When you can’t go traveling and you need a taste of distant lands in your life, consider mixing up some exotic cocktails that have a strong association with a particular destination.
Many of the world’s best-known cocktails were invented in the USA out of necessity. Before prohibition, most people drank their liquor straight. When quality became less dependable in the time of bootleggers, cocktails rose up in the speakeasies: you needed to mask the harshness of the inferior booze. People liked the resulting taste and presentation, however, so what seemed like a temporary craze turned into a worldwide preference.
Even some cocktails that sound exotic really originated stateside, such as the Mai Tai and Zombie that came out of the Tiki Bar craze.
Some exotic cocktails arose in other parts of the world though and became associated with a specific place. One taste of these drinks will take your mind of where you’re currently stuck and whisk you off to foreign lands–or at least New Orleans!
There’s some debate as to where the tequila-based margarita cocktail first popped up, but it was somewhere in western Mexico where there were at least a few gringos to drink it and say “Wow!” After that they went home and spread the word, then ordered it repeatedly each time they returned on vacation. It didn’t take long for this cocktail to overtake every other tequila drink, though the locals still prefer the simpler paloma: tequila mixed with grapefruit soda, preferably with the Tajin spice mix on the rim.
You can buy pre-made margarita mix, but it’s usually nasty because of the preservatives and chemicals. This recipe is the traditional one with home-made mix that’s much tastier. You’ll also have a better cocktail if you only use 100% blue agave tequila and use Grand Marnier or Cointreau instead of cheap triple sec.
Ingredients: Tequila (blanco or reposado), orange liqueur, lime juice, simple syrup, and optional course salt
Preparation: Run a cut lime around the edge of an appropriate glass then dip it in coarse salt for the classic recipe. In a shaker combine 1.5 ounces of tequila, .5 ounces of orange liqueur, and 1.5 ounces of margarita mix (made from equal parts of fresh lime juice and simple syrup–itself just water and dissolved sugar). Pour into an ice-filled glass that’s rimmed with salt.
Peruvian Pisco Sour
The Pisco Sour is likely one of those drinks you have never, ever ordered in a bar outside Peru (unless you got one in Chile), so the taste of it will definitely transform you to a far-off land. While Peruvians drink this distilled grape concoction straight, I haven’t tried a single one of them I like enough to do that with and apparently I’m not alone. Most visitors to Peru will only order pisco in a cocktail and that cocktail is most likely to be this one. Fun fact: the bitters sprinkled on at the end is done to cover up the “eggy” smell that would be there otherwise as you sip it.
Ingredients: pisco, lime juice, simple syrup, egg white
Preparation: In a shaker without ice, combine 2 ounces of pisco, 3/4 ounce of fresh lime juice, and 1/2 ounce of simple syrup and egg white. Shake hard enough to mix. Then add ice and shake for 20 seconds more. Pour into a cocktail glass and liberally sprinkle bitters on top. (Angostura ones are usually specified, but any will do really considering the purpose. I’ve also seen cinnamon or nutmeg used.)
Put on a little bossa nova music, don some skimpy clothing, and pretend you’re having a good time in Rio instead of being cooped up at home. You can get this cocktail almost anywhere in Brazil, but especially at the beach where you’ll often see people selling them from street carts or even walking down the beach with a tray of them, a couple bucks each. If you don’t have Cachaça on hand you can substitute white rum that’s of good enough quality you could drink it neat. Be careful though: the alcohol percentage in these is very high unless your ice is melting quickly!
Ingredients: Cachaça, limes, fine white sugar
Preparation: For each drink mix two ounces of Cachaça, one whole lime cut in wedges, and two teaspoons of fine white cane sugar. Muddle together then add ice and stir well.
Original Cuban Daiquiri
Like the margarita and martini, this simple and near-perfect cocktail has gotten bastardized and frou-froued up over the years. In tourist spots you may see it served out of spinning frozen drink machines mounted in walls of bars filled with loud people. The original version, which originated in Havana, doesn’t require a blender or extra fruit. To evoke the feeling of sitting in a once-elegant building from the 1920s while classic cars roll by, stick to the basic recipe.
(Side note–yes, the Mojito came from Cuba too, but it has become so ubiquitous worldwide that it doesn’t feel very exotic anymore. It’s basically a daiquiri with soda water and muddled mint of you want to make that instead.)
Ingredients needed: quality white rum, juice from fresh limes, simple syrup made from cane sugar.
Preparation: In a shaker with ice combine 2 ounces of white rum, 1 ounce of lime juice, and 1/2 ounce of simple syrup. Pour into a martini glass without ice or into a cocktail glass filled with ice—your choice.
New Orleans Sazerac
In some ways New Orleans feels like a foreign country, thanks to the French influence, and there’s no city quite like it in the world. The Sazerac cocktail was invented here in the mid-1800s and it’s actually the city’s official cocktail as of 2008. It’s a strong one, so take it easy on these! It requires some out-of-fashion ingredients, so you’ll probably have to order up some additional items for the home bar.
Ingredients needed: American Rye whiskey, Pernod OR absinthe, simple syrup, Peychaud’s Bitters, lemon peel for garnish
Preparation: Swirl Pernod or absinthe in the glass first, coating the inside, then in a shaker with ice mix 1.5 ounces of rye, 1/2 tsp. of syrup, 3-5 dashes of bitters (some bartenders do both Peychaud’s and Angostura bitters). Pour into a short cocktail glass and garnish with lemon peel.
Italian Aperol Spritz
The Bellini may be the first cocktail that comes to mind if you had to name one from Italy, but you’re more likely to see the locals sipping an Aperol Spritz in the warm months if they’re not drinking wine. It’s an easy one to make and a refreshing drink to enjoy in your yard or on the patio if you’re fortunate enough to have some outdoor space to enjoy.
Ingredients needed: Aperol, prosecco, soda water
Preparation: Fill a wine glass with ice and fill part of the way with half Aperol and half Italian prosecco. Top off with fizzy soda water and garnish with an orange slice.
The most popular drink in Ireland is probably Guinness beer, but the cocktail equivalent of virtually visiting the Emerald Isle is the Irish coffee. It’s well-suited for the frequently gray and rainy climate there and is especially nice if you have a fireplace to sit by as you’re sipping it.
Ingredients: hot coffee, Irish whisky, optional cream, optional spice
Preparation: There’s no set recipe for this that everyone agrees on, so it’s fine to wing it. Put 1.5 or 2 ounces of Irish whisky in an oversized mug, add hot coffee, and either stir in half & half or top with whipped cream–ideally with Irish cream or heavy whipping cream. Most bars will sprinkle on a little cinnamon, nutmeg, or allspice on the whipped cream but that’s optional.
The only cocktail on this list made with still wine, this is a better one to drink than others on this list if you’re going to have more than one. It’s a great way to enjoy red table wine though, or if you must you can use white wine, even though that’s an affront to the sangre (blood) root of the name. This is also a good one for times of self-isolation since you can use pretty much whatever fruit you have lying around. Ideally you want to get some citrus fruit in there, but you can toss in apples, bananas, or halved grapes even if you’d like.
Ingredients: red table wine (don’t waste the good stuff), water, sparkling water, variety of fresh fruit
Preparation: Mix 1/4 cup of sugar with one cup of water in pitcher until dissolved. Add one bottle of red wine, 6 ounces of sparkling water, sliced citrus fruit, and other sliced fruit as desired. Pour into glasses with ice, distributing some fruit in each glass.
Originally created in the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, this namesake drink will make you feel like a real explorer: it was a favorite of novelists Somerset Maugham and Joseph Conrad. It was invented in a time before air conditioning, so it’s a refreshing and tropical-tasting cocktail. You’ll find many versions of this cocktail and nobody truly knows which ones are “authentic,” so you can probably mix this up and leave out some of the less common ingredients (except the cherry brandy) if you don’t have them.
Ingredients: gin, cherry brandy, Cointreau, Benedictine, grenadine, pineapple juice, lime juice, and Angostura bitters
Preparation: In a cocktail shaker filled with ice add 1.5 ounces of gin and 1/2 ounce or less each of cherry brandy, Cointreau, Benedictine, and grenadine. Add a half ounce of lime juice, dash of bitters, and 2-3 ounces of pineapple juice. Shake thoroughly. Pour into a tall glass filled with ice and garnish with a skewered pineapple wedge and Marachino cherry.
Honorable Mentions: Liquors That Aren’t Cocktails
These don’t really qualify as cocktails since they’re drunk straight or with a bit of water, but they’ll certainly take your taste buds to a foreign land.
Turkish Raki, Greek Ouzo, and Colombian Aguardiente
Sure, there are some subtle differences, but what Raki, Ouzo, and Aguardiente have in common is that they’re anise-flavored clear alcohol, a way to get drunk on liquid licorice. You can knock it back in a shot, pour it over ice, or dilute it with some spring water, in which case it will likely go from clear to cloudy, like magic. Your head may feel equally cloudy the next day, especially if you’re drinking the cheap stuff.
Aguardiente is primarily made from distilled sugar cane juice so it’s sweeter, while in the other countries it’s made from distilled grapes. Pastis from France is essentially the same thing, but is not so ubiquitous there.
Raki from Turkey is not to be confused with rakia from the Balkan countries, which is usually a potent unaged liquor distilled from various kinds of fermented fruit, including grapes.
If the conversation is in a lull, ask anyone who has lived and worked in South Korea about soju. They can probably regale you with vivid descriptions and stories that could go on all night. Drunk with great gusto throughout the land, it can be cheaper than water in the supermarket and is served almost everywhere that adults will be dining, including at late-night soju tents where drunkards are dining.
The good stuff is made from distilled rice, the cheap stuff from ethanol derived from whatever was available that could be fermented and distilled. (Yes, ethanol just like the gasoline additive.) If that’s not bad enough, some kind of artificial sweetener is often added too. The alcohol percentage can vary between 17% and 53%, so soju is a real roll of the dice all around if you don’t have the bottle handy to look at the label.
Thai SangSom and Mekhong
You may have a dusty bottle at the back of the cabinet of one of these from your Thai trip and now would be a good time to pull it out. While in theory both of these rums are sold internationally, 99% of their sales are within Thailand, where they’re crazy popular. They are made from sugar cane and are considered rums, but are often referred to as “Thai whiskey” and definitely have a distinct character. That’s partly due to a small percentage of rice liquor in the mix.
How about you? What exotic cocktails or spirits instantly brings back memories from your travels abroad?