Business and personal travels took me to some random places this year, and along with that came the opportunity to sample drinks not normally found round these parts. I'm going to apologize in advance for the things you might need to track down with a bit of effort, and offer you a few things in recompense that are easy to come by in our fair Orange Acres.
5. Pulque at Acqui es Texcoco
Some alcoholic drinks you take on a dare: your first tequila shot in high school and your first flaming Bacardi 151 shot. After you've grown bored with the Jagermeister tap in your man cave, you need other boozehound Everests to scale.
And that's when you seek out pulque. It's a tart, acetic “wine” with a cloudy sliminess that can charitably be compared to semen. This fermented cactus nectar dates back to pre-Columbian Mexico, and was reputedly made by spitting chewed-up maguey leaves into a vessel where salivary enzymes gave the brew a head start.
The ancient drink is enjoying a modern revival in Mexico,where it's mixed with fruit juices into a cocktail of sorts. We can probably blame their pinche hipsters for the commercially-brewed pulque in a can that Gustavo reviewed earlier this year. To taste real-deal, fresh pulque, you need only travel as far as Chula Vista. The lamb barbacoa restaurant Acqui es Texcoco brings shipments across the border from Hidalgo.
Their pulque comes in a pint glass, looking uncomfortably like a prop at the end of a German bukkake video. If you manage to choke down the whole pint to reach the peak of the jaded boozer's Everest, you can tell gabacho hipsters that you tried it long before it went mainstream. Not that it ever will.
Acqui es Texcoco 1043 Broadway, Chula Vista. 619-427-4045. acquiestexcoco.com
4. Bloody Marys at Little Sparrow and Break of Dawn
You can't drink all day unless you get an early start. In polite company, that calls for a Bloody Mary at brunch. Two examples shine in their own ways at Santa Ana's Little Sparrow, and Break of Dawn in Laguna Hills.
Little Sparrow's vodka version takes a ham-handed approach with horseradish and black pepper. The sinus-clearing spices pair perfectly with the house-cured gravlax, and even cuts through the heft of the biscuits and gravy.
Proving there's no such thing as too much bacon, Break of Dawn's soju-based Bloody Mary comes with a bacon baked into a straw. You'll struggle not to chomp on the straw before you reach the bottom, but the hell with it – order another.
3. Ransom's Old Tom Oregon Gin
American craft distillers are making all sorts of interesting small-batch spirits these days, and as a gin lover, none grab my interest as much a revival of the vintage Old Tom style of gin from Oregon's Ransom Wine Company. I discovered it on a recent trip to Denver, and have yet to track down a local source to buy it.
This small outfit produces both wines and spirits on a 40-acre farm. The unusual dark amber color color comes from barrel-aging a barley malt spirit flavored with their formula of botanicals extracted in high-proof corn spirits. The result is a slightly sweet profile with a powerful hit of spices. It's the opposite approach from the light, cucumbery gins designed to convert vodka drinkers. Ransom's Old Tom is a gin for whisky drinkers.
Tequila and mezcal both start with roasted hearts of the maguey cactus. Roasting concentrates the sugars in the sweet aguamiel for conversion into alcohol. One major difference is that small mezcal producers maintain the tradition of roasting in a wood-fired earth pit, similar to the way the Scots roast malt over burning peat. Both techniques impart a smoky, earthy profile to their spirits.
Small-batch distillers might be a recently revived phenomenon in this country, but Mexico never suffered from Prohibition's nuclear winter. As a result, tiny, family-run producers of mezcal and its variations have never gone away, but their small output hasn't travelled far beyond their local boundaries.
That's starting to change for us in So Cal. Thanks to fellow Weekling Dave Lieberman, I met Cecila Rios Murrieta, the Oaxaca-based blogger turned entrepeneur, who exports a range of mezcal under her nom de blog, La Niña de Raicilla. She shares a deep passion for the traditional drink and travels to the greater L.A. area to expand her business. Keep track of her upcoming events on Twitter @laninademezcal
1. Orange County Beers
Craft beer brewers in Orange County have thrived in recent years, and have won praise and love in all parts of the world. Fellow Weekling Sarah Bennett went on a pilgrimage to Belgium, and in a small beer store, found an entire shelf dedicated to bottles from Placentia's own The Bruery.
OC has come up in the world, and since the beer community is tight-knit and supportive of each other, our local beer scene is healthier than ever, with yet more breweries on the way in 2014. Keep track of the beer news right here.