Back in Pittsburgh, we maintained an extensive liquor cabinet for our home bar. Any type of classic cocktail could be stirred or shaken to life. As we began to prepare for our adventure, budget became a concern, so we would often substitute a night out with a trip to our home bar. Very little tastes as good as a perfect cocktail from your personal liquor cabinet. You’re garnishing your drinks with thrift – mischief managed, capital concerns allayed. We had never really considered what the liquor stores would look like in Cuenca, the third largest city in Ecuador. I had assumed scads of Pisco and wonderful new world wines. That is not what the liquor stores look like.
Even in the state of Pennsylvania, where the state-run monopoly on liquor stores is demonstrably terrible, the vast stores are a comparative cornucopia of alcoholic delights. If money were no object, then shelling out more than double for some things I could find back in the United States would find our liquor cabinet reasonably well stocked, with the noted exception of Bourbon…and Rye…and Tequila…and Mezcal. However, I used to work with alcohol and make cocktails for money. What the stores do have in great supply is Cristal Aguardiente (translation: Clear Firewater), a spirit made locally from distilled sugar cane juice. Enter the infusion.
Infusions Are a Trick of the Trade
If you enjoy having a drink or three at home but find yourself on a budget, there’s likely a local, cheap and clear liquor that’s just begging for an infusion.
Infusions are an ancient trick bartenders began using in earnest in the 1980s, and they’ve now become de riguer for cocktail programs and home cocktail enthusiasts alike. It’s an amazing and incredibly easy way to clean up some cheap alcohol (as some of the heavier oils and compounds will be absorbed by your infusion subject), or to simply elevate your favorite spirit or cocktail. I happen to love cane-based spirits, and Cristal is a solid product. It’s also well within our budget at 8 dollars a bottle.
Choosing Ingredients for Your Infusion
Cuenca has some amazing open-air markets, and we frequent the closest one, Feria Libre, every few days. For around 12 dollars we have enough produce for the week. For a few dollars more, we have subjects for infusions and a few bottles of Cristal. Because you’re working with fresh produce, there’s plenty of wiggle room to find the preferred flavor for your cocktail. Here’s a couple of quick and easy infusions that will elevate your home bar and cocktail game on a budget and work with any clear spirit, whether it’s vodka, gin, tequila, rum or sweet, sweet firewater.
A dozen strawberries
1″ of peeled ginger
1 750ml bottle of spirit of your choice
1 32oz water bottle or large jar
Remove the tops from the strawberries then slice into quarters. Slice the ginger into thin strips. Place the ginger and strawberries into your jar or water bottle and cover with the spirit. Keep the bottle the spirit came in. Let sit for at least 24 hours. Strain, place back into the original bottle, and store in the refrigerator.
Even though the strawberries were a little under-ripe, the infusion came out great, leaving the alcohol a light pink color, and giving it a slightly spicy ginger bite. It goes great with two parts soda water or sparkling wine.
A generous handful of basil leaves
1 750ml bottle of spirit of your choice
1 32oz water bottle or large jar
Remove the stems from the herbs, then gently cut them into large chunks. Place them into the jar, cover with the spirit, then seal and put into the refrigerator. Keep the bottle the spirit came in. The infusion time on herbs is always fairly short, and should never go longer than 12 hours. Letting an infusion go too long will give the alcohol time to break down the bitter components in the herbs, which you don’t want in your drink. Generally, 6 to 8 hours will do the trick.
Once you’re happy with the flavor, strain and pour back into the original bottle and store in the refrigerator. This makes a really clean and refreshing infusion that is a perfect addition to two parts juice or soda.
Bell Pepper and Mango
1 Red Bell Pepper
1 750ml bottle of spirit of your choice
1 32oz water bottle or large jar
Clean the bell pepper by removing the stem, cutting it in half, and removing the pith and seeds from the flesh. Cut into thin strips, then dice. Bell peppers generally have a more mild flavor than a fruit subject, so to keep it in balance, we’re giving the pepper more surface area to work with. Cut the mango into cubes or long strips, removing the skin. Place the pepper and mango into your water bottle or jar and cover with the spirit. Keep the bottle the spirit came in. After 24 hours, pull your infusion, strain and pour back into the original bottle. Store in the refrigerator.
If you want a more robust flavor profile in your infusion or your cocktail, lightly roasting the pepper will do the trick. This is delicious all on its own over ice, but would be great in any number of cocktails, which we will discuss in an upcoming post.
“If I were in Texas right now, I’d be buying a fifth at a gas station and riding a cowboy.”
I dragged my insufficiently-tractioned booties on the mat and shook snow from my recently purchased hood. Although I had lived in the Northeast for most of my life, my first winter in Pittsburgh was proving brutal. I have always considered myself tough, or at least, unlikely to whine, but Pittsburgh isn’t called the Steel City only for its manufacturing past. The people there are a tough breed. The first day it snowed I walked up to the bus stop in my winter coat and there was an old woman, knotty with age, with just an undone windbreaker, making light conversation with the stranger beside her. Now, after a week of below zero temperatures and dragging myself up the iced over hill to my apartment, pulling myself along my neighbor’s chain-link fence, I was regretting my decision to agree to Pittsburgh over Austin for an increasingly unsalvageable relationship.
The other thing about Pittsburgh is, the people have heart. So much so that if you show them your mettle, you become family. This is why, three years later, I was still in Pittsburgh, albeit with appropriate footwear. I was managing what I will not-at-all humbly refer to as the best cocktail bar in the city. The type of place where your staff is so good they can surprise even the most jaded “big city” manager with their empathy, creativity, and wit. Even still, a weekly 50 hours on my feet and another 20 at my desk, coupled with ever more increasing call-outs by support and kitchen staff was starting to take a toll, and worse, make me into the sloppy, corner-cutting boss I’d always hated. J and I had been hushedly whispering places we wanted to see some day in exhausted late night conversations since we had become partners a year earlier. And although I hadn’t been there in over 15 years, Austin kept rearing its head into our consciousness.
It was a date night; we probably slept until 2 and then slowly emerged around 4 or so. We were always dead tired, and even going out for a drink was just so much work most of the time. We had tickets for Salome and plans for Bar Marco beforehand. After the opera we went to Pirata for some of the best pina coladas ever for dessert. I poked a joke or two at Y for missing the money shot of the opera due to (fucking) exhaustion, and we both laughed about walking to the wrong venue, wandering around the unlocked said venue then finally taking an Uber to the correct venue only a minute or two after the opera started. The sweet tiki delights we had defrosting in front of us were the aid to the sparse lemons of the evening.
The bar was empty except for two middle-aged white bros, wearing the ubiquitous indoor fucking ballcap, high-fiving to an election we were both trying to avoid paying attention to, at least for the evening. The world started to feel a little more dangerous, and we hopped a car back to my place in Polish Hill, and kicked on NPR’s election coverage. My roommate Sam, Y and I drank heavily, listening to the commentators become increasingly frantic before I turned it off and walked a skewed line into the kitchen for another drink.
“Well, fuck this country. Fuck Texas, fuck this country, fuck Trump, let’s move to Argentina.”
I tend to expect the worst. November 8 approached, and a sense of unease that refused to be suppressed permeated my thoughts, regardless of the magnitude of mezcal I consumed. Hungover from the attempted circumvention, I still managed to complete my civic duty. However, I was still surprised voting that day, as it was my first time experiencing a wait to cast my ballot (though only for the line that was constituted mostly of lower income apartment dwellers) at this polling place. In addition, I had to step out of the line because I felt faint due to the heat blasting on the unusually balmy November evening (a neighbor saw me looking peaked and offered to hold my place), before I could finalize my vote.
Women live on the defensive. Arguments could be made about voter suppression, scare tactics in marketing, and party dynamics, but the truth is, that night, as I sat on a barstool in a fashionable downtown restaurant in a Northern American metropolitan area, I watched two white men high five and loudly celebrate, publicly boasting that women were going to have to learn their place, as states were called red. That night my male friends seemed surprised by what women have often suspected, that our safety is dependent on the will of the men that surround us. An increasing problem for someone who has never had any interest in dulling her intelligence to make anyone more comfortable.
A few months before, Y and I had one of The Talks people who love each other have, and we had agreed we were done with Pittsburgh, and that Texas is a beautiful place we both love and could easily find gainful employment in.In a previous life, I had plane and train tickets in my hot little hand, and I was inches away from traveling with the intent to select a neighborhood to live in during my mid-twenties, but those unused tickets just ended up being icing on a big ole failure cake. Everyone loves second chances.
With measured discourse giving way to martyrdom and histrionics at home, J and I looked south for our salvation.We both were initially drawn in by the glamour of cosmopolitan Buenos Aires. However, the idea of Ecuador kept coming up – in articles in my inbox, in the clickbait titles of best of lists, and random anecdotes from convivial guests. When the universe keeps nudging an idea your way, I believe you should listen. I broached the idea with J, who, while open, was hesitant. My desire to do all of the things can sometimes result in me acting indecisive, and Buenos Aires had been always been the plan. As we talked it through, the cognizance of our limited Spanish proficiency and lack of support, financial or otherwise, made the move to South America’s New York feel daunting. J had a tarot reading coming up, at which time he wanted to discuss both options. With the cards’ decision aligning with a move to Ecuador, we were once again advancing with purpose.
Our leases were due to end in the coming summer, but beyond a toss-up between Austin and San Antonio, we hadn’t talked about it much, other than that we were committed to each other and a big change in the future.So the leap from Trump’s Amerikkka to another nation wasn’t Olympic by any stretch of the imagination. White people ruin everything.
Argentina was on the radar for me because of a raging priapism for South American literature I became afflicted with in college. For years I had been threatening anyone that would listen that I was going to teach English there someday, and, after a few particularly galling professional moments, I had become so fed up with bartending that I had made a formal request to my folks to house my ever stalwart companion, Moose Handsome Endress, Cat-at-Large (seriously, he’s like 18 pounds), in the eventuality of my departure.
Obviously, my parents, who love me very much I guess, said yes, but I’m sure rolled their eyes in the aftermath. But then, they probably do that a lot.
People who do not work in restaurants have an idea that people who do work in restaurants have a lot of freedom in their schedules.This (somewhat earned) allegory of the lazy waiter, who drinks until 2am, sleeps until noon, and is going to use that music degree and start up a band as soon as he finishes catching up on the last season of Modern Family and gets his car fixed. In reality, those of us who didn’t stop bartending after that one summer in college often drink until 4am, wake up an hour before our next shift, don’t waste money on cable, and yeah, our cars are garbage. These professionals put on a good face, give thoughtful recommendations, measure out the tempo of guests’ meals to ensure a seamless experience, deferentially answer questions, and do it all on their feet (often without a break) while working late nights, weekends, and holidays. This level of hospitality is an art form that takes years to master. If restaurant employment was unskilled, as many assume, Yelp wouldn’t exist. But being indispensable in the hospitality industry has its drawbacks. Good restaurants operate with small crews to ensure skilled labor gets paid livable wages, and that means vacation time needs to be covered by other staff members. Staff members who won’t accrue overtime by working the additional shift. And that vacation, it’s unpaid. So when the smart, innovative bar you work at closes, it’s important to take advantage of that newly amassed free time.
My dad is prone to grand gestures. Two days before New Year’s, in the midst of finalizing details for the restaurant’s New Year’s Eve service, he called to let me know he would be driving to Pittsburgh the next day to gift me the used car he had initially bought for my youngest sister ten years earlier when she was in college. I informed him that it was an exceptionally generous offer, one I wasn’t sure I needed, but begged him to wait a day so that I might procure a parking permit, insurance, and a driver’s license, before attempting to transfer the title. Forms were filed and fees paid and I had myself an exhausted looking car with 235,000 miles and two decades of experience under her belt. She broke down within two weeks. With everything else on my plate, fixing the non-essential vehicle wasn’t a priority, and it wasn’t until the bar’s last service had come and gone, months later, that I made the effort. Realizing that these repairs were merely expensive duct tape destined to tear was strangely liberating and gave me a plan. Instead of being precious about the car, why not take it out for a last trip? We could drive it into the ground, then sell it before moving. Recently I had been feeling an intense desire to visit Utah and Arizona. When I pitched the idea to J he said, “I’d like to see the Grand Canyon.”
In November of 2016, I was square in the middle of a year-long obligation to my post as Bar Director at Tender Bar + Kitchen, while Y was Generally Managing the same. Over the next 6 months, our planning evolved, shifted, and blossomed. It became a safe and secret garden we would hide in after being brutalized week after week by the uphill battle to keep a restaurant from failing. Spoiler alert, it failed. We certainly made the 4th quarter of the game go as long and look as good as was humanly possible, but the other three, well, we didn’t make those calls. Even when we caught the first hints of smoke and ash on the wind, our plans became a flame retardant stunt-suit to put on every time shit hit the fan, as it did with increasing regularity.
Around the New Year, Y’s father gifted her a car, and after pouring some money into it, Y felt confident in including it in our plans. I don’t know who came up with the idea to take the car cross-country, but the simple move to South America was suddenly supplemented with the cross-country journey I had never been cool enough to have. As the demise of the restaurant became closer to official, our plans had a new dimension to them. When it closed, we gladly walked out into the light at the end of the tunnel, albeit with a few tears and bittersweet moments: we were going on an Adventure. In June, a full month of warm and fuzzy post-service industry life gone by, I had my Tarot read (a birthday gift from my partner hearts hearts), and things became crystallized.
I am a huge advocate of Tarot readings, because they are a healthy and helpful method of unraveling your own intentions and they lend the perspective of someone who is a more or less neutral party. It’s therapy that makes sense, and an incredibly enjoyable act of mindful healing and introspection. Plus, those cards are badass.
My reader helped nudge me towards the realization that the original plan for Buenos Aires might be a little detrimental, but that Ecuador, something that had turned up here and there in our research, might be a more productive and nurturing environment. After a very brief discussion, we focused on Ecuador, eventually settling on Cuenca. For two acolyte speakers of Spanish in a new country, a city only slightly larger than Pittsburgh seemed a better fit than a Latin New York City sans lube. The loose plans we had been shrugging our way around in conversation with friends became the future.
With our grandiose plans in place, we were left wondering how to accommodate our house cat/land manatee, Moose. He is not as interested in new ventures as his species is portrayed to be, and taking a cat who refuses to eat a different brand of cat food on a road trip seemed quite an undertaking. We began taking him on rides. J would strap Moose into his harness and we would go on short trips. Moose would lay in J’s lap while I drove, protesting loudly at first, then more softly. Eventually, he began to take an interest in the scenery passing by. He would look out the windshield, paws boldly atop the glove compartment like a Captain looking out to sea. Then one particularly hot day in July, we went to the bank. The car’s rickety air conditioning system couldn’t match the intensity outside, and Moose’s constant pleas made it clear we couldn’t take him on a trip through the Southwest. We soberly made the decision to leave him with J’s parents, who are avid animal lovers, knowing he would be treated well until we could come claim him in a few months.
We spent the rest of our summer in Pittsburgh lining up ducks, crossing i’s, dotting t’s and filling buckets with lists.More talk of future plans and trips flowed naturally, and after more team meetings, Team Felicidad decided to pursue living the best life and manifesting the shit out of all the talk and the plans and especially the dreams. We’re keeping it all on the table. This first adventure is just the test-bed for the rest of our lives.
After a tearful (and temporary) farewell to Mr. Moose, we began our adventure in earnest.