It’s not by accident or a clever marketing campaign that summer in these parts is considered prime time for Latin-themed cocktails. When the sun is beating down hot enough to melt East Van asphalt, the last thing anyone wants is an ultra-boozy Manhattan or Old Fashioned. Instead, better to go with something that captures the vibe of the three months in Vancouver during which it’s not raining hard enough for an ark.
If cocktails from Latin America have anything in common, it’s that they typically keep things simple and light.
“It’s hot down there, so you want something nice and refreshing,” says Pablo Schor, interviewed at La Mezcaleria, a Mexican-themed Commercial Drive hot spot where he’s the bar director. “Up here in the north, we want boozier cocktails.”
Light and refreshing are terms that come up again and again when you’re talking Latin-inspired cocktails. If you’re going to be sweating like someone doing the samba in Rio during Carnival, staying hydrated is a smart idea. Reach for Brazil’s national drink, the Caipirinha, which is a lime cut into four wedges, muddled with two teaspoons of sugar in an old-fashioned glass, and topped off with shaved ice and cachaça. Planning a winter trip to Machu Picchu? Set the mood by knocking back a couple of Pisco Sours (a shaken-not-stirred mix of lemon juice, egg white, simple syrup, and pisco, a brandylike spirit from the wine-making regions of Chile and Peru). When sitting down for a hot-summer-night screening of Mexico-shot Amores Perros, remind yourself that Carlos “Danny” Herrera never meant for margaritas to come from a Slushee machine; instead, combine tequila, Cointreau, and lime juice over ice and shake.
“All these cocktails are sort of created in this same light,” says Amber Bruce, head bartender at the Latin-themed Cuchillo in Railtown, interviewed by phone. “They use a lot of fresh lime, which is easily accessible to them, and whatever sugars they have, which is mostly sugar cane—just white sugar. To me, the cocktails are really simple.”
That doesn’t mean that there’s no room for tinkering with tradition. Add a slice of canned chipotle, muddled ginger, and thyme-infused simple syrup to a basic margarita, and you’ve suddenly got a tweaked classic that’s smoky, herbal, and spicy-sweet. The simplicity of Latin American cocktails makes them ripe for breaking the rules.
“As far as spirits go, they tend to be single-spirit-based—very easy,” Tacofino bar co-manager Eric Johnson says by phone. “You can do anything to spice up anything. Add jalapeños to a margarita to give it a whole new profile. We tend to put a lot of spins on the classics. Because we’re in B.C., and have a winter rainy period, we did a Rio Carnival, which was basically a Caipirinha, but where we infused the Cachaça with wintry things, like spices and cloves and allspice.”
At Cuchillo, Bruce is out to move Latin-themed cocktails forward with her Quixote’s Folly, incorporating añejo tequila with chamomile, Dutch Genever gin, and maple syrup. She’s also all for mastering classic cocktails, then treating them as a blank canvas.
“It’s great to get the fundamentals down—make the original so that you know what that beast is,” Bruce says. “Then take it as many different directions as you can, because you never know what you might discover. These are drinks you can easily make at home, and it’s all about having fun.”
That willingness to experiment also colours the cocktail program at La Mezcaleria.
“What we’ve done here,” Schor says, “is take something like a Pimm’s Cup and used serrano-infused tequila with some ginger beer, grapefruit pop, lemon, agave, and soda. So that’s taking a British drink and giving it Latin ingredients to make something different. It’s herbal and refreshing, and that makes a great summer drink.”
As far as Latin-themed classics go, the only thing not to be messed with is the spirit that makes them go-to favourites in the summer.
“Keep it simple, with not too many ingredients,” Schor says. “And also, pay a nod to traditions. It’s good if you want to create something new, but make sure that you pay your respects.”
Amber Bruce’s Quixote’s Folly
Quixote’s Folly is named after the scene from The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, in which Quixote mistakes windmills for giants, tries to slay them, ends up getting his sword stuck in the fan blades, and goes twirling around.
2 parts añejo tequila with chamomile
1 part Dutch Genever
1.5 parts maple syrup
1.5 parts lemon juice
Lemon peel for garnish
1. Add ingredients to a cocktail shaker, shake with ice, and fine-strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
2. Garnish with a lemon twist.
Yield: 1 drink. Recipe has not been tested by the Georgia Straight.