Cocktails, Chilean style

cocktails pisco sourA few weeks ago, I was sitting at the bar of the very lovely Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa, outside of San Pedro de Atacama in Northern Chile. I’d just returned from an afternoon at 12,600 feet, exploring the Andean Altiplano Lakes of Miscanti and Miñiques, and I was feeling parched.

Small wonder I was thirsty; Atacama is the driest desert on earth. Visually and geographically, it’s like the Southwest on steroids. If the love child of Sedona, Arizona and Abiquiu, New Mexico inherited a chain of conical, snow-dusted volcanoes, the largest salt flat in Chile, and shimmering lagoons full of flamingos, Atacama is what you’d get. Kraig recently wrote a great series on exploring Atacama, which you can find here.

San Pedro itself is a surprisingly sweet little village of adobe walls and buildings, with a whitewashed church and dusty streets. It’s the world’s least offensive tourist-mecca. Alto Atacama is located about a mile-and-a-half outside of town, in the middle of a river valley sided by craggy, brick-red rock.
cocktails pisco sour
Native plant gardens dot the property, there are resident llamas, the small restaurant serves many locally grown foods. But these are mere details. My biggest concern that evening was soothing my dust-coated throat with a cocktail.

I most definitely approved of the pisco sour made by Sebastián, the bartender. Pisco sours are a tricky thing; too often they’re made with old lemon juice or concentrate or too much sugar, and the result is a cloying, flat-tasting mess. But Sebastián squeezed fresh lemon juice (limón de pica, or Peruvian lime, which may or may not be the same species as key lime, depending upon who you ask). The final addition of good pisco made for a smooth, tangy, refreshing libation.

Sebastián raised his eyebrows at my swiftly drained glass. “Was good?” he enquired.

“Delicioso,” I assured him. “Uno mas, por favor.” As we spoke I watched him expertly muddling a mess of quartered limóns with something brown and sticky looking.

He followed my gaze. “It’s a Mojito Atacameño. Invented here at the hotel. You like to try?”

[Photo credit: Frank Budweg]cocktails pisco sourNever one to turn down a cocktail, I nodded. “What’s in it?” I asked.

“It’s made with chañar, a fruit found only in Atacama (I later found out that chañar-the fruit of Geoffroea decorticans-is also indigenous to parts of Argentina).”

“It’s very important. We use the arrope (preserved fruit in syrup) to flavor ice cream and other desserts. But it’s also a medicine,” Sebastián explained. The Atacameño’s– the local indigenous people, who have lived in the area for thousands of years–use chañar as a traditional cure for bronchitis and sore throat.

To further underscore the allure of this little round fruit, I bring you the following passage from author Edward R. Emerson (Beverages, Past and Present, 1908):


Its flavour is beyond description, and the way the Indians eat this fruit best shows in what estimation it is held. Early in the morning all hands repair to the chanareschanar orchard (for, though wild, the trees grow in immense tracts) and proceed to eat of the fruit until locomotion, except in a crawling way, becomes almost impossible, and as soon as they have arrived at this state they crawl to the river, drink as much water as they can possibly hold, and then crawl back to the trees, where they stretch themselves out at full length and sleep until night, when they repeat the operation.

Sounds like the producers of “Intervention” could have had a field day.

Sebastián passed me a bottle of arrope de chañar to try. After a small taste, I realized that it reminded me, in appearance, consistency, and flavor, of tamarind paste. Tangy, a little sour, with an almost molasses-like sweetness. It was interesting, but not something I’d think of using in a cocktail. Nevertheless, I watched, dubiously, as Sebastián meticulously put together my Mojito Atacameño.
cocktails pisco sour
After muddling two quartered limóns, he added two tablespoons of powdered sugar (I assume because it’s traditionally used in a pisco sour, rather than simple syrup).

To this he added a dash of creme de menthe because fresh mint was out of season; the base was Absolut Mandarin Vodka (“You can use pisco, but I think vodka is better flavor.”).

When the finished drink was set before me, I contemplated it. It closely resembled the last fecal sample I’d had to submit after I accidentally drank unfiltered river water. The mojito had floaty bits of lime pulp and was cloudy from the thick arrope de chañar; It looked repulsive. I sniffed it, and took a cautious sip.

Fantastic. A beautiful balance of tart and sweet, with a clean, citrusy finish. Ass-kickingly strong. Sebastián was looking at me expectantly.

“Uno mas, por favor.”

My trip was sponsored by Wines of Chile, but the opinions expressed in this article are 100% my own.

How to Make Pisco Sour

Middle West Spirits is making great vodka in Columbus

Middle West Spirits in Columbus, Ohio will be celebrating their 1st birthday this summer and as a nod to the delicious liquor I tried during my most recent trip to Columbus, I wanted to say… Happy Birthday, guys.

Ryan Lang and Brady Konya were new to Columbus from the West Coast when they started Middle West Spirits. And although they were newbies, they got the attention of the vodka-drinking Buckeyes without any trouble. OYO Vodka (pronounced Oh-Why-Oh) is actually some of the best vodka I’ve ever had. Made from wheat grown in Northern Ohio and milled locally, the care infused into this vodka surpasses the locality of the ingredients.

Distilled over the course of seven days, Lang and Konya make their vodka in defiance of traditional vodka guidelines.
Generally speaking, vodka is thought to be a colorless, tasteless, and odorless liquor. But Middle West Spirits doesn’t like their vodka that way. It might be difficult to pinpoint, but OYO Vodka has a distinct taste–one that stands out when taste-tested against well-known brands, like Grey Goose.

Drop by Middle West Spirits the next time you’re in Downtown Columbus, Ohio. They have open house every Wednesday from 5-7pm or you can arrange a tour by contacting tours@middlewestspirits.com.

How to Make a Vodka Gimlet

Knocked up abroad: pregnant travel in the first trimester

pregnant travelFor more on pregnant travel, see parts 1 and 2 of Knocked up abroad: pregnancy in a foreign country here and here.

There’s no question that having a baby changes you: your body, your lifestyle, even your shoe size. One thing I hoped not to change altogether was traveling, as long as it was reasonably safe and comfortable for me and the baby. From the beginning of my pregnancy in Istanbul, my doctor has okayed travel, as long as I get up to stretch frequently on flights and try not to overdo it. Most doctors (and mothers) agree that the second trimester is the most comfortable time for pregnant travel but the first trimester can be a good time as well (while you can still squeeze into pre-maternity clothes and walk without waddling) with a little extra precaution and a little more babying (of the mother, of course).


The first trimester of pregnancy is a tricky time for many women: the risk of miscarriage is highest up to 10 weeks, morning sickness is common, and hormones are running wild. It’s too early to tell anyone outside family or close friends and without a visible belly, it’s impossible for strangers to tell as well. At later points in your pregnancy, a baby bump acts as the international symbol for pregnancy and can make it much easier to express your condition when traveling abroad. If you travel in the early months before showing, you may want to learn the local language words for “I’m pregnant” to avoid a Bridget Jones-esque “mit kinder” scene if you need extra help while traveling.


Over this past December, my husband and I were looking for a good trip to take over the holidays, when I was around 10 weeks pregnant. Our location in Istanbul changes the list of short-haul destinations considerably from what we would have considered from New York, and we debated between a warm-weather beach destination (husband) or a snowy and “Christmassy” European city (me). We ruled out Egypt (not warm enough and not Christmassy), New Zealand (even less convenient to get to than from New York), and Sri Lanka (not enough time to plan properly and some risks of disease I couldn’t be vaccinated against). In the end, we chose…Russia.
Going to Russia in winter while pregnant may seem crazy to some, but for me it made sense: Moscow and St. Petersburg are a few hours from Istanbul by direct flight, my husband speaks fluent Russian in case of any problems, and there was no risk of malaria or eating any food that had spoiled in the sun. While it was cold and snowing during our trip and I couldn’t take advantage of some of Russia’s cold-weather remedies like vodka and saunas, a week in Moscow and St. Petersburg was a perfect mix of exotic and comfortable.

Nearly every cafe had a variety of non-alcoholic and caffeine-free beverages for me to choose from, I even had non-alcoholic sangria, mojitos, and mulled wine in addition to fresh juices and herbal teas. Both cities are beautiful to explore in the snow, with plenty of museums and cafes to warm up in, and the New Year holiday displays made it festive.

If you are planning a trip to a foreign country while pregnant, it makes sense to keep in mind the following guidelines. Always discuss plans with your doctor before booking and err on the side of caution when choosing a destination.

Check airline restrictions – Most airlines allow pregnant women to fly internationally up to 28 weeks, after which you must provide a doctor’s note issued within a week or so of departure. 35 weeks (earlier for women carrying multiples) is the cutoff for nearly all airlines to prevent women from giving birth on board. Most US domestic carriers will allow pregnant women to fly up to the final month; hilariously, Continental will not let women board if “physical signs of labor are present” though they don’t specify what.

Consider travel insurance – If your medical insurance doesn’t cover you overseas, you may want to look into supplementary medical travel insurance, but be sure it covers pregnancy as many policies do not. Additionally, if you are traveling to a country where English is not spoken, you may want to research the name of a clinic or doctor in case of emergency as well.

Be prepared for jet lag – Before pregnancy, I had little issues with jet lag, trying to get on local time as soon as possible. I discovered when flying back from the US to Turkey that it hits you much harder as a pregnant traveler, especially as you can’t use sleeping pills or alcohol to help you sleep. Factor this into your schedule and give yourself plenty of time to acclimate and adjust to time changes.

Realize your limits have changed – On a usual trip, I’d be up early to walk around a city all day, have a late lunch (or maybe just a big afternoon beer) followed by more museums and exploration, and still be up for checking out the local nightlife. Once pregnant, I required more sleep and three solid meals a day (plus maybe some snacks, I am eating for two!), tired after walking short distances, and was ready to call it a night long before last call. If you have an itinerary, pare it down to the must-sees and double the time to see everything; better to take it easy and enjoy your trip than feel exhausted and sick.

Look for destinations that don’t require vaccinations – One of the first tests your doctor will give you after confirming pregnancy will be for immunizations to hepatitis and rubella. If you haven’t had the vaccines, they will have to wait until after the baby is born as they are not safe for pregnant women. I have not had the hepatitis vaccine yet, and thus have a greater risk of contracting it, which rules out much of Africa and southeast Asia for travel, but also means I must avoid raw vegetables including salad in Istanbul. Most other medications and vaccines commonly given to travelers before going to an area prone to Malaria, Typhoid or Yellow Fever are not advised for pregnant women. But there’s still a big world out there, check the CDC for destination-specific information.

Be extra aware of food and water safety – Pregnant women are more susceptible to food poisoning the average person, as the immune system is suppressed so it doesn’t reject the fetus. This is the reason most pregnant women are told to avoid sushi and food that is not prepared in sanitized conditions. Even adventurous eaters should play it safe while pregnant and drink bottled water when in doubt. I recently had an opportunity to visit Mumbai, India but after consulting with a few friends who had lived there, I worried I’d spend the trip inside my hotel room eating pre-packaged food. Again,

check the CDC and use the same common sense you’d use anytime while traveling: stick with food that is freshly prepared in restaurants full of people.


Stay tuned for more on pregnancy travel, including Turkish superstitions and customs, travelling in the second trimester, where to do pre-baby shopping, and more on having a baby in a foreign country. Check here for further updates.

[Photo courtesy Mike Barish from the Istanbul tram]

10 ways to survive a Russian winter vacation

Russian winter vacation
The phrase “Russian winter” may bring to mind images of tall fur hats, snowcovered gold church domes, and steaming bowls of borscht. It may also remind you that both the armies of Hitler and Napoleon were driven off by the cold winter of the north and that “Russian winter” is also an explanation why every invader has failed to conquer the country. Winter of 2010-2011 was forecast to be the worst in Russia (and Europe in general) since they began keeping weather records, but so far, it’s just been freezing (or below) as usual.

Still, there are plenty of reasons to visit the largest country in the world when it’s cold. The long lines to visit Moscow‘s Kremlin or St. Petersburg‘s Hermitage museum virtually disappear over the winter months, and hotel prices, which still high, dip to slightly more palatable levels. More than anything, winter is when you’ll find Russia at its most “Russian”: residents draped in fur, sipping vodka, or taking a steam at a banya bathhouse.

After a recent stint in Russia over the winter holidays, I put together a few ways to get through a week or two in subzero temperatures and even learn to love the cold.1. Find something warm to sip – Though Russia is famed for their vodka-drinking (more on that below), you’ll find coffee to be the most widely available beverage, with even the simplest cafes offering a full range coffee drinks from espresso to macchiato. You’ll find familiar brands like Starbucks and Costa Coffee, as well as Russian chains like Kofe Xaus (Coffee House) and Shokoladnitsa (Hot Chocolate) on nearly every street in major cities with every conceivable hot drink including tea (pronounced “chai” like in Turkish and many Balkan languages).
2. More warming beverages – You can’t talk about Russia without talking about vodka, the national spirit. Russians actually tend to drink more beer than vodka, though both are readily available most anywhere food and drinks are sold and both good for a warm-up. Cocktails are pricey anytime they involve imported alcohol, but a half-liter of local beer or a small glass of vodka (sipped, not drunk as a shot!) can warm you up for a just few bucks. While many bars and restaurants can serve alcohol 24 hours a day, a new law means you can’t buy strong alcohol (i.e. nothing stiffer than beer and wine) after 10pm so plan ahead if you want a late nightcap.
3. Eat filling food – Take a look at any Russian menu and you’ll see the food is made for cold months – hearty stews and soups, variations on meat-and-potatoes, and salads that rely heavily on mayonnaise and meat. If you are looking for lighter (and cheaper) but still substantial fare, seek out pelmeni dumplings, pierogi cheese or meat pies, and blini pancakes. Russian chain Теремок (pronounced Teremok) is all over Moscow and St. Petersburg and is a quick and reliable stop for a pancake with any conceivable filling from ham and cheese to red salmon caviar. They have both restaurant locations and street stands, with handy picture menus so you can point to your choice instead of struggling with Cyrillic. Street food gets classier when caviar is involved.
4. Tread carefully – An ice storm hit Moscow just after I arrived on Christmas, making the sidewalks slippery and treacherous. Many Russians took advantage and slid gleefully down the street and down hills. It may look fun, but you don’t want to spend your vacation in traction or even with a bruised tailbone. Take small and careful steps on icy streets; gravel is used to make it less slick but salt not as common. Ladies, you will see Russian women tottering along the street in 4-inch stiletto boots and think you too can do it. You cannot. It is in their DNA to walk gracefully in high heels on ice while we slip and slide in our most practical shoes. Speaking of shoes…
5. Wear boots – I admittedly mocked my husband for buying huge waterproof boots before our trip, as they won’t see much action in Istanbul where winter temperatures have barely dipped below 50 F, but he was warm as toast. I wore knee-high flat leather boots most days, and while they weren’t waterproof, they kept me relatively warm and dry (though warmer socks might have helped). On the days I wore shorter, slip-on shoes with long pants, I was miserable and ended up with wet pant cuffs and cold ankles. Embrace the equestrian look and tuck your pants into your boots for extra warmth (then again, men may just want to make sure their cuffs aren’t too long).
6. Dress in many thin layers – You may think Russia is the time for big bulky sweaters and coats, but you’ll find that thinner is better. Many museums require you to check your coat at the door and you won’t find them all to be well-heated, so better to have warm clothing underneath. Layers also give you options: I arrived in Moscow in a wool coat bought in Istanbul and left wearing a puffy down coat UNDER the wool, plus a few other layers. Let your wardrobe be flexible and able to add or subtract, it’s easier to pack as well. Check the Gadling cold weather gift guide for some good winter clothing ideas.
7. Bring a good hat – Walking the streets of Moscow, you’ll be sorely tempted to buy a beautiful fur hat like everyone else you see but think again. Is it really that cold where you live? Do you realize how expensive a fur hat is (think a few hundred dollars at minimum for a good one)? Also, a structured fur hat can’t be stuffed in a purse or a pocket on the metro and needs to be carried inside museums, it’s like having a pet to take care of! Suddenly a ski cap seems much more practical.
8. Find the shortcuts – Even in subzero temperature, walking is still the best way to explore Russia’s major cities, and streets are usually well-cleared. After you get your bearings, however, you may want to look for some indoor shortcuts: department stores and shopping centers that span a block, underground passages, and subway tunnels. Russia’s metros are not only beautiful (and heated), they often have multiple entrances that can put you blocks closer (or further) from your destination. Find your landmarks and figure out the Cyrillic so you can take a break from the outdoors for a few minutes.
9. Check your hotel amenities – After location and price, two key hotel features may be a bathtub and a coffee maker or tea kettle. After a day trudging around the city in snow, a hot bath and a cup of tea can be worth their weight in gold. My Moscow hotel room at the Mamaison Pokrovka, had a full-fledged espresso machine with every option for coffee and tea, greatly helping us to warm up each morning and night. Also, some mid- to high-level hotels offer a pool, sauna, and/or jacuzzi for guest use but check the fine print: many are only free for guests for limited hours in the morning.
10. Soak at a banya – Another Russian winter essential is the bathhouse where you can sit in blissfully hot steam for hours. You may want to skip the birch branch flogging but there’s a reason many brave souls dive into snow after a steam: the banya brings your body temperature way up and warms you inside out, while the snow seals your pores. Sound too extreme? Maybe skip the snow and go back to the beginning of the list for some borscht and beer. Na sdrovia!

Find other ways to keep warm in frigid temps? Have you found Russia worth braving the cold? Leave your suggestions and experiences below in the comments.

Daily Pampering: The Pierre Hotel’s organic caviar and oyster tasting

When the Pierre Hotel wants to celebrate, it celebrates in style. In honor of the hotel’s 80th anniversary, the Pierre in New York is recapturing the glamour of its past with a tasting flight of a trio of organic caviars with wine and vodka pairings.

Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from October 22 – December 31, 2010, Executive Chef Stephane Becht will debut the caviar tasting menu and The Pierre’s Two E restaurant. Enjoy a hand-selected tasting menu of organic caviar as well as North American oysters with wine and sprit pairings. The tastings start with three organic American Caviars served with blinis and crème fraiche for $65. The caviars served include:

AMERICAN PADDLEFISH: From the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, these glistening steel gray eggs rival Sevruga from the Caspian Sea
MOUNTAIN LAKE WHITEFISH: From Montana, these crisp and golden eggs burst with a fresh, mildly salty flavor WILD
HACKLEBACK STURGEON: This dark, silky caviar from the rivers of Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee offers a refined, nut-like flavor with a semi-sweet finish

If oysters are more your liking, choose from Neguac, New Brunswick shells, Kumamoto from California, Oregon, and Washington and Chesapeake Bay oysters.

Add wine or vodka pairing for $14 that includes: Chablis Domaine Roland Lanamtureux 2007 Burgundy; Muscadet ‘Clos de la Senaigrie’ Luc Choblet 2008 Loire; Picpoul Saint Garrigue 2007 Languedoc. Vodka options include Russian Standard Imperial; Belvedere and Chopin.

Want more? Get your daily dose of pampering right here.