In spirit of the Olympics, Austin bars guide us through world’s booze

With the 2016 Olympic Games fully underway in Brazil, participating countries are at the height of their nationalistic pride — hoping their superstar runners, divers and gymnasts bring home the gold.

In honor of the games — and in the spirit of taking the edge off all that competition — Austin bartenders have put together this guide to the world’s boozy drinks, whether it’s vodka from Russia or mezcal from Mexico. The spirits and other alcoholic beverages our countries have made tell as much a story about us as our athletes do. And they’ll sure come in handy during all the Olympic watch parties ahead.

Rum, the sweetest spirit

A delicious result of the otherwise brutal sugar trade, rum was created when Caribbean plantation slaves realized leftover sugar cane pulp, juice and the byproduct molasses could be distilled, producing monetary gains out of waste. For downtown rum bar Isla, rum and its sweet profile have provided an endless array of cocktails, bar manager Miguel Lopez said, from the simple Dark and Stormy to Isla’s signature Tituba with coconut cream, basil and jalapeño.

“The key is to use the natural sweetness of the spirit and make it the star of the drink,” he said.

Rum is made in South American countries like Brazil, too, where it’s known as cachaça and tastes funkier than rum. Try cachaça in the caipirinha, a muddled lime drink, during these Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro.

Vodka: from Russia with love

Colorless and often completely tasteless, vodka is made nearly everywhere now — with the base distillate ranging from grains like rye and wheat to potato and even grape — but “it was invented by Russians,” Russian House general manager Roman Butvin said. (Its true origins are murky, but Eastern Europe has made vodka since the Middle Ages.)

The Russian House, an authentic homage to husband-and-wife owners Vladimir Gribkov and Varda Salkey’s home country, has more than 101 different vodka infusions available for tasting, such as ginger-honey, blackberry and even cigar or bacon. These infusions are “common for Russians to do,” Butvin said, “but not really in bars; people do it themselves at home.” That’s because vodka, lacking flavor of its own, can easily take on the taste of other things.

Pisco’s grape expectations

Make no mistake: Peru and Chile both make this grape brandy in their winemaking regions, even though Peru, with its well-known Pisco Portón brand and an official Denomination of Origin, gets most of the credit. Approachable like vodka but more flavorful, it’s one of the spirits that Drink.Well’s Becca Yannone recommends to vodka drinkers looking to branch out.

“The most popular pisco drink is the pisco sour, made with an egg white, which imparts a beautiful, creamy texture,” she said, noting that she pairs it on Drink.Well’s current menu with aloe liqueur and pink peppercorn. (Drink.Well, a North Loop bar, has been one of pisco’s big supporters in Austin.) Or, if you want to tinker with it at your home bar, she recommends “playing around and swapping it in your favorite vodka drinks for added depth of flavor.”

Sake’s versatile soul

Austin has gotten to know sake, a Japanese fermented beverage, through Uchi and Uchiko, regularly regarded as among the city’s best restaurants. Both places offer sake and sake cocktails in addition to beer and wine because it’s “made in Japan from very distinct and special rice,” Chris Melton, Hai Hospitality’s beverage director, said. Hai oversees Uchi and Uchiko.

“Because it is made from a grain and not a fruit, it is more like beer in how it’s made, but resembles wine in how it’s appreciated,” he said. “The origins of sake date back to well over 2,000 years in its most rudimentary form, but it is during the last 1,000 years when sake really began to resemble the beverage we see today.”

Uchi and Uchiko like it in cocktails, such as the Sakerinha, because its alcohol levels are low, making it very food-friendly.

Mezcal, a Mexican marvel

With agave plentiful in Mexico, our neighbors to the south have been making mezcal and tequila for centuries, most likely since the arrival of Spanish conquistadors to the Americas. While tequila has long enjoyed a heyday behind the bar as the de facto spirit for our beloved margaritas, mezcal — an often smoky spirit — stayed mostly in the Mexican villages where it’s made until U.S. distributors and bars like Whisler’s, in East Austin, took notice.

Whisler’s even opened Mezcalaría Tobalá, a tiny mezcal bar, in 2014 to recreate the feel of Oaxaca. And bartender Sean Skvarka is happy to run it: “Mezcal is one of the few (spirits) made with so much heart and soul,” he said. “Besides the smoke, it can have fruit and floral notes, earthy elements, chocolate, tobacco. Such a wide range of expressions.”

Bourbon gets big and boozy

The U.S. made a spirit we can call our own when Kentucky distillers — notably, James Crow from 1823 to 1845 — started “using corn as the major ingredient, aging it in charred barrels, and using a sour mash starter,” the Roosevelt Room’s co-owner Dennis Gobis said. Since Crow’s time, the U.S. has unveiled rules dictating how American whiskey can legally be called bourbon, with specifications about the proof, the grain mixture and the aging process.

The Roosevelt Room’s flagship cocktail, De Rigueur, contains bourbon along with grapefruit juice, honey syrup and Scotch, another much older whiskey that originated in Scotland. Focused on the history of cocktails in America, Gobis’ bar also offers drinks that highlight bourbon’s “characteristic toffee and tropical fruit characteristics.”

Absinthe: Not just a green fairy

Perhaps one of the most misunderstood spirits of all time is absinthe, the distinctly European mixture of fennel, anise, wormwood and other botanicals that tastes like black licorice and used to be vilified for nonexistent hallucinogenic effects. Absinthe’s reputation has since recovered, to the point that one local bar features it in a big way.

Next door to Isla, sister bar Peche maintains its French bona fides by serving up absinthe as a drip, a rinse or a base in cocktails, with an elegant absinthe drip fountain to boot. The French once adored the spirit, although it originated in Switzerland in the late 18th century, Peche’s bar manager Shaun Meglen said.

“I find absinthe to be a fascinating spirit, rich in history and mystery,” he said.

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