos--and a few "tropical specialities" that are mainly fruit juices and spirits. These don't take much skill to mix and aren't very ambitious. Ordering a Manhattan will show the weakness of such places: the result will be pedestrian, usually poorly mixed and with a too-strong flavor of vermouth.

Nest's menu, on the other hand, respects the classics while holding some true modern gems. One sign of sophistication: the menu asks you to "please order your Manhattan dry, sweet, or perfect," and has similar instructions for variations of martinis and other classics. On the other hand, the bartender challenges you to try modern innovations like the Occidental Blazer (see the last page of the PDF, the only recipe I could find online), a strongly aromatic rye-and-brandy mix. Served warm in brandy snifter, this cocktails doesn't so much tickle the nose as assault it prior to the first sip, but then settles to a spicy thick syrup as it cools. They have a few more drinks (including a curious stout/vanilla ice cream mix) that I hope to try before we hit the road. Preferably in one of those lounge beds.

[1] My sibling has informed me that he hates the word "foodie," so I'm avoiding it, but I'm not much of one of those, either.

We're in Siem Reap, probably the most tourist-friendly city in Cambodia, and I think we're going to be here for a week more. We arrived on the fourth, but we have had no chance to get to the temples yet as I've been ill ever since we arrived. Indeed, I didn't even leave our initial hotel until last night.

Any extended travel plans need to have enough slack to account for getting ill, so that if you end up bedridden for a day or two you don't feel like you're missing out on a great cultural experience. Face it: if you spend a year going through countless airports and staying in hotel after hotel, you're going to pick up a germ or two. We have flexibility at the moment, so in all honesty I'm kind of glad that it happened here rather than Phnom Penh. For one thing our hotel, while as nice as our Phnom Penh abode, was much cheaper: three nights with every meal that I was able to eat (and all of Pallavi's food) came to less than $65.

Nor am I feeling much time pressure, because Southeast Asia is probably the least-scheduled part of our international trip thus far. Our last ticket was from Hong Kong to Phnom Penh, but our next ticket is from Bangkok to Dehli. How we get from here to Bangkok is up to us, meandering at our own schedule. So a day or two doesn't matter much: we'll still see the temple.

We've now changed hotels into something only slightly more expensive, but much nicer and more central. Now that I'm finally able to leave the hotel, I think I'm going to like Siem Reap.

I've mostly wandered around the Old Market area downtown, which is a hodgepodge of tourist restaurants, bars and massage parlors, each surrounding several marketplaces. These sell everything from gaudy t-shirts and flashy dresses to an IP litigator's paradise of knock-off watches, sunglasses and fashion items. Bargain hard: dealers will relent to far less than their original offer, and the knockoffs are normally such poor quality that they're not worth the discounted price. (I ruined the "waterproof" Wal-Mart watch I purchased before we left Texas while diving in Gili Trawangan, and tried to replace it with a "Vacheron Constantin" [1] here. It ceased to work overnight, though the vendor did replace it when I came back. The replacement "Patek Phillipe" has already broken.)

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This is not a Patek. Nor anywhere near the correct time.

In any event, Siem Reap is tropically warm, the weather has favored us so far, and I look forward to three to five days of viewing Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples.

[1] Yes, the watch almost certainly violates VC's intellectual property rights, and given that I love what VC makes, I don't take that lightly. That said, if there ever was an argument for a parody exception to trademark, this watch was it. A glance at the metal casing, the asymmetrical bezel, and the poor work on the watch face suggested that the strap, which appeared to be authentically leather, was the most expensive part of the entire contraption. Anyone vaguely familiar with the VC brand would not suspect for a minute that this watch had been on the same continent as a Swiss watchmaker. Besides, since arriving in Cambodia and trying to purchase a watch, I've found it impossible to find anything that isn't impinging on someone's IP.

Island Paradise Update

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After a quick flight from Jakarta to Bali, we spent a couple days at The Island hostel, then took a slightly hair-raising boat ride to Gili Trawangan, one of three tiny islands off the coast of Lombok. Here we've been reading novels, giving Tony time to recover from his chest infection/cold, and contemplating the clear, warm waters as a good place for our next dive.

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The view from the bar at Hotel Vila Ombak, where we've gotten our first cocktails on this island that taste like they have alcohol. Well-suggested, John.

We spent our first few days at a backpacker hostel, but found that a small, local hotel a few blocks from Kings Cross offered cleaner, quieter accommodation at a lower price. It also happened to put us a few blocks away from some of Sydney's top cocktail bars, so of course I jumped at the opportunity. Once again, the weak greenback conspired to achieve what I would have thought impossible a few months ago: Sydney's cocktails are the most expensive of the trip, making the watering holes of San Francisco and New York look positively frugal by comparison.

Eau de Vie: Approach the austere glass doors of the stylish, sexy Kirketon Hotel, and glance at the beautiful people hanging out in the Art Lounge, and breeze past the bar as if going to the restrooms. [1] Keep going past the facilities, hang a left, and enter Eau de Vie, which presents itself as a domain for serious drinkers.

Have a few carrots before you go, however, because this bar isn't for the night-blind. A few candles and the occasional overhead light struggle valiantly against the gloom of this small, windowless space, and the dark wood and brown leather furniture is no help. The bar itself is far from well-lit, and if you choose a table in one of the further corners, you may need a flashlight to appreciate the small leatherbound volume that details the history of the club, the biographies of the bartenders, and, almost incidentally, a set of available drinks.

Although the ambiance cranks the pretentiousness up to 11, and the joint doesn't leaven this with the cheery kitsch of a Bourbon & Branch, you can't fault the drinks themselves. Don't go looking for classics. The menu is mostly new creations or old recipes with some form of "new twist." Although we felt the budget would only support one drink apiece (prices range from about AU$16 to AU$25), the two we tried were meticulously executed, well presented, and tasty. I recommend the Highlander Sazarac, a whiskey-based concoction that starts sweet and finishes smooth and smoky. (Upgrade to the Talisker: it's worth it.)

The Victoria Room: This Victoria Room was our Sydney splurge in an otherwise budget-conscious week, although neither drinks nor dinner were as wallet-busting as Eau de Vie. Although the VR doesn't look like much from the outside, once you walk up the stairs to the reception, it's a whole different world of hardwood and fine upholstery. If you don't have a reservation, don't worry: the best part of the evening may be sitting in the bar area until a table frees up.

For one thing, the bartenders are skilled, curious, and very, very friendly. While they'll happily make anything from the menu (again, leather-bound and weighty, with lengthy expository sections on the virtues of various spirits), they also welcome off-menu or "omakase" (bartender's choice) orders. I'd liked my first drink, but found it a bit too sweet, and the bartender cheerfully asked what I liked when I was elsewhere. This led to a quick conversation about the Oaxaca Old Fashioned and an experimental attempt at a new tequila classic that turned out surprisingly well.

Once you're done at the bar, the Victoria Room's food is pretty good as well. All dishes are meant to be shared by the table, and if you're price-conscious, get the mezze platter. It's the best bread and dip we've had south of the equator, and the portions are more than generous.

[1] Although always well put together, the stylish set vastly outdressed our "nice night out" traveling outfits on Tuesday night. It was the evening after the Melbourne Cup, and patrons had dressed accordingly.

Everyone is entitled to his opinion. This is a statement about the rights of free men, however, and does not imply that the opinions of all men are equally valid, a statement that can be proven by a cursory glance at GQ's article purportedly listing the best cocktail bars in America. It's a travesty.

I like Angel's Share, which happens to be where I first met in person an old law school mentor who would years later help kick off the North American Road Trip. [1] Angel's Share's drinks are well-mixed, the surroundings classy, and the place certainly deserves a spot in the top-25 New York bars. But second in the nation, ahead of Houston's Anvil, to say nothing of New York's own Death & Co. or PDT? Not a chance. And what Pegu Club is doing on GQ's radar at all is a mystery: it's overpriced, overcrowded, and by the time a drink gets to you it's sometimes room temperature. That said, if you require a chance to sober up between cocktails, Pegu's your place. For better drinks and better ambiance in New York alone, you could try White Star, Apothke, or half a dozen others. Still, it's made me think of one important project for this trip: to keep track of the best drinking holes that we come across on our way around the world, and to wrap them up into one lengthy post.

Speaking of which, we came across a new global favorite on Saturday night, when I hit The Library Lounge (warning: sound and lots of Flash) with the Guniganti sisters. Like the overdone website, the actual bar must be seen to be believed. The decor is faux-19th century tacky, as if Russell Crowe's character in Master & Commander had resigned from the Royal Navy, purchased an upscale French bordello and converted it into an unofficial officer's club. The walls are bedecked with animal heads. Some of the walls and half of the seating are one shade or another of dull crimson. But the Library Lounge doesn't stop at chairs, chaises and low tables. One corner holds a leather-covered desk and four officer's chairs, next to a small humidor of cigars, while another corner offers what I think is a fainting couch as a seating option.

On Saturday night it was filled with an odd mix of the brash and the beautiful: hotel guests in their khakis and golf shirts sat at one table, while another was full of slinky model-wannabees in little black dresses. Yet another couple nestled on a loveseat and attempted to bring hipster fashion to South America. (Note to the hipster: a gentleman always takes off his hat indoors.) While I wouldn't wear jeans and a t-shirt, you don't have to dress up too mightily to avoid feeling under-dressed. One thing Buenos Aires shares with San Francisco, however, is that if you feel like going all-out, you can do so. A young gentleman roamed the room in a suit with such broad pin-stripes that it begged to be turned into a Tex Avery cartoon, while a woman with hair trimmed an eighth of an inch from her skull never took her (presumably real) fur cape off the shoulders of her bright red dress.

A word of warning: this place is expensive. Buenos Aires is in general more expensive than Peru or Ecuador, but this was the first place that made New York prices look good. In the evenings the bar has an AR$150/per person minimum (about US$38), which will buy you about two drinks. We avoided this by arriving very near closing, so that they only charged us for the one round we had time to drink.

On the upside, the cocktails themselves are as interesting and oddly-designed as the bar itself. My Manhattan was unusual for two reasons. First, the whiskey did not taste like Jack Daniels or Jim Beam (apparently the two go-to brands south of the equator), but considerably better. Second, they garnished it with some kind of albino cocktail cherry, a whitish marble at the bottom of the glass with only a rose-like hint of its original color left. I don't know how they bleached the cherry, but it did go well with both the drink and the decor.

[1] This lady taught me one rule to live by: if you're a lawyer and you meet a law student at a bar, you pay. They then pay the next generation of students when they graduate. (My only post-recession corollary to this rule is "when they graduate and have a job.")

Celebrations with Gaston and Others

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Tony and I recently had all our individual special occasions (i.e. as distinct from general holidays like Christmas) in quick succession: our second wedding anniversary while we were in Quito, and our birthdays while in Cuzco.

My introduction to the Capitan

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I'm not sure if anyone has ever bothered to make it official, but it becomes obvious after ten minutes in about any Peruvian bar that pisco is the national spirit of Peru. Visitors will most likely first encounter the spirit in the pisco sour, which again, if not actually the national cocktail, appears on menus with sufficient ubiquity that one could be forgiven for thinking that it is. Unfortunately, the sticky sweetness of the pisco sour and its whipped-egg consistency do not appeal to me. [1] Quebranta and aromatic piscos on their own, give me a sharp, strongly alcoholic taste, like a dry brandy.

We've tried a few pisco drinks while in Cuzco, but my favorite so far is the Capitan, served to me last night by the bartenders at Chi Cha. Besides being an excellent restaurant (and I suspect that Pallavi will write more about this), Chi Cha boasts some of the friendliest bartenders that we have encountered in South America. They managed to overcome my poor-to-nonexistent Spanish and conversed with me, at length, about the various local ingredients to be found in their cocktails. They also gave me a quick primer on pisco (which admittedly I had to supplement later with some online research).

Better than that, they shared with me the Chi Cha recipe for the Capitan (which is slightly different from some I've seen online). It's essentially a pisco-based Manhattan, but with the taste of vermouth coming through more clearly. Not a drink for those deeply opposed to Cinzano (you know who you are), but one that I think I'm adding to my list of favorites.

  • Three oz. quebranta pisco
  • Two oz. red vermouth
  • One twist orange peel
  • One twist lime peel

Combine pisco and vermouth in a shaker with ice. Pour into cocktail glass. Twist orange peel into glass, coat rim. [2] Garnish with a twist of lime.

[1] About the only cocktail in this genus that I occasionally drink is the White Lady, and I admit that this may only be due to my fondness for the American Bar at the Savoy. In any event, a proper White Lady doesn't have egg white.

[2] I think a dash of bitters would also work here, if you're not feeling like professional-grade cocktail-making.

Boozing Across America

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Particularly given the so-hot-you-could-fry-an-egg summer New York just endured, I can't say that I spent much time regretting being on the roadtrip instead of in the city. The only story I heard that gave me a twinge of wistfulness for being outside Manhattan was Frank Bruni's report on Ward III, a cocktail lounge that promises to make whatever drink a customer wants, and to save the recipe for her. In his review, Bruni declares, "There are two pronounced strains in current cocktail culture. One exalts the classics, treating them with the reverence that a gourmand accords Escoffier. The other prizes whimsy, imagination, tweaking and tinkering."

There's truth to this, though one should be aware that a bar can hold both strains simultaneously. For example, two of our favorite Prohibition throwbacks in NYC, Death & Company and Please Don't Tell, naturally emphasize old school cocktailing, but their bartenders are also willing to play with the classics upon customer request. And our absolute favorite bar in Houston, Anvil, recently swapped from a hyper-emphasis on the classics (their original shtick was a list of "100 Cocktails You Should Try Before You Die") to a menu of original formulations by their bartenders coupled with a changing shortlist of their current favorite classics.

Things We've Seen


Things We Like