Travel 129
Travel 129

Search out these international specialties to sip and savour

What’s your favourite beverage? Red or white wine? A frosty glass of draft beer? Scotch on the rocks? A mixologist-created cocktail? Or just a soothing cup of hot tea?

Wherever you travel, you’ll find unique libations beloved by the residents. Canada imports very few of these liquid refreshments.

Here’s a roundup of several noteworthy drinks that we’ve discovered around the world, from Asia and Europe to the Caribbean and North America. Feel free to expand the list with thirst quenchers that you come upon during your travels.

Splendid spirits

In Rio de Janeiro, we enjoyed refreshing caipirinhas – Brazil’s national cocktail – concocted from fresh lime juice, sugar, crushed ice and cachaça (pronounced ka-cha-sa).

Distilled from sugar cane, this potent alcohol is also combined with fresh coconut, mango or papaya and sweetened condensed milk to make batidas. Servers offered us a rainbow-coloured assortment of these tasty fruit cocktails.

Although anise-flavoured ouzo is the national drink of Greece, several Greek liqueurs are also worth trying. Clear, white mastiha – made from the sap of the mastic tree that’s indigenous to the island of Chios – has a sweet, herbal taste.

Bright orange Koum Kouat – made from kumquat fruits with an aroma reminiscent of oranges and strawberries – is produced on the island of Corfu.

Haraki Honey is a grape-based Cretan aperitif, flavoured with thyme honey. In summer, bartenders serve it in tumblers with an ice cube. In winter, they serve it as a hot drink, scented with cloves and cinnamon sticks.

Rum and rum punch are popular with both Caribbean locals and visitors. Grenadian shopkeepers also sell more unique beverages, including green banana wine and five-finger wine. The latter is made from the carambola, a yellow fruit that looks like a star when cut into slices.

Especially delicious is ponche de crème. This rum-based drink looks and tastes remarkably like Bailey’s Irish Cream, accented with nutmeg. The best time to find this Caribbean eggnog is during the Christmas season.

Drinking with the locals

British pubs and Parisian wine bars are well-known European drinking establishments. For local ambience and opportunities to strike up conversations with patrons, search out neighbourhood watering holes in other destinations as well.

The Netherlands, for example, is home to dozens of convivial bruine kroegen (brown cafés). The name originated from their burnished walls, stained from hundreds of years of tobacco smoke. (Smoking is now banned in cafés, restaurants and hotels.)

Do not confuse brown cafés with coffeeshops, where Dutch adults gather to legally buy and smoke marijuana. Coffeeshops must display green-and-white official licence signs in their windows.

Most brown cafés serve beer and jenever (Dutch gin) – a grain distillate infused with juniper berries and other botanicals. Drink it as the Dutch do, from a tulip-shaped shot glass without ice.

When the Dutch drink jenever followed by a beer chaser, they call it a head-knocker. But beware. Jenever looks as innocent as water, but packs a knee-withering wallop.

You can also sip jenever in a tasting house, where bartenders traditionally fill the glasses so full that you must bend over the bar to take the first sip.

You’ll also find unique beverages and drinking establishments in Korea. Crowded and noisy Korean bars serve makgeolli – a milky-white unrefined rice wine – and cheongju, a refined rice wine. Soju – a vodka-like liquor made from sweet potatoes – and Hite beer are also well-liked.

Tea is Korea’s most popular beverage. You can choose from several varieties, including green, barley, ginseng, arrowroot, citron, Chinese quince, ginger and herb. The best place to sample them is in traditional tea houses, such as those located amid the antique and calligraphy shops of Seoul’s Insadong district.

The subdued atmosphere of tea houses is ideal for quiet conversation and appreciation of both the beverage and the artfully designed pottery cups in which it’s served. Coffee is also available here, as well as in coffee shops, where the price of a cup allows you to sit and talk for as long as you wish.

Korean non-alcoholic soft drinks are treats that no visitor should miss. Sikhye is made by boiling rice, malt and honey in water, and then allowing it to ferment. It’s served chilled with rice grains floating on top.

Equally refreshing is sujeonggwa, a fruit punch made from cinnamon, sugar and dried persimmons. A half-dozen pine nuts drift atop the amber beverage. Both drinks are so popular that they’re available in cans.

Only in Canada

For a small island, Havre-aux-Maisons in Quebec’s Îles de la Madeleine boasts a disproportionate amount of unique regional food and drink. Most of them are not available outside of Quebec.

At Le Barbocheux, Sylvie Langford and her husband Léonce make and sell homemade wines and liqueurs.

Bagosse – the traditional home-brewed wine of the Îles de la Madeleine – is served as an aperitif. Sylvie and Léonce make red bagosse from raspberries and strawberries that they grow behind their house. They concoct white bagosse from local cranberries and dandelions.

The couple also produces Le Chalin – a blueberry-and-berry fortified, port-style wine – and L’Ariel, an intensely flavoured raspberry liqueur and digestive for serving after dinner. “It’s also great on ice cream,” says Sylvie.

We overheard one visitor buying a bottle after trying a sample. “This drink is so good that I’m not going to share it with anyone,” he said.

“The name of the raspberry liqueur comes from the name of Léonce’s grandfather’s ship, L’Ariel,” explained Sylvie Langford. “It ferried passengers from Pictou, Nova Scotia to the Îles de la Madeleine between 1940 and 1950. After it was sold as a pleasure craft, it was shipwrecked.”

Don’t let the name Corps Mort (Dead Body) deter you from trying this beer made by À l’abri de la Tempête! This microbrewery uses barley malt smoked in Le Fumoir D’Antan, the last smokehouse on Havre-aux-Maisons.

The beer’s name refers to the salted herring hung from wooden sticks over small, maple-wood fires that gently smoke the fish and the barley malt. As a result, the dark-orange Corps Mort brew acquires a smoked aroma and the flavours of dark fruits, with hints of caramel and maple. Not a fishy taste!

We discovered berry wines with equally memorable names at Newfoundland’s Auk Island Winery.

Funky Puffin is a medium-sweet wine made with local blueberries and rhubarb. Moose Joose is a blueberry and partridgeberry blend, while Krooked Kod combines blueberries and raspberries.

Auk Island Winery uses iceberg water to make medium-sweet wines from bakeapples (cloudberries), blueberries, raspberries and cranberries. It also combines raspberry wine with dark rum to make Outport Raspberry Screech.

Have you ever tasted beer made with iceberg water? Quidi Vidi Brewery is in St. John’s, near Iceberg Alley, where hundreds of massive icebergs float south along the coast every summer.

The brewery hires a company that collects bergy bits – chunks of 20,000-year-old ice that have broken off from larger icebergs – in an ice-harvesting barge. The ice goes into storage tanks, where it melts.

Oxygen trapped inside the water influences the taste of the beer. Poured from cobalt-blue bottles, Iceberg Beer has a crisp, clean taste, with a natural carbonation that tickles your tongue.

Tours & tastings

Both tipplers and teetotallers will learn fascinating and fun facts during tours of breweries, distilleries, wineries and vineyards. Some beverage producers charge for tours or tastings. Others are free. Check their websites or call ahead to see if the tours are at fixed hours or if you need to make an appointment.

On Lanzarote, in the Canary Islands 130 kilometres west of Africa, we were surprised to learn that excellent wines could be produced from vines grown in black volcanic soil that resembles the moon’s surface.

To combat the desert climate, vintners build semicircular lava rock wind shelters around pits filled with up to two metres of black volcanic ash, which attract dew to feed the vines. Each one – the size of a child’s wading pool – contains a single grapevine.

In the Bodegas Rubicón wine shop, we viewed dust-covered bottles of wine aging on racks. A sommelier poured us samples of wines produced from the Malvasia Volcánica varietal. Dry, crisp and fresh, the wines exhibited citrus, tropical and floral notes.

The most entertaining beverage-production tour that we’ve experienced was at the Jack Daniel Distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee.

Jack Daniel put Lynchburg on the map in 1866, when he bought a small distillery and began producing Tennessee sour mash whiskey. (It’s not bourbon and they get mighty upset if you call it that!)

We toured the oldest registered distillery in the U.S. with our guide, Junior. He warned us that the tour involved 350 steps and about a mile of walking. “But they’re payin’ me by the hour, so I walk really slow,” he said.

In one of the barrelhouses, we examined handcrafted white oak barrels, stacked in neat rows. Junior explained that each wooden barrel weighs 120 pounds. “If one of them rolls over you, you’ll get (ahem) smashed!”

He noted that the biggest costs in making whiskey are taxes and aging. “Several people in the hills out there have eliminated both of these costs – but they don’t give tours.”

At the distillery, we viewed 4,000-gallon fermentation tanks filled with mash (made from corn, rye and barley malt) and large stills from which the whiskey emerges at 140-proof. Farther on, a blazing fire drew our eyes to stacks of sugar maple boards being burned into charcoal.

“The charcoal is ground into pellets and packed into mellowing vats 10 feet deep,” explained Junior. “This drop-by-drop filtering gives Jack Daniel’s its smoothness, by removing chemicals that give you headaches and make whiskey burn your throat.”

After workers change the charcoal, every 14 to 16 weeks, the charcoal isn’t wasted. “It’s made into briquettes and sold at the Lynchburg Hardware,” said Junior. “And it burns really good.”

Adults can sample whiskey in Jack Daniel Distillery after their tours, but they can’t legally buy a bottle in Lynchburg. That’s because Moore County has been completely dry since Prohibition.

Tipsy cakes

Just because you can’t buy whiskey in Lynchburg doesn’t mean that you can’t eat it.

Sweet Southern Spirit General Store, on Main Street, sells Lynchburg Original Tipsy Cakes, made with Jack Daniel’s Whiskey. Lynchburg Hardware sells a similar Jack Daniel’s infused cake, made from a 150-year-old recipe.

Because the cakes each contain less than 0.5% alcohol by volume, they are sold as non-alcoholic baked goods.

When it comes to alcohol-infused desserts, Lynchburg faces substantial competition from the Tortuga Rum Cake Company, which has shops in Grand Cayman, Jamaica and Nassau.

In the Grand Cayman bakery, we peered through glass windows to watch white-garbed cooks pouring hot rum syrup over freshly baked cakes. A mouth-watering rum aroma pervades the shop, which offers free samples.

Nowadays, in addition to the original rum cake created from a secret, hundred-year-old family recipe, the company sells several spirit cakes, such as Tennessee Whiskey, Cinnamon Raisin Rum and Kentucky Bourbon Butter Cakes.

Addicted to the tipsy cakes? No problem. The company ships them worldwide from online orders.

These examples barely scratch the surface of the many regional liquid refreshments and liquor-infused treats available around the world. The next time you travel, search out the local alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages in your destination. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.


By Barb & Ron Kroll

Barb & Ron Kroll publish the trip-planning website