V is for Vodka Tonic

A story about me and vodka tonics:

My first airplane ride was a flight from St. Louis to JFK, the start of a three week trip to the USSR. I was 14 years old and thrilled to be leaving my family on my first independent adventure. In command of lots of bravado and some pretty sketchy Russian, I was really excited and really nervous.

My parents made sure I ate a good breakfast before going to the airport, since a good breakfast is how you start any long trip. Being excited and nervous, I surely ate more than I should have. (Then as now, I had an unhealthy habit of taking comfort in food.) Fried eggs, bacon, lots of buttered toast... what I now know to be the worst thing to have before a flight.

Our flight had a scheduled stop in Detroit. My nerves, excitement, and an unrecognized propensity for motion sickness conspired together, much to my detriment. During takeoff, I was violently ill, uncontrollably throwing up my substantial breakfast into my air-sickness bag. When mine was full, I used my neighbor's.

There is no humiliation so blazing as that of a 14-year-old boy throwing up in public. Of that, I can assure you.

My situation was made worse by the terrible headache the exertions of my vomiting brought on. By the time we began our approach to Detroit, I was thoroughly shaky. When we began our descent, I began throwing up again, this time into my other seatmate's air-sickness bag. Only when we were taxiing to the terminal did it stop.

By then, it was hard to know where my physical misery ended and my psychological misery began. And if I'd known that worse was to come, I might have gotten off the plane in Detroit and hitchhiker home. 

We sat at the terminal for what felt like a year - a slow, burning, excruciating year. For the most part, the people around me did everything they could to ignore me. Their restraint was forced upon them by circumstances, of course. It was a full flight. It would serve no purpose to complain about the sweaty, pudgy, trembling young man in 23C who had been steadily vomiting for the past hour and a half. The smell, the noise, the sight of it all... none of it was intentional. The best thing anyone could do was grit their teeth and suffer through a flight from hell.

I was left alone to cope as best I could. 

When the plane left the terminal and began the taxi for takeoff, I was terrified that I would lose control yet again. After all, I was now out of air-sickness bags in my entire row. What would I do if...?

Alas, I had occasion to find out. My terror of further humiliation had amped up my adrenaline so much that just as the wheels left the ground, I felt another wave of nausea. With a voice that was spooky with dead, flat calmness, I gently asked the person sitting in front of me if I might have their bag. Three people passed me theirs.

It turned out that I barely even needed one bag. Vomiting, yes, but dry heaves. Yes, dry heaves as we gained altitude leaving Detroit. Why? Why me? I had nothing left to give, no further sacrifice to offer up for the gods of air travel. Why punish me so?

The heaving stopped as we leveled off. I just wanted to die in peace. 

The flight attendant came back to my seat and asked if there was anything I needed. Ashen-faced, drenched in sweat, trembling from my illness, half-blind with a terrible headache, I stared down at my hands. After a moment, I spoke, again in a voice that was so calm, so flat, so drained of energy and emotion that it must have been creepy as hell to hear.

"Yes," I said. "May I have a vodka tonic, please?"

(Note: you might think it strange that a 14-year-old would even know what a vodka tonic was, let alone order one on an airplane in a desperate attempt to find some way of calming his own overwrought nerves. I'll spare you the full background, but leave it by saying that a) that wasn't the first vodka tonic I'd ever ordered, and b) I had a strange childhood.)

If the flight attendant gave me a funny look, I didn't see it. What she did was to leave and return a moment later with a glass of iced tonic water, a lime wedge, and a little airline bottle of vodka. With my shaking, sweaty hands, I opened the bottle, poured it into the glass and stirred. I began to take small sips, one every few minutes as we flew on to New York.

The man sitting next to me, who seemed old at the time, but who was probably close to the same age I am now, spoke to me for the first time since we'd left St. Louis.

"Good idea. That'll help calm your nerves."

"Yes," I replied, "I hope so."

Neither of us spoke again. I finished my vodka tonic a little while before the approach to JFK. I didn't enjoy the landing, but I didn't throw up, either. 





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U is for Union Jack

Do you have any idea how hard it is to find a cocktail that starts with "U"? I ask this so that you will have an idea of how hard I work for you.

The Union Jack cocktail is one that, frankly, I wasn't familiar with. After wracking my brain for weeks to come up with a drink for "U", I finally had to cheat and look one up in the index of my Old Mr. Boston Mixologist's Guide. (Side note: everyone should own that reference text. I'm on my second copy, the previous one having fallen apart from use.)

I'd never had a Union Jack, but, because this is all about ethics in blogging, I realized that I had to make one before I could write a blog post about it. No problem - 2 measures of gin, 1 measure of sloe gin, 1 measure of grenadine, stirred with ice and strained into a chilled glass. What could be easier?

Except I was out of sloe gin last night. Not sure how that happened, since my bar is pretty well stocked. What to do? I didn't have time to run out to get a bottle before the evening's activities, so I made do.

I substituted cointreau for the sloe gin. Not bad, but too sweet. I put it back in the icer, added a small slug of sweetened lime juice, stirred and decanted again. That did the trick. It cut through the sweet with a citrus tang, and gave a delicious, complex drink. The balance of sweet orange, lime, and pomegranate with the hot floral notes of the gin was very tasty.

Later today, I'll pick up a bottle of sloe gin and try a Union Jack according to the traditional recipe. I'm looking forward to it!

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T is for Tom Collins

Here's another simple one with a rich pedigree. Gin, lemon juice and simple syrup, topped up with soda water and ice. Pace yourself, and you can drink Tom Collinses all night.

So far as I know, this drink has nothing to do with Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice. I doubt that he would ever have the presence of mind to order one.

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S is for Sangria

What is Sangria doing on a list of cocktails? Isn't the primary ingredient red wine?

Yes, but all the best Sangria has a solid mass of brandy in the punchbowl. When made properly, it's so delicious, I'll stretch a point.

Slice a few oranges, apples and peaches into a punchbowl. If you have one, crush up a pomegranate, too. Pour in a few bottles of a robust red, a Beaujolais nouveau, one of the vin ordinaire that goes so well with bread, cheese, and an attractive member of your preferred sex. Four bottles should do it. Or half a case, maybe.

Add half a bottle of brandy. Again, don't try to impress anyone with the cask reserve stuff. Make it a drinkable label, but don't go to any dark corners of the cellar to get it.

Let the bowl sit for an hour or so before you add some ice. Chill the bowl down and serve by the pitcher.

And leave the pitcher on the table, so your guests can help themselves throughout the evening. Light some candles, put on some music, enjoy your Sangria.

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R is for Rum and Coke

I've been pretty scrupulous to avoid easy drinks for this A to Z cocktail catalog. It's just too easy to slap "... and Coke" onto any kind of booze and call it a cocktail.

The Rum and Coke, however, stands alone. It's a classic, just as simple as a martini, just as complex as a new love affair.

There are those purists who will immediately shout out for the Cuba Libre, made with the old style, cane-sugar cola and a splash of fresh lime. Other partisans will no doubt wave high the banners of RC Cola, Guaranito or some other favored cola brand. The champions of dark rum will rail against the champions of light rum, and the blenders will stand on the sidelines, brickbats at the ready.

Apostates of Coke Zero, Diet Pepsi and the like will wave their freak flags high in the face of near-universal scorn, while the Dr. Pepper, IBC Root Beer, and (God have mercy on our souls) Mountain Dew fans burn together in a hell of their own making.

Rum and Coke... was there ever a better combination to enjoy on a summer evening?

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Q is for Queen of the May

Dear reader, I have three confessions to make.

First, "Queen of the May" is a bit of a misnomer. The drink is better known as "May Queen", both of which are short for the drink's full and proper name, "To-morrow'll be of all the year the maddest, merriest day, for I'm to be Queen of the May, mother, I'm to be Queen of the May." As you might imagine, the full name can be a bit cumbersome to call out in a crowded bar.

Second, unlike every other cocktail in this A to Z catalog, which I have at one time or another actually tasted, I have not, in truth, had the pleasure of drinking a May Queen. One of the reasons I've never had this drink is that it is fictional (which is why I felt a bit better about garbling up the name in order to fit under a blog post about a "Q" cocktail, which, let's be honest, is a bit tough to swing no matter who you are.)

The May Queen was described by P.G. Wodehouse's Lord Ickenham (aka Uncle Fred, aka Uncle Dynamite) in the novel Uncle Fred in the Springtime, a first edition of which I happen to be the proud owner. Uncle Fred describes the drink thusly:
Its foundation is any good, dry champagne, to which is added liqueur brandy, armagnac, kummel, yellow chartreuse and old stout, to taste.

Another reason I've never had one is that it's a bloody complicated and expensive drink to make. It also sounds like the kind of thing that energetic young men on a pub crawl would order for each other late in the evening, then spend an hour daring each other to slug down.

Still, the May Queen regularly makes the lists for the most famous literary cocktails of all time, so I'm proud to give it a place here.

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P is for Planter's Punch

This is one of those very loose recipes that really depends on your taste and how active you plan to be for the rest of afternoon after you start drinking these. Perfect for a barbecue, a garden party, a croquet tournament, whatever.

Basically, you get a pitcher (or for a larger party, a punch bowl). Slosh in a lot of dark rum (for a party, pour in the whole bottle. Or two bottles. Again, whatever. Don't overthink this.) Add some fruit juices - plenty of orange juice, some lemon juice, some pineapple juice (if you have it), maybe some apple juice. Pour in enough grenadine to pink up the mix, add a few dashed of bitters (or not, if you don't like that sort of thing).

Stir it up and ladle it into ice-filled glasses. Want to garnish with orange slices and maraschino cherries? Go ahead. Want to add some of those paper umbrellas you got from the party store? Sure! Those make any party more festive.

However, the recipe doesn't really matter. Once the supply runs low, you can just start pouring in more ingredients to bring the level back up. The ratios of rum, fruit juices and grenadine will go wonky after the second punchbowl is emptied, so the taste will go a bit wide of the mark, too.

But, hey, you'll be having too much fun on the fourth wicket to care about such niceties!

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O is for Old Fashioned

Here's a funny story about the Old Fashioned.

After President Franklin Roosevelt died, President Truman and his wife eventually moved into the White House. At the time, the White House was staffed by a coterie of people who were deeply committed to the deceased FDR. This is not surprising, since he'd been in office for 13 years, steering the country through the Great Depression and World War II.

The staff was just as deeply resentful and dismissive of the Trumans. They saw the new President as a little man, a political hack, firmly in the vest pocket of Boss Pendergast, the king of the Kansas City machine. His dowdy, drab wife Bess they dismissed as a small-town housewifey woman who was everything that the eloquent, cosmopolitan, patrician Eleanor Roosevelt was not.

The Trumans always enjoyed a drink together before dinner each night, a habit of long standing throughout their marriage. Soon after moving in, the First Lady asked the White House dining room steward for an Old Fashioned. The steward, a mixologist of fine training, prepared an Old Fashioned according to a classic recipe: bourbon, bitters, and a sugar lump, mixed with a splash of spring water and garnished with the traditional orange slice and maraschino cherry.

Mrs. Truman drank it, but the next night, she asked for an Old Fashioned again, but this time, made properly. The steward, his professional pride no doubt stung, asked for specifics. "Not so sweet", she said.

So, the steward prepared another Old Fashioned, this time using a different brand of bourbon and a different recipe. He garnished it in the traditional way and served it. This time, Mrs. Truman did not finish the drink.

The next night, she told the steward that if she'd wanted a fruit salad before dinner she would have asked for one, and that if the man didn't know how to make an Old Fashioned, he should just say so and find someone who did. This time, the steward went behind the bar, sloshed some rye whiskey into a highball glass and served it to her, neat. While he stood waiting, she took a sip.

"Ah!", she said. "Now THAT'S an Old Fashioned!"

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N is for Negroni

Warning: DO NOT MAKE THIS DRINK.

I'm telling you, the Negroni is NOT something you will like. Why? I'll tell you why: it has Campari in it.

I made the mistake of buying a bottle of Campari years ago. Swayed by sexy ads like this one, I decided to try a drink I'd heard of but never had: Campari and soda.

Disgusting.

Lick the underside of a car battery from a 2004 Honda CRV. That's what Campari tastes like. There isn't enough soda water in all the universe to disguise that horrifically bitter taste.

Still, I persevered. Lots of people drink Campari, I thought. It's a sexy, hip, liqueur, I thought. Surely there must be some way to use it in a drink that would be palatable, I thought. Besides, having sunk the cost of the bottle, I wanted to get some return on the investment.

Gentle reader, I tried everything. Sweet, dry, strong, mild, dark, light, complex, simple, cold, warm, and everything in between.

The last drink I tried was a Negroni: one part each of gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari.

Conclusion: the Negroni is a complete waste of gin and sweet vermouth.

Let me say again, DO NOT MAKE THIS DRINK.

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M is for Manhattan

I'll be honest, dear reader. I came really close to writing about martinis instead of Manhattans for "M". I like a Manhattan every now and then, but they always seem to be overdone. Too many ingredients, too fussy, too much opportunity to get them wrong.

The wrong kind of whiskey, wrong brand of vermouth (or dry instead of sweet), too many cherries, orange slice isn't ripe enough (all color, no flavor), three dashes of bitters instead of two...

I'm all for individual preference, and drinking what you like, but I've never really gotten a Manhattan at a bar that I liked. They were always not quite right. That's why I make them at home when I have them. Even then, even when I get the drink exactly right, the Manhattan is almost more trouble than it's worth.

Almost.

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L is for Limoncello

I first had limoncello during a wonderful week in Sorrento, Italy. (Yes, Sorrento really looks like this picture - it's amazing.)

We'd strolled through the whitewashed villas atop the Isle of Capri, drinking Lachryma de Christo in a shady hilltop restaurant as the sunlight danced on the waves of the Tyrrhenian Sea.

We'd communed with the ghosts of Pompeii and Herculaneum, sipping surprising good cappuccino and dulce de leche in a tourist bar.

We'd driven the length of the Amalfi Coast, sucking gratefully at cool bottles of Peroni while the sweat dried on our bodies in the salt- and seaweed-scented breeze.

And, on what I believe was our last day, after our second day spent walking the streets of Sorrento, moving from cool shadow to blazing sun, we left the cobblestones, cathedrals and courtyards to settle into a streetside cafe where we had limoncello.

Dear reader, it was a transcendent experience. The intensity of the lemon flavor, the clean, biting top note of the alcohol, all supported by the sweetness of the liqueur, was just heavenly. It was like relaxation and serenity and contentment, carefully distilled to 100 proof and sealed in an oddly-shaped bottle.

You know what happens next, right?

Of course you do.

We bought a bottle (being VERY careful to get the same brand we'd just enjoyed), took it back home with us, and... were utterly disappointed. Out of context, it tasted nothing like what we'd had. It's possible we'd been rooked, and had overpaid for a cheap, crappy, tourist version of the heaven-in-a-glass that gave us such pleasure in Sorrento.

Such are the vicissitudes of travel. It broadens the mind, deepens the soul, and, if you let it, educates the palate.

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K is for Kümmel

Kümmel is, to say the least, an acquired taste. It's a liqueur with a strong caraway and anise flavor. Thick and sweet, a cordial of ice-cold kümmel was presented to me as a wonderful digestif, an after-dinner herbal infusion that helps to settle the stomach and aid digestion.

To be honest, it tasted to me like it would be more effective at aiding emesis than digestion, but I didn't want to be rude to my hosts.

I haven't tried a kümmel cordial in decades - the taste lingers that long in one's memory. Still, maybe I should give it another try. I used to despise Jägermeister, another herbal digestif, albeit one that is much better known to Americans. Now, I sometimes enjoy a cordial of Jägermeister, poured right from the bottle I keep in my freezer.

Is this appreciation of intense flavors the result of epicurean wisdom and a mature palate, gained through the experience of decades of adventuresome drinking? Or, now that I am past the mid-point of my life, is it a consequence of my taste buds slowly dying off, only one among the various harbingers of my inevitable (and, I hope, graceful) decline into senescence and death?

Something to think about as I sip my next glass of kümmel, anisette, or Jägermeister.


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J is for Julep

You might have thought that juleps came in only one flavor i.e., mint. In fact, a julep is any sort of fruit- or herb-infused cocktail, usually sweetened.

If you've never had one, you'll be surprised at how refreshing a mint julep can be. Crush the fresh mint leaves in the bottom of your glass, splash in the bourbon, as much simple syrup as you like and fill with crushed ice. Stir for a while before the first sip. You could strain it all off into a highball glass, or (as I do) sip straight from the muddling glass. It's a bit like sweet mint tea, with a nice, high-noted kick.

Here's this, though: you don't have to use mint.

Try crushing lemon balm leaves and using light rum. (Lemon balm is almost as easy to grow as mint.) Try crushing a rosemary sprig and using plum brandy. Or crushing some peaches and cinnamon sticks and using dark rum. Or go truly crazy and crush a few fresh basil leaves and use gin.

Instead of the simple syrup, use a bit of molasses. Or honey.

If you ever wanted a reason for an herb garden, the julep is a good one.

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I is for Irish Coffee

Could there be a more welcome marriage than that of alcohol, coffee, and sugar? Creamy and sweet, awash with the richness of heavy cream that belies the double bite of Jameson's and Jamaica Blue Mountain, Irish Coffee is the fulfillment of every dream of what a situationally perfect drink could be.

Think back, my friends: how many of your pub crawls have threatened to bog down in the wee hours, purely because fatigue, intoxication, and low blood sugar cause the revelers to stay on their stools instead of dancing with the crowd? Too much convivial beer, too much obvious tequila, not enough of the finer things in life?

I'm sure you know the cure for the 2 A.M. slows as well as I do: a big platter of fried mushrooms and a round of Irish Coffees. It feeds the soul even as it fuels the body, giving wings to desire and renewing the promise of every great pub crawl: "Sunrise is in three hours - let's go!"

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#AtoZChallenge 2015: Cocktails

This page will serve as a handy index to all of my cocktail posts as part of the 2015 A to Z Blogging Challenge. Enjoy!


A is for Absinthe B is for Bloody Mary C is for Caipirhina
D is for Daiquiri E is for Eggnog F is for Fuzzy Navel
G is for Gimlet H is for Harvey Wallbanger I is for Irish Coffee
J is for Julep K is for Kümmel L is for Limoncello
M is for Manhattan N is for Negroni O is for Old Fashioned
P is for Planter's Punch Q is for Queen of the May R is for Rum and Coke
S is for Sangria T is for Tom Collins U is for Union Jack
V is for W is for X is for
Y is for
Z is for

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H is for Harvey Wallbanger

This one is a throwback to the late 1970s. Thanks to excessive pop culture references on "The Love Boat", "Three's Company", "Barney Miller", and "Welcome Back Kotter", the Harvey Wallbanger became a running joke. If Cutty Sark on the rocks was for a tough guy like Mannix, then the Harvey Wallbanger was for a schlub like Michael Stivic.

By the time I first ordered one at a bar (well after the 1907s were blessedly in the rear view mirror), the Harvey Wallbanger was like a mother-in-law joke told by a borscht belt comic making his twelfth appearance on the Johnny Carson show. I had an urge to satisfy a lingering curiosity about the drink. I did, but it was disappointing. To be honest, I couldn't taste the difference between a Harvey Wallbanger and a regular screwdriver. The galliano added no particular flavor that I could discern.

Upon reflection, maybe that was the whole point. Adding a jolt of a sweet, 80 proof liqueur would up the impact of the drink without upping the bite of the vodka or changing the flavor of the orange juice much.

The drink with the funny name that gets you drunk quick. Behold the Harvey Wallbanger - may it rest in peace.

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G is for Gimlet

Like most cocktails, your mixlogist can adjust your gimlet to suit your taste. A clean, light gin like Gordon's will give you a light finish on the palate. A more aggressive gin like Bluecoat will give a bit more bite with each sip.

You can use straight lime juice to go with the simple syrup, but I prefer sweetened lime juice, using less of the simple syrup and only to balance out the mouth-feel.

I also stir my gimlets, rather than shaking them. Shaking makes for a better looking drink, but one that doesn't taste as good. Aside from overly twee concerns about bruising the gin, the stirring causes less aeration than shaking does. Less aeration means fewer bubbles, and fewer bubbles means less of the gin's essential flavor components lost to the air instead of warmed and released on your tongue.

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F is for Fuzzy Navel

Thanks to several formative experiences in the 1980s arising from a dangerous mixture of youthful overexuberance, youthful naivete, and youthful overindulgence, I can no longer even smell peach schnapps without wanting to throw up. So I don't drink Fuzzy Navels anymore.

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E is for Eggnog

Eggnog has since time beyond recall been an alcoholic beverage. Perhaps it stretches a point to call it a cocktail, since you're unlikely to get an eggnog at your local tavern. However, since I couldn't think of any other cocktails that start with "E" (and believe me, I tried), eggnog it is.

Funny story about eggnog: as I was growing up, my family drank eggnog as a whiskey-based mix. Other people used rum or brandy, but we used whiskey. Every year, as we set up the Christmas tree, the adults would have a few largish glasses of eggnog, while we kids were allowed very small glasses, just to taste.

Imagine my surprise when I spent my first Christmas with my wife's family. They were shocked when I did a double-take (almost a spit-take) when I tasted my glass of eggnog. When I stopped coughing, I was indignant on their behalf, almost outraged at the crime that had been perpetuated on them.

"You've been robbed!" I said. "Whoever you got this eggnog from didn't put any booze in it at all!"

At their blank, shocked looks, I suddenly realized that, maybe I had completely misinterpreted the situation. Maybe they hadn't been rooked. Maybe they used mild brandy? Or maybe they used akvavit or vodka? Something whose taste was completely buried under the cream, cinnamon and nutmeg? Or maybe they were just exceedingly parsimonious with their alcohol of choice, so much so that I completely missed the taste of it?

While they stared at me and I blushed crimson, I quickly took another sip. No, there was nothing. Could it be that they weren't just careful with the whiskey in the eggnog? Could they in truth be so tight-fisted as to skip it entirely? But at Christmas? To be ungenerous at Christmas?

Suffice to say, an awkward conversation ensued.

Eventually, I came to understand that I'd married into a family who had never even heard of putting alcohol in eggnog. To them, eggnog was not, and was never intended to be, an alcoholic beverage. I went on to learn that there are entire cultures just like them, who hold similar strange beliefs regarding eggnog.

The world is an amazing place, isn't it?

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D is for Daiquiri

Ah, the daiquiri. Is there anyone not already familiar with it? This ubiquitous, low-rent, tramp stamp of a drink is the fallen woman in the adult beverage world.

When made properly, with good quality white rum and clear, sweetened lime juice, a daiquiri can hold its head high as a clean, bracing, respectable experience. Alas, no one makes them properly. 

Larded with the heavy pulp of bananas, strawberries, peaches, mangoes, or the blended remains of whatever else was about to go bad at the fruit stall, the daiquiri becomes anything but clean and clear. So much sweetness will easily mask the low-grade, third squeezing, rind-bitter lime juice of the sort sold in 55-gallon drums.

Of course, as wretched as these fruit-derived slurries are, the are at least real. With the way most daiquiris are sold, the closest they get to real colors and flavors (however wretched) is if the guy at the chemical plant was drinking a smoothie while he mixed up his tanker cars of high fructose corn syrup, synthetic limonenes, carotenoids, and Red Dye No. 4.

And the rum. Good god, don't get me started on the rum! In a daiquiri of the common sort, it might as well be petroleum distillate. When you belly up to the bar on Bourbon Street and make a selection from the ranks of thirty frozen slushy dispensers, ranging from Frozen Banana Daiquiri to Frozen Mudslide to Frozen Sex On The Beach, do you really think they WANT you to taste the rum?

But daiquiri, know this: though your name has become synonymous with spring break and overly loud girls' nights out, I know there is still the potential for goodness in you.

I know how to love you. 


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C is for Caipirinha

The caipirinha is one of the most recognizable drinks in Brazil. Made with cachaça, a clean distillate similar to rum, the caipirinha is lime-tangy, semi-sweet, and certain to make your evening on the copacabana a memorable one.

Interestingly, a variant sold on the beach in Rio is called a caipirivodka is made with vodka instead of cachaça. Apparently young Brazilians don't want to appear unsophisticated by drinking the same booze as their forefathers. 


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B is for Bloody Mary

Some people like them made with gin instead of vodka.

Some people (me included) start with V8 instead of tomato juice.

Some people who don't know any better will skip the celery salt.

Some people get their shorts in a bunch about using Frank's Red Hot sauce or some other favorite brand instead of Tabasco.

All I know is that a Bloody Mary is the best cure for jet lag I've come across, even that eye-tearing, what-day-is-it, just-crossed-12-time-zones jet lag. 


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