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Tales of the Cocktail Preview: Below the Equator

I am writing up several previews of seminars for the Tales of the Cocktail convention in New Orleans. This write-up is about the seminar called Below the Equator, lead by Jacob Briars.

I interviewed Jacob about his seminar. The questions and answers are below.

Time: 12:30 PM to 2 PM
Date: Friday the 22nd of July, 2011
Venue: The Queen Anne Ballroom, Hotel Monteleone
Moderators: Jacob Briars
Panelists: Sebastian Reaburn

Come below the equator to discover the 'other' Hemisphere, birthplace of sugar cane, home to the oldest spirit of the Americas and to many of the world's newest and most exciting spirits too. Latin America, South Africa and Australasia are also home to some of the newest and most exciting bar scenes in the world. Discover the context and culture of these spirits, and the new cocktails which are being born as new cultures meet new spirits, fruits and herbs, and where the future of Cocktails is as yet unwritten.

Will the focus of this seminar be primarily on the bar scenes of the Southern Hemisphere, or the spirits made there?

I guess this is an attempt to give a very small insight into the whole 'other' hemisphere which barely registers on the Tales radar. In fact, 'off the radar' would have been just as serviceable a topic title. Tales (to me but also other 'foreigners') has a very trans-Atlantic focus, particularly the spirits of the US and Europe, and the bar scenes and bartenders of NYC and London, often to the exclusion of all else. Even West Coast bartenders have been heard to make this grumble. Yet in the southern hemisphere we have a lot of spirits old and new (cachaca and pisco have been around a lot longer than bourbon and rum for example) as well as creative new takes on old spirits - Holey Dollar and Inner Circle rums from Australia, South African brandies (not ALL are bad) and many more. Further, hidden away in plain sight below the equator are some of the most creative and fast-moving bar scenes in the world - see Melbourne, Wellington, the newly awakening scene in Rio. Plus a surfeit of fruits and herbs that many in NOLA won't yet have heard of (pending customs approval, of course...)
I've lost count of the number of times in the US in particular, I've been served something as if it was brand new, when it was doing the rounds in NZ, Australia or even South Africa 5 years ago - elderflower, Chartreuse Dust, beer cocktails. Not saying that everything was done there first, but just that the US-centric press/media misses a lot of what is happening in the rest of the world.

I've heard you say that Wellington, New Zealand is one of the best small cities for cocktails in the world, and after visiting I'd most definitely agree. What are some factors that contribute to the quality of bartenders/cocktails in this faraway place?

What makes Wellington such a great small bar scene has a lot in common with what also makes the scene in smaller cities like Portland, Seattle and Edinburgh so good too. I use the term small here in a relative way, not to refer to a fixed size. Nationally they are the 'other' city or region compared to the national media hub, they have a small and collegial community of bartenders prepared to create a scene and to work hard and share ideas. This creates a determination to build a bar and cocktail scene ahead of individual fame. Also they don't have a 'historical' cocktail culture and so you building the culture from the ground up. This is very different from bartenders who might come to work in New York or Paris, who feel they are part of a long-lasting cocktail culture, in which their role is to nurture the prevailing cocktail community, occasionally rocking the boat in the case of Milk and Honey or ECC, but still being part of a greater picture. In the small cities, you are often building this for the first time, which means you approach the task with fresh eyes and a determination to build something. Fortunately for New Zealand, there was next to no cocktail culture pre 1995, and it exploded rapidly after that. Happily, this was in the early days of the interweb, which meant for young bartenders like me, we knew what was happening in the booming London scene and could read about Dale DeGroff was doing, and for bartenders in NZ and Australia this had a huge impact as we started to create a cocktail scene for the first time.
New Zealand also has geographical isolation, meaning many products are expansive and imported, which explains the boom in local products which are heavily supported by local bartenders. Portland would be a similar US parallel. Why support an expensive import whose owner lives in London when you can drink something locally made and just as good? Equally, in many smaller towns and countries many products can be hard to find. For many years lots of vermouths and bitters were hard to find, so bartenders made their own, either versions of products from abroad or brand new products entirely. Further, the small cities with a new cocktail culture also lack a mentor who tells you that things must be made just so. While there is a lot to learn from the classics, sometimes the reverence for the classical canon can be stultifying. I think both Australia and New Zealand have dynamic and creative bar scenes because they don't feel that every menu has to have a Manhattan, an Old Fashioned and a Martini. Any cocktail can stand on its merits. Its good (or bad) because of how it tastes, not because it is featured in a book by Jerry Thomas. Finally small cities tend to have a better reverence for local products and tend to be closer to their suppliers. In London a bartender can have passionfruits and limes year round, but they have been shipped for thousands of miles. But in Wellington limes are more precious than gold in midwinter, but the market gardens are less than an hours drive from the bars, so though range can be limited quality is higher. I think this also explains why you get so many delicious drinks in San Francisco too.

In many ways I think it is easier to start a cocktail culture from scratch rather than to forget bad habits. In New Zealand and Australia there wasn't a generation of bartenders who'd grown sloppy on sour mix and the 2 second shake. In fact, there were no sour mixes. If you wanted lemon juice you had to juice it from a lemon.
But finally I think one of the reasons that smaller, far-off cities have great bar scenes now, is that cocktails are not part of the normal behaviour as much. In Edinburgh, Melbourne, and Wellington you're more likely to sell a wine, beer or spirit than a cocktail, so that makes you work harder to convince your guests that cocktails are an excellent choice. Likewise in a big city a bar will be more specialised, and has a much bigger catchment. In New York a guest who walks into a cocktail bar is certainly in search of a cocktail. If they don't like your cocktails then no doubt the next guest will, after all your catchment runs into the millions of people. In smaller towns such as Wellington or Edinburgh, you need to offer beer, wine, spirits and cocktails and convince your customers to try your cocktails. You also have to work harder for those guests to return.

Your teaser mentions the local produce of the southern hemisphere and its use in cocktails. Do you plan to thrill/torture attendees with feijoa flavored vodka?

Hahahahaha, probably keeping it to Brasilian Cachaca (no prizes for guessing of course) a Brasilian acai liqueur (unlike certain other Acai spirits, this is one that actually has acai in it) Peruvian pisco (likewise you'll guess this too). Also a Kiwi vodka (probably honey) and possibly a liqueur, Australian rum, an Aussie gin made with native Aust botanicals, and maybe a barley/pot still Aust vodka too, and if we have time, Fijian rum and South African brandy.

When we hear about Brazil, we think about bars on the beach serving endless caipirinhas and nothing else. What is the cocktail scene really like in Rio or other cities?

Of course that is the tourist perception and while it is certainly true, it's also a little limiting. Just in the same way that in Australia you can find more than beer, and in NZ, more than lamb and wine. Like the cocktail scenes in China and India, the cocktail and bar scene in Brasil is developing fast, but not without it's hiccups. However I think that it will soon be easier to get a good cocktail in Sth America than in India, because of a natural affinity with spirits, and a huge range of fruits and juices not seen anywhere else.

There will always be a place in Brasil for the sweet, strong Caipirinha, served on the sand, just like New Orleans bars will keep serving the hand grenade and faux-Daiquiris to a certain group of tourists. But that shouldn't blind us to the fact that across Sth America, but particularly Brasil, an increasingly affluent population, and more adventurous tourists, are starting to seek out local flavours in food and drink. See DOM restaurant (7th best in the world, right behind Alinea) or MyNY bar in Sao Paulo for evidence of this change. Small steps at this stage, but progress nonetheless. The Brasilian bar scene is characterised by hardworking bartenders with a growing appreciation of their own national spirit, local flavours and culture. These are the hallmarks of a great bar scene. Like Australia, they have a worrying love affair with Midori but an open mind about trying new things that perhaps a bartender in Italy or the US, feeling the weight of tradition, would not. I look forward to seeing it evolve over time.

What's one thing from your seminar you think people will be surprised to learn?

Maybe 3 things that will horrify the archetypal bearded American bartender: That the Caipirinha is possibly older than the Mint Julep? That Australia arguably has the world's greatest cocktail bars right now? That a blended Fernet and Cola is actually really delicious?


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