I arose this morning to greet the rosy-fingered dawn with a song on my lips and a tongue in my cheek. After dressing, pulling my sandals onto my comely feet and girding myself with my rapier wit, I left my room looking like an immortal god.
The above paragraph is from an earlier post of mine. Incidentally it was a parody of a verse from the Iliad describing Telemachus, a fact that I'm sure escaped none of you who read it. I include it here because today started nothing like that at all.
The good news is that at around 11 AM, after three scotches, a burrito and 18 ibuprofen, I was feeling much better. By 3 PM I was frisky enough to belt out the entire "Bat Out of Hell" album by Meatloaf as I showered. I admit I cut the last song a little short when I ran out of hot water, but still, my rendition of "Two Out of Three Ain't Bad" would have brought tears to your eyes. Good tears, I mean.
The reason for the slow start is that last night I hooked up with a couple of friends and we went, among other places, to a Russian restaurant in the neighborhood. We didn't stay long, but we were there long enough for me to have a "vodka martini." I put that in quotes because I'm curmudgeonistic about only calling gin martinis "martinis". Anyway, the drink was made with Red Army vodka at my request. It was foul, and I can still taste it today. Perfect.
I first became acquainted with this vodka at "Moscow On The Hill," the restaurant I referred to above that we visited last night. My avuncular friend Don and I were at one time in the habit of popping in there for an adult beverage. Unca Don, being Unca Don, would invariably ask for "a shot of your best vodka," which differed depending on who happened to be working behind the bar at the time. It never took much thought on the part of the bartender, however. They pretty much all had their favorite firmly in mind and were able to reach unerringly for it.
However, me being me, I always used to order "a shot of your shittiest vodka," since to me it all tastes pretty much the same and it amuses me to be contrary. But whenever I did this it occasioned a small flurry of excitement on the part of the restaurant staff. They all had to confer and argue vociferously in Russian about which of the hundred vodkas or so that they stocked was the shittiest. It was in this way that I was introduced to Red Army, which frankly tasted pretty much the same to me as the one Don would order that cost about five times as much. Now, alas, notoriety has gone to the nosecone of the Red Army people and it also bears a premium price.
As an aside, after a couple of times of my doing this eventually the nearly-unanimous choice of the MOTH staff for the distinction of being the "shittiest vodka" was a Chinese vodka whose name escapes me. But chyert. Even I knew that one was shitty when I had it. Blech.
All this leads me at last to the topic of today's post: national foul-tasting alcoholic beverages, which I intend to abbreviate as "naftabs" from here on out because I'm a lazy typist.
In my role as dirtbag par excellance, whenever I travel overseas I try to collect two things from whatever country in which I find myself: a tattoo and the local naftab. These items are in lieu of refrigerator magnets or cheesy tee-shirts or snow globes, which I always lose or break or blow my nose in or end up bartering for cigarettes. The tattoo is pretty self-explanatory, but with the naftab you should know that I just collect the experience in my head and the fire in my belly, as opposed to buying a bottle of the stuff. That is, I drink the national shitty liqueur sitting in some foreign bar rather than lug it back with me to make my friends at home detest it as much as I did when I was there.
I'm not sure how the practice started, but early on in my travels I noticed that every country seems to have its own naftab; eventually I forged a tradition of discovering and drinking these nasty libations in the country of their origin. I do this more because I enjoy the conversations I get in to when I order them than because I actually enjoy drinking them. Of course. They taste like shit, every single one of them.
Unless you're like my acquantaince Paul K. who was raised by mountain goats in Utah you're probably already aware of at least a couple of naftabs. Greece has its ouzo, Italy has its grappa, and Germany is The Land Of Ten Thousand Naftabs, Jägermeister being merely the most deadly of the bunch.
I think my own foreign naftab experience began in Spain. When we were dining in Toledo, the waiter asked us (read me in Spain, since I was the guy) if we would like some aguardiente (essentially "fire water") after our meal. "¡Sí!" I said proudly, exhausting my Spanish vocabulary in that one sentence and probably mispronouncing it in the bargain. The waiter proceeded to bring us two small bottles of liquid and some glasses. One of the bottles contained red aguardiente and the other bottle contained clear aguardiente. "The way you drink it," the waiter explained, "is to mix the two in your glass and then taste it. If it needs more red, you add more red. Then if you find you added too much red, you add some white. And so forth." Got it.
In Prague I recall asking the bartender about the Czech national foul liqueur. "Do you mean slivovice?" he asked. I looked at him like he was crazy but said politely, "Isn't that Polish? I'm looking for something really nasty that only Czechs drink." (I was wrong about the Polish slivovice thing, by the way, it's more Slavic in general than Polish in particular and is indeed a Czech naftab.) The bartender puzzled over that one a bit then his face lit up: "Oh, Becherovka is what you mean!" and he proceeded to pour me one. Yep, that's what I meant alright. It was a spicy, almost cinnamony honey-colored liqueur, and much to my amazement it tasted much less foul than I expected. I've even ordered it since when I can find it, usually as a digestif. Especially if I can use the word "digestif" and impress some cocktail waitress avec cute ass with my worldliness.
Re Iceland, the subject of a recent post, I had to look it up just now to remember the name of the naftab, which is Brennivin. Brennivin is Icelandic for "Black Death." No wonder I couldn't remember it; it certainly had nothing to do with drinking about 50 of them one night. This is a pretty generic naftab, as I hazily recall. I also recall that it tasted slightly better the second time.
Whenever I find myself in the Netherlands, genever is my naftab of choice. The last time I ordered it in a bar I was able to involve everyone present in an impassioned discussion of the merits of various "old genevers" and "young genevers." To distill the whole conversation down, so to speak, they both taste like shit, but old genever is considerably more expensive than new genever. Travel Tips from Hulles; thank me later.
There are lots of other naftabs in my collection, but there really aren't very good stories to go with them. Unless you count the time I ran naked as a jaybird down Grosspeterstrasse in Basel Switzerland singing Abba's "Mama Mia" at the top of my lungs, or stories of foggily remembered amours I had while drinking sloe gin fizzes, sloe gin being the naftab of Iowa. Naw, you don't want to hear those stories, so we'll bid adieu to our justly-maligned friends the naftabs and go back to whatever it is we were doing before I started using the first person plural.
But before I go, I need to pass this one on. You know how much I like the serendipitous Internet; I ran across this drink recipe on London's Nordic Bar website, the Nordic Bar being "London's first Scandinavian bar." ("Lapp Dancing!") The drink is in their Twisted Scandinavia Shots section, and according to them should be ordered in a Nordic accent:
The exhaust on my Volvo is very warm £3.10
Chilli Vodka, Black Sambuca, fresh Lemon and Raspberry.
Chilli Vodka, Black Sambuca, fresh Lemon and Raspberry.
I like those guys. I'm going there next time I'm in London.