Drinking in the World
My favourite, and not-so-favourite cocktails from around the globe.
Peru and Chile have long battled over who owns the Pisco Sour, but regardless of its origins, anyone who gets the chance to enjoy it is a winner. The cocktail is made from the clear distilled grape brandy pisco, blended with fresh lemon or lime, egg whites, syrup or sugar, and a dash of bitters. It’s refreshing yet a little sour, much like a margarita, and served in a short whiskey glass, any time of day. The Pisco Sour is the national drink of Peru, who claim that Chile stole the recipe from them during a war in the 1800’s. That being said, the best Pisco Sour I had was in Santiago, from a homemade Chilean recipe. Perhaps it’s time both countries sit down and discuss the issue over a cocktail.
In many parts of the world, locals forego major liquor brands for their own homemade moonshine. Such is the case with raki in Albania. Raki is also found in Turkey, and known as arak in North Africa and the Middle East. Every year in Albania, there are cases of people going blind, or even losing their lives after consuming a particular nasty batch of raki, which is distilled from grapes and flavoured with aniseed. Not that you’ll be able to taste much, as this traditional aperitif disintegrates everything it touches in your mouth and throat. In Albania, homemade raki served in a glass decanter made my mouth burn and my nose run, but fortunately, left my eyesight in tact.
Georgians don’t know which came first: Wine, or the people to drink it. Archaeologists have discovered traces of wine in jars that date back 8000 years, implying that tiny Georgia, bordered by Turkey, Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, is the birthplace of wine the world over. The country has 200 endemic species of grape, producing many types of wine that are found nowhere else. Toastmasting is a proud tradition, as is the cultivation and production of wine in underground casks that date back generations. Saperavi is its most famous red wine, along with the white Rkatsitelli. Both are sweet, almost dessert-like wines, high in sugar and alcohol. At a traditional dinner, I watch four men pour out their lauded toasts, draining at least a dozen bottles without tipping over. France and Italy may make the finest wine, but little known Georgia lives and breathes it.
Legend has it that the powerfully strong mampoer is an able substitute should you run out of battery acid. Known as a type of peach brandy, mampoer can be made from any fruit, including apricots, plums, figs, prickly pear, pineapples and marula. Its origins go back to the Dutch settlers of South Africa, who allowed soft, sweet fruit to rot in barrels for three weeks, before boiling it up a couple times to distil the alcohol from the mash. Mampoer, which is still made by many farmers in South Africa, has an alcohol volume between 60 to 80%. No word on whether they use it to power their tractors.
A drink can only be called tequila if it is produced in the region of Jalisco, in and around the town of Tequila itself. Mexico’s national drink has its roots with the Aztecs, who produced a fermented drink called pulque from the agave plant. When Spanish conquistadors ran dry of their imported liquor, they adopted the native drink to produce mescal, the name still given to a variety of liquor produced from the agave. Tequila is a type of mescal produced only in one region, refined, and perfected, much like cognac is to brandy. Jose Cuervo began production in 1795, and its La Rojena distillery is still in operation today, the oldest in Latin America. Here you can see how tequila is made, learn about its correct consumption (sipped, never shot), and drink from the family’s private cellar, where the smooth, rich sample has the fragrance of tequila, but goes down like liquid velvet.
Fermented Horse Milk
The chief of the nomadic tribe calls me into his traditional circular ger tent. It’s pretty spacious considering it can be dismantled and packed onto horses in just a couple hours. On the walls, made of fabric, are pictures of famous Mongolian wrestlers, embroidery, and cracked mirrors. We sit at a table, and from a porcelain jug, he pours into a small wooden cup some of his most treasured elixir. I smile, maintaining eye contact, and bring the cup to my mouth. A sour odour reaches my nose, the eye-watering stench of ammonia. The liquid touches my lips, burns, the tartness stretching my tongue and forcing a muffled gag reflex. I shoot it back, closing my eyes, somehow keeping it down. I regain focus, breathe out a noxious gas, and silently congratulate myself. The chief is so impressed, he immediately pours me another cup.
There’s nothing quite like seeing South Korean businessmen on a soju binge. This vodka-like drink, produced from rice or other starches like potato or wheat, is poured into a shot glass, and after a toast, consumed in one gulp. Etiquette dictates that you must not fill your own glass, that it must be held with one or two hands depending on status, and poured and received in a particular manner too. With all the rules, dating back to the 1300’s, it’s odd to see basic courtesy go out the window as the soju takes hold, and men descend into a state of alcoholic madness. I saw suits and ties passed out in the bushes on Seoul, or carried unconscious over the shoulder by colleagues, all on a weeknight! Korea’a Alcohol and Liquor Industry reckons each Korean adult drinks more than 90 bottles of soju a year, where it is viewed as a positive energy source for the country.
In 2005, I mountain biked down Bolivia’s notorious “Death Road”, and almost soiled my shorts. The 65km mountain pass that connects La Paz to Coroico had the morbid distinction of being the “world’s most dangerous road,” causing an average of 150 deaths a year, largely from overcrowded buses and trucks tipping over the edge and plummeting 600m to the canyon below. Blind corners combined with narrow muddy passes and speeding trucks were a fatal combination, but also proved to be an inspirational if somewhat risky activity for amateur and professional mountain bikers. Conceived by a New Zealander named Alistair Matthews in 1998, Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking was the first company to offer adventurous tourists the opportunity to bike the Death Road – a downhill thrill ride encompassing stunning mountain and jungle scenery. Using highly maintained bikes and expert guides, it proved to be a major hit, and to date the company has safely guided well over 30,000 people down to Coroico. Today, a flood of competitors offer the service, some more reputable than others. It was only a matter of time before the Death Road claimed its first tourist, a 23 year-old Israeli girl. By 2005, seven tourists had died mountain biking the road, a low figure given how many have biked so close to the edge. Today, that figure is closer to 20.
Between 2 trucks and a hard place
Returning to Bolivia a few years later, I revisited the Death Road to find it as popular as ever, and thanks to a new highway from La Paz to Coroico, safer too. By far the most dangerous aspect of biking the road were local trucks and buses, screaming around the corners ready to send an overzealous biker over the edge for a parachute-less freefall. Just about all these vehicles now use the faster, far less risky new highway, leaving the winding jungle road as an empty track perfect for bikers of all levels. While guides in front still scout for any rogue buses, the real danger lies with riders who bike beyond their talent level, flying around tight corners where even a small speed wobble can send you flying off a cliff. Unfortunately, another danger has been the proliferation of fly-by-night operators quick to capitalize on the success of the activity. There are now some 30 companies offering tourists the chance to bike the road, and in order to cut costs, some of them don’t pay nearly as much attention to bike maintenance, guide training, and rider instruction. It’s a highly competitive market with zero regulation, and is further surprising how many tourists choose to ride with a less-experienced company on battered bikes just to save a couple dollars.
One of the fatalities was an Israeli traveller who went off the edge in a dangerous wet section of the jungle road. Bikers take tea breaks at her memorial. “The company said he was doing wheelies and lost control,” Matthews tells me, pointing out the spot. It is wet, muddy, and pockmarked with loose stones. “I ask you, can you imagine anyone being that stupid to try that in this particular section? The only witness was the company driver, and his job is at stake.” Matthews refused to name the company. Indeed, when local police investigated the tragic death of an Israeli girl, they ruled it a suicide, even though she was vocally complaining about her brakes failing to her fellow riders. Despite Matthews’ efforts for the government to get involved, safety regulations would dramatically raise the operating costs for all operators, and the idea is being met with resistance. “People assume there are standards. Unfortunately, there just aren’t any,” he explains.
With between 120 and 140 riders a day, biking the Death Road has become an industry, employing around 500 people and bringing in much needed foreign dollars into the region. The only car I pass on my way down belongs to an American birdwatcher. “Watching all these bikers seems to be the most organized tourist activity I’ve seen in the whole country,” he tells me. It’s beyond him why anyone would want to bike a dangerous road in Bolivia, and beyond me why anyone would want to drive it looking for birds. I ask a backpacker from California why she decided to bike the 3.5km descent. “Everyone I spoke to about Bolivia said it was the highlight of their trip,” she says. From the first 22km of asphalt, sprinting between breathtaking mountains, to the dramatic scenery along the jungle road, it’s easy to understand why the Death Road has become a legend on the Gringo Trail. But even with the new highway, there’s still a substantial risk. Anyone planning the adventure would do well to investigate their operators, and their bikes, before hitting the road.
Versions previously published in The Gulf News, South China Morning Post
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After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.