Mixography—the fine, or fine-ish, art of writing about drinks—may not be the deepest field of intellectual endeavor, but what it lacks in depth it more than makes up in breadth. A good drinks writer, such as the Washington Post’s Carrie Allan, the New York Times’ Robert Simonson or the Beast’s own Noah Rothbaum, must have a closet full of hats. (Simonson takes that literally). Today, he or she must be a sociologist, tomorrow a historian, the next day an organic chemist, a psychologist or even some sort of ornithologist or entomologist.
I’m donning my entomology hat today—the one that you wear while examining minute differences between wiggly little critters and then assigning them into domains and phyla and what-have-you—to talk about the families into which we divide mixed drinks. This might seem like a trivial, even an arcane subject, but it has a surprising influence on what we drink.
Almost all of the drink families generally recognized today were established in print over a century and a half ago by Jerry Thomas, a New York saloonkeeper of wide experience. By looking around at what his fellow Americans were ordering at the bar and then putting Cocktails with Cocktails, Slings with Slings, Sours with Sours, Juleps with Juleps and so on and so forth, Thomas set the lines within which bartenders are still coloring today (or not).
Of course, these families rise and fall in their relative popularity. We drink a lot more Cocktails than we do Hot Toddies, which was by no means the case 150 years ago. But what doesn’t change is that, all things being equal, drinks that belong to known families (or sub-families, such as the Margarita or the Manhattan) tend to get more play and more respect than ones that appear to be unaffiliated. A family gives a drink background, history, familiarity. We know how to think of it. A Oaxacan Julep will always be a safer bet than a Oaxacan Moon, even if the ingredients are identical.
Now, there have been categories added to Thomas’s basic classification since 1862, when his How to Mix Drinks was published, but they are few: the Highball, the Shooter, a couple of others. Like his original categories, these, too, display a strong American bias. It’s almost as if the only license to update the classification system ever granted went to the United States. For the most part, that ends up working OK. The American system is broad enough that most drinks can be shoehorned into it. Sometimes, though, it means that certain drinks that are popular in other countries—and some of those in lots of other countries—get relatively short shrift here. We just don’t have a place to put them.
To put that right, I think we should recognize three categories that originated and/or have chiefly flourished outside of the U.S.; three simple, well-populated and long-established categories that, if recognized as such, will pull together some loose ends and give drinks lists some new places to go.
The first is the Changuirongo. That’s the Mexican name for spirits (in their case, usually tequila) mixed with, as one authority wrote in 1961, “any soft drink—Coca-Cola, Orange Crush, what have you,” with the option of adding citrus juice and, sometimes, a pinch of salt. It should be noted that Mexico didn’t invent the basic idea, which seems to be American, but it was the first place to view it as a category and, in the early 1940s, to give it a name.
Here in the U.S., the Changuirongo is represented for the most part by fairly uninteresting drinks, such as the Jack and Coke and the Jameson and Ginger, although it does stretch to give the mighty Long Island Iced Tea a home.
South America is rather more serious about it. Indeed, it includes at least three national drinks: Argentina’s rather fierce Fernet and Coca-Cola, Chile’s rather mellower Piscola (which is, not surprisingly, merely pisco and cola) and Peru’s Chilcano (pisco, ginger ale and lime), the best of the three. The Caribbean adds the venerable Cuba Libre (bastardized up here into the Rum and Coke), which can be delicious if you make sure to include the lime, preferably muddled.
It is, however, Mexico, which (not surprisingly) has the real winners, including one drink—the Paloma—that should be available wherever drinks are sold outdoors and the Batanga (tequila and Coke with lime and salt), which you stir with a knife. Just because. Even better than those, though, is a drink from Spain itself and the one drink that makes the whole category worthwhile. That’s the fabulously counterintuitive Kalimotxo (pronounced “caliMOcho”), which is nothing more than a 50-50 mix of cheap red wine and Coca-Cola, on ice. This Mediterranean staple has roots going back to the 1950s, but is only just hitting its stride now. Low alcohol, balanced (the acidity of the wine cuts the sweetness of the Coke, which adds fizz and spice in return) and addictive, this is another one that Americans, and practically Americans alone, have missed out on.
The second category that we should recognize is the Cocoyage, which is a French- Caribbean term for spirits mixed with coconut water and perhaps one or two other ingredients. It’s not just French: all through the Caribbean one finds people drinking spirits—rum of course, but also English gin, Dutch genever, Mexican tequila and Scotch Scotch—cut with coconut water and chilled with ice. The result is hydrating, only lightly sweet and a little bit nutty. Stick to gin and add a little sweetened condensed milk and some nutmeg and you have the Bahamian Sky Juice, which is the dessert version of the drink. Incorporating the Cocoyage into the recognized universe of drinks would at least give us something simple and tasty with which to balance out all those rich, sweet Punches at Tiki bars.
Finally, there’s the Americano. Now, a reasonably knowledgeable drinker will recognize it as a mix of Campari and sweet vermouth, in a tall glass with ice and soda. Originally, however, the Americano wasn’t one recipe, it was a whole family of them. Around the turn of the last century, Italian tipplers took to drinking their vermouth “all’ Americano,” or “American style.” They had seen drinkers over here taking the vermouth they exported, dashing it with bitters and stirring it with ice. One thing Italy abounded in then, and still does now, is bitter drinks. Any combination of vermouth and an aperitivo (such as Campari) or an amaro (such as Fernet-Branca) was an Americano. With the current white-hot craze for vermouths, aperitivi and amari, it’s well worth bringing this category back to life and pasting it all over our drinks menus. The components don’t even have to be Italian: With all of the domestic vermouths, aperitivi and amari we’re now seeing, there’s no reason not to have an American Americano, with, say, a vermouth from Oregon and an aperitivo from New Orleans (see below).
Ingredients:2 oz 100-percent agave reposado or blanco tequilaHalf a limeSmall pinch salt2-3 oz Squirt or Jarritos grapefruit soda
Directions: This 1970s-era Mexican drink is one of the jewels of the Changuirongo. Squeeze half a lime into an ice-filled highball glass. Add the tequila, a small pinch of salt and the squeezed-out lime shell. Top off with Squirt or Jarritos grapefruit soda. Stir briefly and intubate with a straw.
Rum and Coconut Water
Ingredients:2 oz Good, aged Trinidadian rum, such as Angostura 19193 oz Fresh coconut water, if available, or unsweetened, preservative-free packaged coconut water
Directions: This is the way they drink it in Trinidad. Combine the rum and coconut water in an ice-filled highball glass. Stir. Drink.
Ingredients:1.5 oz Ransom sweet vermouth1.5 oz Peychaud’s Aperitivo2 oz Sparkling water, chilled
Glass: HighballGarnish: Orange wheel, quarteredDirections: Add all the ingredients to an ice-filled highball glass. Stir lightly, garnish with a quarter orange wheel and add a straw.