Follow Roads & Kingdoms on...

5 O’Clock Somewhere

Drinking the World Every Afternoon

Market Town, Tribal Bar, Country Liquor

Apr.09.15

Market Town, Tribal Bar, Country Liquor

by Rolf Potts

I couldn’t see into the sleeping room, but the hotel’s owner, who appeared to be tipsy on his own liquor, told me that Mursi tribesmen and their families paid the equivalent of 20 cents per person to sleep on the packed-dirt floor. I was sitting in what the owner called the “drinking room,” a smoky, lamp-lit chamber with grimy turquoise walls, a sagging tile ceiling, and tattered posters of Jesus and Mary tacked up behind the bar. The Mursi men, who were required to check their fighting staves at the door, sat on low wooden benches, sipping at small glasses filled with a cloudy liquor called araki. Their wives, whose ceremonially severed lower lips sagged around their chins as they nursed babies in the dim light, sat on the floor along the wall. Everyone stared at a table in the front of the room, where a small television flickered with black-and-white images of light-skinned Ethiopian entertainers cavorting to Bollywood-esque pop songs. The air was thick with the smell of fermented sorghum and hand-cured goat leather.

The Mursi had arrived on foot, walking for as much as one week from the isolated hill country of southwest Ethiopia to the only metropolis they knew—Jinka, a market town of 22,000 people. The hotel, which sat at the back of a dirt alley and had no sign, catered to their tastes. Araki was the only drink on offer, and the owner sloshed it into a plastic bottle from an unwieldy jerrycan before moving around the room to refill clients’ glasses for ten cents a shot. The drink, he told me, had been distilled several valleys away, in the town of Konso; it was made from sorghum and barley, and sold mainly to country folk and tribal people like the Mursi, who couldn’t afford commercial spirits. The araki smelled rich and rotten and organic when I brought it to my nose. It burned going down, filling my sinuses with a potent, sileage-like aroma; my eyes watered, and I choked out a cough. The Mursi men next to me tittered as the owner brought me a glass of cola to help wash the liquor down.

Earlier that day I’d seen Mursi tribesmen in a markedly different setting, at a village three hours by jeep south of Jinka. There, the men had brandished AK-47 rifles outside of grass-walled huts, wearing headdresses studded with feathers, rebar rings, and warthog tusks. The women had balanced beaded baskets atop their heads, their faces painted a chalky white, their lower lips stretched taut by ocher-painted clay plates the size of coffee saucers. This colorful display was purely for the benefit of the half-dozen tourists, myself included, who’d come to take photos of Ethiopia’s most striking-looking tribespeople. The Mursi had bargained fiercely for the right to be photographed; prices had started at just over $1 per snapshot.

By contrast, the Mursi in the dark little Jinka hotel bar wore simple tartan shawls and paid me little mind as they stared at the television and chatted softly amongst themselves. The following morning they would take their butter and honey to the market and trade it for cash and manufactured goods before beginning the long walk home. Like me, they were travelers in Jinka, sipping their araki slowly, as if to savor the novelty of the moment.

Somebody Call Justin Trudeau Because We Just Hit Peak Canadian

Feb.20.17

Somebody Call Justin Trudeau Because We Just Hit Peak Canadian

by Russ Rowlands

Pale Ale in Toronto

The temperature on Toronto’s waterfront was that magical number where the Celsius and Fahrenheit scales cross, at -40. That’s the kind of number that makes you cringe just to read, so I wasn’t particularly happy to be walking 30 minutes in it to the docks district. But, being a trooper, I wrapped up in my warmest gear, strapped ski goggles to my face to prevent my eyeballs from freezing, packed an axe in my bag, and headed east.

For that cold night I was going to participate in my first session at the axe-throwing league.

Old warehouses hunkered in the gloom and the snow squeaked as it compressed under my boots. I turned down a dark alley marked only by a hand-painted sign indicating the league’s location. As I unwound my frost-crusted scarf and approached the metal door, I was struck by the muffled but familiar sounds of a bowling alley: raucous voices, rock n’ roll, and a heavy, repetitive clunking sound. I pulled the door open and was flooded by the cacophony.

“Shut the fucking door!” a dozen voices yelled in unison.

“Welcome to the league,” a young, pretty, tattooed woman smiled at me from behind a simple counter.

The interior space was exactly what you’d expect if someone described an axe-throwing league in Canada in the winter. Plywood and chicken-wire, bare concrete, plaid everywhere, beards, tattoos, ripped jeans, loud rock. I was in heaven.

After signing a million waivers, I wandered over to the Green section where my league was set to play. The building was divided into four quarters—Red, Black, Green, Blue—each with two ‘lanes’ made up of a pair of wooden targets. The Red and Black leagues had been running for about two years, and the players wore the grizzled, self-satisfied air of veterans. The Blue corner went unused that season. My Greens, though, were all noobs like me, and as I shuffled into the milling crowd I felt the peculiar, awkward unease mixed with vast potential that I felt on my first day of high school two decades ago.

It was obvious that most of the crowd felt the same, so I smiled at the first pretty girl I saw and made a joke about getting the location wrong and ending up in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. She didn’t get it, but was nice enough to laugh anyway.

In addition to its lanes, each league corner had a gallery for watching play and socializing, some table space, and a big ol’ white refrigerator. Because, counter to all sound reasoning, the axe throwing league was a BYOB affair. I hung up my coat, unpacked my axe, cracked a beer and cheersed the small group of Greens chatting around me.

“Hey, ha, look’it that,” laughed a tiny, black-haired girl who couldn’t have been much larger than a fire axe. “Kevin over there looks exactly like the guy on your beer can!”

We all paused to consider. She was right. Kevin resembled the Canuck, from Great Lakes Brewery’s Canuck Pale Ale, and the only more natural setting for him would have been riding logs down a river.

In A Place with Cheap Rum and Cokes, Nobody is A Stranger

Feb.17.17

In A Place with Cheap Rum and Cokes, Nobody is A Stranger

by Shelley Seale

Cuba Libres in El Salvador

The street was quiet in Suchitoto, a small town in northern El Salvador full of history and artists. We had been told about Café Bar El Necio; it seemed like it was the place to be in town, though the surrounding sleepy buildings gave nothing away.

Suddenly laughter and dim red light spilled out of windows at the corner. We had arrived, and the small bar was packed, both with people and with the Salvadorean Civil War and Communist memorabilia that filled every available space on the walls.

I grabbed a place at the end of a dark, pockmarked wood table while my boyfriend headed for the bar. I gazed around at the flags hanging from the rafters above my head; the posters and black-and-white photographs from many countries and decades lining the walls. There was Fidel Castro; there was Che Guevara. Artifacts, including rebel hats and guerilla guns, were displayed proudly. It was quite a collection.

My boyfriend returned with two Cuba Libres, the unofficial national drink of El Salvador. They were refreshing, very, very strong—and at just over a dollar a pop, a very good deal.

Sipping the cold Coca-Cola and rum amid the conversations around us and the bartenders bellowing from behind the gunshot-scarred wooden bar made me feel as if we were a part of it all, too.

Another Cuba Libre? Why not? The drink, along with cold, local beers such as Pilsener and Suprema, seemed to be the beverages of choice among most of the patrons. A couple of young men came in carrying instrument cases and began setting up in a tight corner with barstools and microphones. Couples and groups of friends, locals and tourists, young and old, crowded the bar and milled in and out of the wide, open-air double doorways.

As I sat in El Necio, cooled by the breeze drifting in and my Cuba Libre, I felt like I was woven into the tapestry of the Suchitoto community. It was a feeling I’d had all week, thanks to the gregarious host of my small inn, his friend who ran the art gallery across the street and ushered us into a private exhibition and party, and the theater director we ran into by chance who invited us to tag along to watch his newest production.

I realized that Suchitoto was one of those places where no one is a stranger, and here, sipping cold drinks in El Necio, I had discovered the heart of the place.

Rethinking the Unsophisticated Local Tipple

Feb.16.17

Rethinking the Unsophisticated Local Tipple

by Revati Upadhya

Feni in Goa

After weeks of passing the nondescript, yellow home with a little wooden double door, I decided I had to give it a shot. It had a narrow doorway that would make anyone taller than 5 feet 5 inches stoop to enter. I was intrigued by the plastic curtain separating the outside from the inside, and the dulled metallic single-letter signage on the wall outside. Pinto Bar, it read, with what looked like a top hat precariously placed to look like the dot on the I.

On the inside, Pinto is a humble little watering hole that should seat no more than 12 people, but with mismatched tables set snugly close, it can accommodate about 20. And therein lies its charm: while you sip the freshest feni—liquor distilled from the cashew apple—seated elbow to elbow with not just the buddies at your table, but the next table too, you meld into the atmosphere.

I seated myself at a table with a view of the small taverna. There was a dinky little refrigerator tucked away in a corner, stacked to the top with aerated drinks, soda, and tonic water. Beside it, a table was lined with bottles galore. A tray held empty glasses waiting to be filled, with a plate of fresh lemon, green chilies, and a saucer with some salt, speckled no doubt with years of dust and grime.

Feni is a distinct alcohol local to Goa, India. Legend (and some history) has it that it was popular among Goans as early as 1740. Feni is heady, with a sharp burn, and a taste that puts it in the league of some of the finest white spirits. It gets its distinct strong, pungent flavor from being distilled multiple times. It’s often called Goa’s local firewater, and has even been bestowed a GI (geographic indication), much like champagne in France or tequila in Mexico.

I always make it a point to drink feni, which is often mistaken for an unsophisticated local tipple. So I ordered a double. I enjoy it best with a lemony soda, lots of ice, a generous squeeze of lime, sprinkle of salt, and the crowning glory—a sliced green chili that doubles up as a stirrer. The drink is the best combination of subtle and punchy: the flowery effusion from the soda hits my tongue first, but when the feni slowly seeps in, I feel the distinct burn of chili on my lips.

Feni tastes best in a taverna, surrounded by others who are there because they’re loyalists. Loyalists of the bar, of feni, or their staples—perhaps fried fish or pork-sausage-stuffed buns. I sipped at my feni and waited for my order of prawns, dusted in semolina and fried to a crisp.

The Only Liquor So Good They Named a Color After It

Feb.15.17

The Only Liquor So Good They Named a Color After It

by Zamira Kristina Skalkottas

Chartreuse in Voiron

Chartreuse is beautiful. It’s the only naturally occurring green liqueur in the world, according to its makers. It is also perhaps the only alcoholic drink to lend its name to a color. I can’t remember when and where I first tasted it, but it was definitely as a digestif, and I loved its “good bitterness,” a term they use at the Chartreuse distillery and something people either don’t like or really, really love.

My French friends joke that it’s medicine, which is actually true. The distillery says it was christened some three centuries ago as an “Elixir of Long Life” and was used to treat various ailments. The elixir was so delicious, however, that people began drinking it like a regular beverage, and so a sweeter, less potent version soon began to be produced for general consumption.

Mystery infuses the history of this florescent-looking liquor. It all began in 1605, when the Carthusian religious order outside Paris was entrusted with an alchemist’s recipe (at that time only a handful of monks and apothecaries really knew how to use herbs to treat illness). The recipe was subsequently sent to the Carthusian headquarters near Grenoble where the resident apothecary expert decoded the intricate instructions and began producing the tonic in 1737.

When I visited the idyllic monastery and Musée de la Grande Chartreuse a few years ago, I had one of those “Aha!” moments because the surrounding countryside of the Isère region is the same vibrant green as Chartreuse, as if the hills themselves were macerated and distilled to make that chlorophyll color. In fact, only 65 percent of the plants and roots are from the Chartreuse Mountains. The rest come from other parts of France and even the world.

Blended from over 130 different types of botanicals, the exact recipe is a carefully guarded secret. Only two monks at any given time know it. At the distillery in Voiron, a short train ride from Lyon or Grenoble, you can sniff different herbs and plants which might be in the mixture, such as marjoram, mugwort, wild thyme, hyssop, gentians, and fir shoots. But above the display is a sign that teases: “We do not know if these plants are among the 130 plants used to make Chartreuse….”

At the distillery, I also learned about different tributes to the cordial. My favorite was from Quentin Tarantino, when he played a barman in his movie Death Proof. After offering a round of Chartreuse shots and downing his own, he slams down his glass saying, “Chartreuse, the only liqueur so good they named a color after it.”

The Best Drinks, Like the Best People, Are Often a Little Hard to Like At First

Feb.14.17

The Best Drinks, Like the Best People, Are Often a Little Hard to Like At First

by Melissa Locker

Vermut in Barcelona

It’s hard to avoid feeling like a tourist in Barcelona’s Barrio Gótico. According to the locals, you’re not in the Barrio Gótico at all, but actually in the Barri Gòtic, and unless you pick up some Catalan, your chances of passing as a local are slim.

If you’re lucky, as you wander down the centuries-old streets you’ll stumble across a brightly lit spot, its fluorescent lights shining anachronistically against the building’s old stones. The sign simply reads “Bar,” a word that acts as a beacon whether in Spanish, Catalan, or English. Step through the door, and no one glances up. Everyone is facing away from the bar, eyes glued to a television set broadcasting the soccer game that is taking place a few miles away at Camp Nou, Barcelona’s football stadium.

The bar offers a line-up of tapas, kept warm inside a glass-fronted counter that runs the length of the room. These are not the dainty, manicured version of tapas served in sleek, dimly lit restaurants, but honest fare for hungry laborers or late-night giggling drunks desperate to sober up over some fried food. Under the glowing lights of the warming unit sits a baseball-sized piece of fried bacallà, a large xoricets (chorizo) that could surely pack a wallop, and a bunyol d’albergina (eggplant fried with …something) that looks lethal whether you’re drunk or sober.

On the counter sits a ceramic crock with an oversized cork, and a handwritten label that reads vermut casero, one euro. I order some, and the bartender, formally dressed in a starched white shirt and black tie, nods and pulls out a glass from below the counter. He ladles a brick-red liqueur into the glass and garnishes it with an orange and an olive skewered together. He hands it to me with another nod and goes back to watching the game.

Vermut is a fortified wine, made by steeping botanicals in wine and then mixing in brandy or another high-proof spirit. There’s a dry version typically used in martinis, but it’s the sweet version that is favored in Spain, made from a white-wine base mixed with spices, such as cardamom, to give it its reddish color.

The first sip tastes like a Yankee Candle; overly spiced and reminiscent of the potpourri in a family restaurant’s wicker-lined bathroom. The second taste is floral and sweet like a sherry, with the brininess of the olive and acidity of the orange cutting through the sweetness. By the third drink, you’re hooked on the complex, herbaceous, clove-tinged fruitiness of the vermut.

While classic producers are still churning out barrels of the traditional sweet red vermouth marked either “basic,” or aged for a bit and labeled “reserva,” the next generation of vintners are innovating. New producers are experimenting with the old recipes, using different varietals of grapes as a base, aging them in large or small or red-wine barrels, or trying out biodynamic practices. Their vermut is subtle and complex and eminently drinkable.

This cup was not that. This was just an honest vermut casero, ladled from a crock into a dusky water glass. It wasn’t gracious or pretty, but it was pretty darn good.

View All 378 Drinks