Toast summer with tasty cocktails

Refreshing drinks from South America with fruit and herbs

June 11, 2008|By Jenn Garbee | Jenn Garbee,Los Angeles Times

You've downloaded enough bossa nova tracks to last until the wee hours. All you need to get your guests' inner samba dancers moving is some off-the-beaten-path summer cocktails packed with fresh fruit and herbs.

Aguardiente (fire water) to the rescue. Variations on classic South American cocktails such as pisco sours (a frothy citrus cocktail) and caipirinhas (a potent Brazilian specialty) are appearing on cocktail menus, and they're a cinch to make at home for a crowd.

Pisco, the base for the pisco sour, is a grape brandy similar to grappa. It's found in the winemaking regions of Chile (where it's aged in oak barrels), as well as in Peru (where it's aged in clay pots).

The origin of the pisco sour is hotly debated; both countries claim it as their national cocktail. Most likely the drink - Chilean or Peruvian pisco, egg whites and dash of bitters - was first shaken up in the 1920s as a whiskey sour alternative.

The backbone of a caipirinha is cachaca, a Brazilian rum made from freshly pressed sugar cane juice that's typically light and fruity. Caipirinhas have an equally elusive history in Brazil. Cachaca production is traceable to 16th-century Portuguese sugar cane plantations, but discussions about the origins of the cocktail, a refreshingly simple combination of muddled limes, sugar and cachaca, are speculative.

Cachaca and pisco go well with summer citrus and fresh herbs, and both are inexpensive, usually less than $25.

Mary Sue Milliken, co-owner and chef of Ciudad in Los Angeles, says she was turned on to both cocktails 10 years ago after a vacation in Chile. "They're such festive drinks, and so easy too. For a caipirinha, you smash the fruit in a glass, add a little cachaca and sugar, and pisco is so clean and lovely you just need lemon juice and sugar."

From there, it's easy to play around with the classic recipes. In Caipitetra, Milliken substitutes muddled oranges and mint for the caipirinha's limes and uses fragrant honey instead of sugar to give the cocktail a floral edge. But she doesn't completely forgo lime juice - a generous squeeze is included for acidity and balance.

"Cachaca has a sweeter, lighter flavor than rum, with a fruity, fresh quality, so it works really well with things like strawberries and mango, not just citrus," says Philip Spee, bar manager at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

It's that fragrant aroma and flavor that makes cachaca a natural partner with berries and tropical fruit.

Lime lovers experiment by playing around with herbal additions to the classic caipirinha. Sweet basil with its anise note lends a just-picked, sweet-and-savory flavor to Spee's Thaipirinha. You could also muddle fresh Thai or lemon basil for your own variation. Or try a version with mint, a close cousin to basil that lends a refreshing, cooling quality to what is essentially a summer mojito with lighter, fragrant cachaca substituted for the rum.

To make a similar version at home, muddle your fresh herb of choice with quartered limes and simple syrup. Fill a shaker with ice and add the cachaca, shake well and strain into an ice-filled glass. For a lighter cocktail, top off the drink with a splash of soda.

According to Ray Srp, master mixologist for the Bellagio in Las Vegas, "Pisco is a little more mellow than cachaca with a dry, fruity flavor from the grapes. It's more akin to vodka, although more aromatic but with the same versatility, so you can use it with a variety of fruits."

At the Bellagio, Srp serves a tasting flight of three pisco sours: lime, pomegranate and passion fruit.

Srp's Sideways Sour is a play on pisco's origin in grapes, adding white grape juice and pinot noir.

Jenn Garbee wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times.

Sideways Sour

Makes 4

SWEET AND SOUR:

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 cup fresh lemon juice

COCKTAIL ASSEMBLY:

8 ounces pisco

3 ounces Cointreau liqueur

6 ounces white grape juice

6 ounces sweet and sour (see above)

3 ounces California pinot noir

4 slices lemon

4 grapes

In a small saucepan, stir the sugar with 1/4 cup water over medium heat until the sugar dissolves. Cool. Combine the cooled simple syrup and lemon juice. The sweet and sour mixture makes 1 cup (8 ounces) and will keep for 1 week, refrigerated.

In a large pitcher filled with ice, add the pisco, Cointreau, grape juice and sweet and sour, and stir to combine. Strain the cocktail into 4 old-fashioned glasses filled with ice. Slowly pour 3/4 ounce pinot noir over the back of a spoon into each cocktail (the wine will float on top and slowly diffuse into the cocktail). Garnish with a lemon slice, and float the grapes on top of the drink.

Adapted from Baccarat Bar at the Bellagio, Las Vegas

Per serving: 290 calories, 0 grams protein, 28 grams carbohydrate, 0 grams fiber, 0 grams fat, 0 grams cholesterol, 5 milligrams sodium

Analysis provided by the Los Angeles Times.

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