Wandering through a street market in Laos a few weeks ago, I came across a bottle of booze that I’m pretty sure the PLCB will never carry in its state stores: homemade hooch with a scorpion, a small snake, and a tiger penis steeping in its murky depths, as well as some other unidentifiable goodies. The idea, I was told later that day, is simple: It’s supposed to increase the strength, length, and overall fortitude of your hoo-ha when it counts the most.
Oh, and also, depending on how carefully the spirit is distilled, it could potentially leave you blind or in a poison-control center—thus rendering your little friend thoroughly superfluous anyway, at least in the immediate aftermath of imbibing.
So I decided not to buy it. Sorry, wifey.
Fortunately, there are plenty of exotic spirits that we do have access to on this side of the Pacific. And while state stores may not carry many of the more outré ones—a quick search of the PLCB’s web site revealed not a single example of South East Asian tiger-schmeckle hooch—more ambitious bars and restaurants have access to a far broader range than you might expect.
The closest we get here to the interesting-creatures-floating-or-steeped-into-your-sauce school of drinking is probably old-school mezcal. And while some agave snobs will tell you that the good stuff never ever never has a worm sunken at the bottom of the bottle, I was in Oaxaca last summer and told by a number of producers that plenty of them still do; tasted a bunch, as well. (Look for bottles with the words “con gusano” on the label—or, you know, for the larva-looking creature at the bottom. Duh.) Also, there is a style of mezcal called pechuga de pollo, which is exactly what it sounds like: mezcal that has benefitted from having a chicken breast hung above it during its last distillation, contributing its ineffable je ne sais quoi—or, perhaps more appropriately, its no sé lo que—to the final product. (It’s actually better than it sounds.)
Most of the more “exotic” spirits we have access to here, however, are either much-improved versions of old-school rotgut, or flavored with herbs and spices that we just haven’t traditionally consumed with our alcohol in this country.
We certainly are now, however: Domaine de Canton with its ginger, St. Germain with its elderflower, homemade vodka infusions kissed with everything from lemongrass to horseradish. Japanese single-malt whisky, Israeli Arak, Galician licor de hierbas, serious Italian grappa and many, many more. Some have been around for a while; others are relatively new. In either case, a lot of them are now finding their way into local bars and cocktails, and the flavors are often magnificent.
I’d just avoid any that seem to have a large-carnivore schlong floating in them. Especially here in Philadelphia. (And extraspecially in South Philly.) It just seems kind of sketchy to me.
I spent last weekend in Miami for work, expecting to drink my body weight in tropical-influenced cocktails. Instead, I found a cocktail culture as ambitious and varied as any where in the country. It makes sense, of course: These days, you really have to look hard to find a market in this country where someone isn’t mixing up great drinks. So from barrel-aged post-Prohibition beauties at the Cypress Room to the mind-boggling selection of gins and gin-based cocktails at the phenomenal Khong River House, I drank very well, indeed. But I came home still jonesing for a great mojito, or the kind of warm-weather cocktail inspired by more tropical climes. Fortunately, there are plenty to choose from right here in Philadelphia.
Fork—which, under the new direction of Chef Eli Kulp in the kitchen, is easily one of the top restaurants in the city—is currently offering a cocktail crafted from tequila, Cointreau, agave, lime, green tea and grapefruit bitters. I’ll be writing more about the restaurant itself in the coming weeks, but for now, make sure to stop by for this cocktail—or, frankly, anything from their intelligent, ambitious, highly successful beverage program.
Tequilas, always a favorite, is chock full of warm-weather cocktail options—most classically with the Mojito Verde, a gathering of Siembra Azul Blanco, basil, cucumber juice, agave nectar, St. Germain, and lime juice. Stateside, which is more often associated with its excellent selection of whiskey, is pouring the Old Cuban, made with Caliche rum, mint, lime, and Champagne. Vernick is doing a version of this, too, with its Old Cuban cocktail of 8-year-old rum, mint, lime, and sparkling wine. No wonder: It’s a combination that just plain works. Sbraga’s Barbacoa is a smoky, impeccably balanced wonder with Sombra, jalapeño, pomegranate, and agave nectar.
The list goes on. The point is that restaurants all over the city and beyond are harnessing more tropical flavors to create cocktails of both originality and ambition. When made right, they’re food friendly, too. Which makes it all too easy to drink more of them than you probably should. Me, I just call it research and worry about it in the morning.