Scene 1: It’s 6 a.m. on a weekday a few years ago, and I am waiting for a flight at Iceland’s main airport outside Reykjavik. I’m sitting at a bar, wiping sleep from my eyes, while those around me are drinking beer to chase shots of something clear from small glasses. I fall into conversation with a man who tells me it’s Brennivan, Iceland’s national spirit. Basically, it’s fermented potato pulp. I down a shot. It’s not unlike vodka, but not like vodka either. Maybe it’s the caraway seeds. It’s bracing, like a bath in ice water. The man pats me on the back, and orders us two more.
Scene 2: I’m in Berlin, at a cocktail bar with a few friends from out of town who I know from my days living in Prague. One orders a Pisco Sour, explaining that it’s made of a grape liqueur, brandy, lemon and egg white, and I think some milk. It looks like lemonade with a cappuccino head (pictured). As someone who avoids milk-like drinks, with or without alcohol, I reluctantly tried it. It was seriously good, almost like desert in a glass, which the most dangerous cocktails always evoke.
Both scenes are related.In a sense, in both cases I considered a country’s national beverage, or at least a beverage that originated in a particular country. But in only one was I actually drinking it at the place of origin. The Pisco Sour is the national drink of Peru, my friend having just returned from there where she had fallen in love with the drink.
Does it matter if you drink Brennivan in Iceland or Iowa? Not really, though there is the Guinness case to be made with many drinks: They taste different there versus here (though one cannot really say this about Brennivan, since you’ll only drink it in Des Moines if you bring a bottle back from Reykjavik).
It was perhaps in the spirit of linking famous cocktails and spirits with their place of origin that lead MSNBC.com recently to list where to go to get certain tipples at their best. So, go to Reykjavik for potato pulp, or Lima for the best Pisco Sour.
The list does have some surprises. Of course you know that a Cosmopolitan is best found in New York, and surely a good Irish Coffee is at home in Dublin. But what about the Bloody Mary and a Sex on the Beach? Try Paris, France, for the former — where it was invented — and Ibiza, Spain, for latter, where it competes only with Sangria for supremacy.
According to MSNBC, the best Mojito is in Miami, the best Caipirinha in Rio and — duh — the best Gin & Tonic is in London. Berlin is known for the Watermelon Man (news to me), Singapore, not surprisingly, for the Singapore Sling and Cape Town is home to the Elephant’s Ear. Head to Stockholm for pretty much any flavored Absolute you fancy.
Curious to learn what some of these drinks are? Head over to MSNBC, where you can find photos, directions for making them and specific spots to try them in your future travels.