THE COOL SIZZLE OF LATINO COCKTAILS
The Cool Sizzle of Latino Cocktails
The era of the Mojito, Caipirinha and Pisco Sour is upon us. Caliente!
The question can be proposed like a chicken-or-egg conundrum: which came first, Nuevo Latino cuisine or Latino cocktails? Or as a tree-falling-in-the-forest scenario: if these drinks have been around for years, but no American hipsters were ordering them…did they really exist?
"The irony is that mojitos, caipirinhas and pisco sours are not the trendy, new drinks that people think they are," says Tim Schroeder, the general manager of Otro Mas, a fabled shrine of Pan-Latin food in Chicago. "In actuality they have been somewhat passed up historically. But there's no question that with the national explosion of Nuevo Latino and Pan-Latin cuisines, their time is now."
Schroeder is correct. While Latino cocktails—including the "Big Three" of the mojito, caipirinha and pisco sour—may appear to be new concoctions, the reality is that they've each been jogging around the long bar for years. The mojito, a rum, lime juice and mint drink that was supposedly a pet cocktail of Ernest Hemingway, was first poured in Cuba's bars right after World War I. The pisco sour, which has the Peruvian and Chilean grape brandy pisco as its heart, was known to have been offered to sailors in both Chilean and Peruvian port towns as early as the 1920s and 1930s. The caipirinha, a marriage of lime juice, sugar and Brazil's native sugar cane-based spirit cachaça, has in some form been mixed from Belem to Porto Alegre since the first half of the 20th century.
Nuevo Latino borrows heavily from the classic ingredients, recipes and methods of the cuisines of South America, Central America, the Caribbean and Mexico, and fuses them into stunningly flavorful and colorful meat and seafood dishes. Chefs in southern Florida, Texas and southern California had been fine-tuning Latin-inspired dishes for decades, but it is Chef Douglas Rodriguez, who owns Chicama restaurant in New York City, that most food mavens recognize as the father of what we now term "Nuevo Latino" cuisine. Rodriguez's sensational dishes are described in his book, Latin Ladles (Ten Speed Press, 1997). As the former chef at Miami's Yuca and New York's Patria restaurants, he was doubtless the first chef to bring national attention to Nuevo Latino.
Seeing the direction his colleague was taking in those halcyon days, Patria's bar manager John Hernandez started offering a host of citrusy and tart cocktails. Most prominent was the classic from Cuba called the mojito, which was designed to prepare the palate for Rodriguez's intense dishes. "Eight years ago nobody was offering the array of Latino drinks that we were: the mojito, the Piscopolitan, the Patria Colada," says Hernandez.
The key to Hernandez's success with Patria's cocktail menu was that none of his cocktails were too sweet. Most people choose wine or beer to accompany their appetizers and main course; cocktails are a precursor. But in the case of Nuevo Latino cuisine and cocktails, the marriage is made in heaven. A dish like Rodriguez's lobster, scallop and coconut ceviche begs for a citrusy, sour cocktail to accent the virtues of the seafood. The result is like a piquant, zesty fireworks display on the tongue. A movement was born.
|A caipirinha in the making: muddling lime wedges by hand; shaking the concoction of cachaça, simple syrup, lime and ice; serving in an old-fashioned tumbler.|
Michael Dombroski, owner of Pasión!, a popular Philadelphia Nuevo Latino destination, agrees. "It's clear to me that our clientele is simply open for different experiences in cocktails and cuisine," he says. "What's so intriguing and attractive about these mixed drinks is that they don't disrupt the meal. They blend perfectly with Nuevo Latino fare for those people who want to enjoy them through an entire meal."
Frank Hernandez, the bar manager at Mango's Tropical Cafe in Miami Beach, also sees the synergy between kitchen and bar in his Nuevo Latino establishment. "Our biggest seller is our own frozen cocktail, the Mango Mambo, as well as caipirinhas and mojitos," he says. "They're big with female patrons because they're easy to drink and they're colorful and packed with juicy flavors. They pair up perfectly with Nuevo Latino food like churrasco steak and margarita-marinated chicken. Eighty percent of our revenue comes from our bar, so we built our menu around our Latino cocktails. It's worked beautifully now for five years. Their popularity is soaring."
|LATINO COCKTAILS IN THE MAKING|
Another reason for their popularity among customers and bartenders alike is that they provide the ideal launching pad for bartending theatrics. The new cocktail culture puts a premium on aesthetics, quality and presentation. Latino Cocktails, as much as any, fit the bill. "Guests look at one of our bartenders making a caipirinha, slicing the lime, muddling the lime quarters in the glass, and they often ask 'What is it? What are you making?' There's an immediate connection between customer and employee," says Tony Abou-Ganim, beverage director of The Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, which employs more than 150 bartenders. "I've always believed that the most attuned people enjoy cocktails with all of their senses. But also, there's a curiosity about the creation, about the building of a cocktail like the mojito or the caipirinha by a skilled bartender. Latino cocktails fill this prescription as well as any other mixed-drink movement I've seen in decades. They have a natural and inherent element of fun that's infectious."
Does all this mean that we, at last, have a mixed-drink craze to rival margarita-mania? That started as a small brush fire in the American Southwest in the late 1970s and continues to rage nationwide a quarter of a century later. There are similarities: the sense of fun and the natural affinity of cocktail and cuisine. The margarita remains the most-requested cocktail in the U.S. Can the mojito, the first among equals in the Latino cocktail big three, be far behind?
Tony Abou-Ganim believes that they are gaining ground. "A well-made mojito has all the right components to be the next margarita," he says. "But the key element is that it has to be made fresh with fresh ingredients: fresh squeezed lime juice; fresh mint that's muddled by hand for each drink. What makes the mojito so special is that as it sits in the glass it gets better. That's because the ingredients get the chance to come together."
Miguel Anaya, one of the proprietors of Confete, a West Hollywood Nuevo Latino brasserie, disagrees. "The mojito, while a truly great cocktail, will never rival the margarita because it is too labor-intensive," he says. "Good mojitos, like the ones we insist our bartenders make at Confete, can only be created fresh, one at a time. Sloppy bartenders around the country who don't take pride in their work hate drinks that can't be premade or shot out of a gun. The margarita, even if it's inferior, can be premade, saving the bartender time and making more money for the bar."
Whether the mojito gives chase to the margarita remains to be seen. But Patria's Hernandez envisions a bright future for the category: "Every generation has its own boom," he says. "Latino cocktails are hot with this generation, sure, but then the mojito, caipirinha, and pisco sour will settle down into the mainstream and be thought of in the same breath as martinis, margaritas and cosmopolitans."
|THE SPIRITED FOUNDATIONS OF LATINO COCKTAILS|