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Drinking the World Every Afternoon

Ah, the Beloved Holiday Tradition of Frantically Pounding Alcohol Before the Nutcracker Starts

Dec.22.16

Ah, the Beloved Holiday Tradition of Frantically Pounding Alcohol Before the Nutcracker Starts

by Dave Hazzan

Becherovka in Prague

It’s Christmastime in Prague.

The Christmas market is up under the Charles Bridge, with an enormous tree fit for a city with the largest castle complex in the world. Parents drink grog and kids stuff themselves with mittfuls of trdelnik (pastries), and everyone tries not to break their necks on icy cobblestones. Meanwhile, across the Vlatva River, it’s Nutcracker time at the Prague National Theater.

It’s the first time Petr Zuska, Artistic Director of the Czech National Ballet, has staged his version of the classic Christmas tale, so nerves must be on edge backstage. He’s conceived of something slightly different, likely to upset the purists, but innovation isn’t foreign to the city that gave us Kafka, Dvorak, and Mucha.

In front of the stage, you can tell the tourists from the locals by how everyone is dressed. The locals go all out—men in dark suits and ties, sometimes even tuxedos. The women are artfully coiffed and wear long backless gowns, or at least smart dresses with stockings and heels.

And this being the Nutcracker, there are the children. The girls have their hair curled, bows on their dresses, followed by parents brushing the creases off their backs. The boys are stuffed into slacks and sweater vests, sometimes with a striped tie they still haven’t figured out how to breathe through. The whole family poses for a selfie in the National Theater entrance for this year’s Christmas e-card.

The tourists, meanwhile, look like they’ve just marched in from the Salvation Army store, in jeans or khakis, sweaters with the stitching coming out, sneakers and hiking boots with the dust of Prague Castle still clinging to the tops, makeup applied on the tram over. It is the bane of the Prague theater class that they have to share these seats with loud and half-drunk North Americans whose hotels don’t have irons or shoe-shine brushes.

Upstairs in the balcony section, where they sequester the under-paying vermin, it’s time for a Becherovka in the salon. Thirty-eight percent ABV, Becherovka is a pale yellow herbal liqueur that tastes of aniseed and causes a mild afterburn when knocked back in a panic 45 seconds before curtain.

The Jan Becher Company, who exclusively manufacture the stuff in Karlovy Vary, claim only two people in the world know the recipe. Once a week, they enter a secret lab and mix together these secret ingredients, rumored to be a mix of imported and domestic herbs. I presume they then retire to their secret underground lairs, where they share a bottle with Colonel Sanders and the president of Coca-Cola.

Zuska’s Nutcracker is a smashing success, not least his decision to cast two children as leads rather than one. The boy’s nutcracker, rather than being shaped as a Swiss soldier, is just an enormous gadget like you’d buy at Kitchen Collection. He loves it because he can terrorize his sister with it—she gets a plush mouse. Around them, the dancers leap, twirl, and bound, like superhuman bird people.

The orchestra plays, the audience applauds, and it sounds like Christmas in Prague.

There Is No Period After the “St” in St Ives and Other Cornwall Stuff

Jun.21.17

There Is No Period After the “St” in St Ives and Other Cornwall Stuff

by Alessio Perrone

Cider in Cornwall

We had driven five hours from London to get to St Ives, on the western tip of Cornwall, England. On single-lane roads on which we were the only car, past cliffs looking over the Celtic Sea, under bridges with faded EU flags tied onto them, flapping in the wind—the last remnants of a referendum in which Cornwall voted overwhelmingly to leave.

In St Ives, we waited another 30 minutes to find a seat at the Sloop Inn, a small, crowded pub on the beach, established in 1312. St Ives is quiet; walk down its narrow alleys through the white houses, and you can even hear the wind blowing. But the Sloop Inn was noisy. Ale flowed, a busker played, a tourist took pictures of everything.

We ordered a local cloudy cider—a Rattlers Cyder, poured from a snake-shaped tap. Cornish cider isn’t much different from ciders you get elsewhere, just stronger. This one is fizzy and bitter.

We had just begun to taste it when Marshall arrived. A local man in his 20s, blonde, blue-eyed, with an incredibly round face and a blue hoodie.

“Mind if I sit with you, mate?” He’s had a few. “This is the best place in St Ives,” he said to nobody in particular. He started to ramble.

To Marshall, St Ives is the best place in the world: it has “the best” New Year’s celebrations, in which people dress up and head to the beach to watch fireworks (“Well, the best after London. And Edinburgh”); he thinks it has the best Cornish pasties, baked thick-crust pastries originally made for miners so they could eat their meals warm and with their hands (“Well, the best after the ones you get in the countryside”), and the best light to paint—a blade through your eyes when the sun is out.

“It is touristy, so you get all the shops and bars, but it doesn’t lose its Cornish identity, its character,” he said.

But it seems that Cornwall is changing. It’s still largely dependent on agriculture, but one by one, its sources of wealth have waned. Once, it relied on fishery and mining, but then, with foreign competition, those industries became unprofitable. Cornwall became one of the poorest areas in Britain. More recently, it has relied on tourism and EU subsidies. (Cornwall qualifies for poverty-related EU grants, but soon won’t be receiving those anymore.)

Tourism, though, doesn’t seem to be waning. In St Ives, the fishermen’s inns have given way to tourists’ residences and dozens of art galleries, as artists flocked here, lured by the light. Taverns have become bars and restaurants by the beach.

Some 45 minutes later, we still hadn’t had a chance to talk to each other. Marshall was telling us about an adventure he had in France with eight people in one car. Then he realized he’d finished his drink.

He mumbled something that must have meant “Nice to meet you and good-bye” and left us half-apologetically.

Our moment had gone. The busker had gone. The Inn was getting quieter, the wind chillier. The sun had disappeared behind the houses. We contemplated having another cider while we watched Marshall wobble away. Nah, not this time.

A Drink for Goa’s Hot Summer Nights and Torrential Rains

Jun.20.17

A Drink for Goa’s Hot Summer Nights and Torrential Rains

by Sonia Filinto

Urak in Goa

It was hot and humid. The monsoon season was still a few weeks away; just the right weather for downing a few pegs of urak.

Feni might be the more famous Goan brew, distilled from the cashew apple, but urak—the fruit’s first distillate—is the drink of choice for Goans in the summer months. Urak is distilled only from March to May, the cashew fruit-bearing season. It also has a short shelf life of four to five months. It has a fruity and mildly pungent aroma and flavor; it’s certainly an acquired taste. But it’s light and refreshing, and the cashew apple season coincides with the weather heating up, so it’s like the stars align to give Goans a drink to beat the heat.

One hot summer evening, a friend plugged in to the local bar scene suggested Joseph Bar. It’s an old hole-in-the-wall tavern in Fontainhas, the Latin Quarter in Goa’s capital, Panaji. Space is restricted, with patrons spilling into the narrow lane outside. The urak is excellent, so no one complains.

I happened to meet an acquaintance, who offered me his outdoor seat while my friend made himself comfortable on the curb. The waiter brought out our drinks. My friend drinks his urak with water, club soda, and a lime-flavored carbonated drink along with a sprinkling of salt and a few drops of freshly squeezed lemon. Old-timers like my father enjoy their urak the purists’ way—on the rocks or with water. I like both styles.

As I drank, a feeling of lightness took over—not to be confused with the alcohol-fueled light-headedness that feni might cause: urak is a milder brew. It absorbed all the tiredness from my day; I had been at work since 6 a.m. As the evening progressed, the conversations around us showed no signs of ending. The crowd—locals and tourists alike—spread across the road outside the bar.

The waiter brought us the last of the prawn rissois. I told him that he looked familiar. My instincts were correct: he had worked at Clube Nacional, a legendary old club and events venue in Panaji, which had for years been declining but still had a popular bar—until the building started to collapse and everything closed down. The waiter was himself somewhat legendary, both for his long tenure at Clube Nacional and for his knack for remembering his customers’ preferred drinks. After a few other gigs in between, he had ended up at Joseph Bar.

He promised to serve us hot snacks if we came in earlier the next day. I didn’t make it to Joseph Bar the next evening, but I will soon.

The Sahara, Johnny Cash, and Mint Tea Are a Surprisingly Good Combination

Jun.19.17

The Sahara, Johnny Cash, and Mint Tea Are a Surprisingly Good Combination

by Brian Fritz

Mint tea in the Sahara

We had been driving off-road through the Sahara near the Moroccan-Algerian border for what seemed like a day, but was probably closer to two hours.

Every bump along the landscape became more pronounced. The rattling of the truck grew louder, drowning out the odd yet satisfying mix of music—Johnny Cash, Enrique Iglesias and Sting—favored by our driver. The air in the truck was stagnant and humid—opening the windows was not an option unless you wanted a sand shower.

As bleak as it was inside the truck, outside did not appear much better. Whirling winds made seeing anything through the flying sand difficult. The only signs of life were a few roaming camels.

So you could imagine our joy when our driver told us there was an oasis up ahead—which turned out to be a small, mud-brick guesthouse.

We were greeted by three men in djellabas who sought shade on wobbly plastic chairs under a tree. On a table in the middle of them rested a familiar sight: a traditional Moroccan teapot. After exchanging salams, one of the men raised his glass to us and said, “tea?” In Morocco, greetings are synonymous with mint tea.

Mint tea—or “Moroccan whiskey”—is the official drink of Morocco. But it’s a bit of a misnomer—it’s actually green tea imported from China. The name comes from the bushel of fresh mint added to the teapot during the brewing process—along with an obscene amount of sugar. It’s alcohol-free, but it’s a sugar-spiked glass of deliciousness.

One of the men got up and hurried to find chairs for us. Another went into the guesthouse to retrieve two additional glasses. The last of the men went about making more tea.

When the tea finished brewing (and not a second earlier), we were each served a glass—poured high in the customary way of aerating the tea and creating foam at the top. The first sip revealed something different, though— the tea tasted stronger, less sugary than the tea we had drank in Marrakech.

“Not as much sugar?” I said while holding up my glass. The men laughed and one of them responded, “Berber whiskey!” The men told us proudly how the Berbers native to this area prefer their tea stronger, unlike the sugar-infused tea of the cities. We also learned they drink tea throughout the day as a way to quench their thirst in the desert heat.

We needed to get going before dark, so we finished our tea, said our goodbyes and continued our journey. Our bellies burned with Berber whiskey while Johnny Cash took us deeper into the desert.

Now Craving Mezcal Distilled Under a Raw, Skinless Chicken

Jun.15.17

Now Craving Mezcal Distilled Under a Raw, Skinless Chicken

by Allegra Ben-Amotz

Mezcal in Mexico City

Upon moving to Mexico City, my husband and I immediately set out to determine our happy-hour spot, a place to cut through the smog that stuck in the back of our throats and watch the brilliant, dusty sunset.

La Nacional is a casual mezcal bar, not hidden away, cramped, or trendy like some of the more written-about mezcalerias. They’re serious about the stuff: the menu is an intersecting web connecting agave varieties to over 100 mezcals. It’s easier to just tell your waiter what you’d like—something smoky, sweet, or smooth—and have them bring two or three bottles to sniff and approve before pouring.

We take every visitor to one of the outside tables to get a mezcal education and a front-row seat to the orchestra of the city’s street vendors: the clack clack clack of the man knocking metal canisters inside his closed fist to sell you electric shocks; the ghostly recording of a little girl’s voice pleading for pieces to be broken down for scrap metal; the high-pitched whistle of the camote vendor peddling roasted sweet potatoes and plantains.

When our friends Justin and Melanie come to visit, we sample smooth mezcal de pechuga, alternating it with sips of sour orange juice. Pechuga means breast in Spanish, and indeed, the finished liquor undergoes a third distillation underneath a raw, skinless chicken or turkey breast, with seasonal fruits, grains and nuts added to the mix. The vapors that emanate from the spirit cook the breast, and it imparts some of its savory flavor to balance the fruit’s sweetness and mellow the earthiness of the roasted agave. It’s less smoky than some of its counterparts, and tastes nothing like chicken.

We’re savoring our pechugas when we hear the piercing squeal of carbon escaping the metal pipe of the camote cart, like steam from a teapot, and I grab my wallet. “Be right back.”

The camote vendor opens the smoking drawer of his cart that sits above a flame, revealing skinned, melty bananas nestled together with roasted sweet potatoes. Sixty pesos for two potatoes, halved and thickly drizzled with condensed milk. I run back across the street and set our snacks down.

We dig in; the skin gives way to soft flesh. “This is perfectly cooked,” Justin remarks. “It tastes like Thanksgiving,” my husband says, and I nod, remembering my aunt’s marshmallow-topped side dish. The four of us are quiet for a minute, trading kisses of mezcal for bites of sweet potato, thinking of home.

If You Have to Have Ice In Your Whisky, Make it Antarctica Glacier Ice

Jun.14.17

If You Have to Have Ice In Your Whisky, Make it Antarctica Glacier Ice

by Lucy Sheriff

Whisky in Antarctica

In March, I boarded a ship to Antarctica to shoot a documentary on climate change. The Ocean Endeavor departed from Ushuaia, on the southernmost tip of Argentina, and sailed around West Antarctica for 10 days.

My fellow passengers were a strange mix of scientists, tourists, and climate-change campaigners. As I watched the ship fuel up in Ushuaia, I worried about my sea legs. The furthest I’d sailed so far was the ferry from Dover to Calais. Crossing the Drake Passage—the body of water between Cape Horn, Chile, and West Antarctica—has been described as similar to being inside a washing machine, as the rough waves of the Southern Ocean squeeze through the bottlenecked passage. But it was the only way through.

So, for two days, as the ship heaved up-and-down and side-to-side and my stomach followed suit, I told myself it was a small price to pay for visiting the driest, windiest, coldest place on earth. We finally reached calm waters, and Half Moon Island. Six days of landings on the South Shetland Islands followed. During our various trips from ship to island, which we made in tiny zodiac boats so we wouldn’t disturb the wildlife, the ship’s crew informed us that it was tradition to collect glacier ice from the sea. (Not for scientific reasons, but because it was nice to have glacier ice with your whisky.) We unfurled a small fishing net and hauled a nearby floating chunk onto the boat.

As the end of the trip approached, the return journey through the Drake Passage loomed. But before that, a rite of passage awaited: the Polar Plunge, for those who have made it to Antarctica by ship. All I had to do was jump from the boat into Antarctic waters. Without a wetsuit.

I was reluctant, but after some good-old peer pressure and the prospect of a post-plunge whisky I lined up, and dove headfirst into water so dark it resembled black ink. My body felt like it was being stuck by thousands of pins. When I surfaced, I took a gasp so big it felt like my lungs were bottomless. I clambered out and scuttled to the bar to meet my fellow plungers.

The Nautilus Bar was on the top deck, with almost-panoramic windows so you couldn’t forget you were drinking at the South Pole. It was busy. Fellow plungers in bathrobes toasted each other. And there, atop the counter on a plinth, was the glacier ice we’d fished out of the water, glistening under the light. It was about time to upgrade from my cranberry juice and test it out.

“Whisky, big. On the rocks.”

The barman duly chiseled a chunk off and plopped it in my tumbler. I took a sip. It was cold—and salty.

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