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Rum and Roti in Parts Unknown

27 Oct

Melanie's Roti

“Why isn’t The Bronx a city?” Eugene inquired as we sat around a table in Melanie’s Roti & Grill Restaurant on Castle Hill Avenue.

“It’s a borough,” Gerry explained.

“Yeah, but what’s a borough? Why isn’t it just another city? What is it with these boroughs? I mean, when I think of New York I think of Manhattan. That’s New York. The Bronx? Brooklyn? Boroughs? What’s that all about?”’

Zio, could only hear fragments of Eugene’s proclamations, but enough to test his patience. “Would you shut up already about the boroughs!” he yelled, his face contorted in rage.

Not long before I chose Melanie’s Roti & Grill Restaurant, CNN aired a program hosted by food and travel media celebrity, Anthony Bourdain called “Parts Unknown,” where the unknown part in this episode, at least to Bourdain, was the Bronx. After twelve years of foraging restaurants in New York, including all the boroughs that so perplex Eugene there were no more unknown parts in the city for our Chow City group. We’d been to almost all of them—and the Bronx, because it had long been neglected in the city’s food sphere has always been a particular focus for our group.

In the Bronx, our group uncovered ethnic joints where we’ve had, among other things, pizza, African, Vietnamese, Thai, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Mexican, Barbecue, and Caribbean. The variety of food choices in the Bronx is almost equal to what can be found the city’s food epicenter, another one of those boroughs lamented by Eugene: Queens.

It was happy hour at Melanie’s and I got happy with a Heineken.

“They have Ron Zacapa 23 here,” Mike from Yonkers announced to all but especially to Gerry referring to the aged rum from Guatemala .

“I might have one or two of those,” Gerry said.

At Melanie’s the happy hour lasted from 4pm until 8. We were comfortably under the deadline.

“We are in a Guyanese place. Why not order an El Dorado 21 year old instead,” I suggested.

“Maybe I’ll have one of those too,” Gerry said with a sly smile.

Old rum for an old man

Old rum for an old man

That it was happy hour was a bonus, but we were at Melanie’s for the food.

It had been several years since we dined on Guyanese food and this one, located in the heart of a Latin neighborhood in the Bronx, seemed an anomaly until I noticed another “roti” restaurant a block from Melanie’s. Apparently there was a West Indian/Guyanese enclave within the enclave. Why should I be surprised? This was the Bronx after all.

With Mike from Yonkers’ insistence, and not that we protested, we started with an order of fried shark for the table along with a plate of channa, spiced and salted chick peas. The shark, also salty and fried into chunks went well with my Heineken.



The Guyanese like to offer westernized variations of Chinese food in their restaurants; lo mein, chow mein  and fried rice were available at Melanie’s. Though I would never order chow mein in a Chinese restaurant, I couldn’t resist trying it at Melanie’s and had what was called the “mix.”

“You want everything in it?” Our waitress and bartender inquired.

“I want it all,” I said without hesitation.

Guyanese chow mein with the works

Guyanese chow mein with the works

Though Guyana was a long way from Jamaica, the birthplace of jerk chicken, like all of the Caribbean, jerk has become a staple in that region and both Eugene and Zio ordered it at Melanie’s while Gerry, disappointed that there was no more goat available that day to have with his curry, substituted duck in its place. Mike from Yonkers also was intrigued by the duck, among other things, and chose the bunjal duck with Indian dhal and basmati rice.

“Oh and I can I have one of those roti things,” Eugene said, not knowing that roti was an Indian soft, flat bread wrapped into a narrow roll even though we knew he had had it before at one or two of our food choices throughout the years.

The portions were enormous; the mix in my chow mein included shrimp, beef, roast pork, duck, jerk chicken and vegetables. The noodles, as I expected were soggy but the vegetables crisp enough to compensate. The only real disappointment was the lack of spice from the jerk chicken, but the accompanying hot sauce more than made up for the lack of heat.

Duck curry

Duck curry

While we rapidly consumed our platters, Mike from Yonkers deliberately dipped his duck in the dhal, scooping a small portion of rice with it, and then wrapping it  into a portion of roti; the tedious process making us wait  until he finally finished before asking for our check. Eugene glared at him.

“Okay, I’m done,” Mike from Yonkers said, throwing up his hands.

On our way out and walking down Castle Hill Avenue with Zio, we passed  a familiar restaurant called Sabrosura.  It was familiar because a couple of years earlier we experienced the splendors of that Dominican/Chinese place and chronicled that experience in these pages( The Place Where They Don’t Count the Shrimp).  And like Sabrusora and so many others, Melanie’s was just another food find in Parts Unknown.

The Bronx


Melanie’s Roti & Grill Restaurant

1248 Castle Hill Avenue

The Bronx

Neckbones’ Rum Diary: The Polar Vortex Rum Route

27 Jan

Polar Vortex rum

We had been informed by those who know about such things that a Polar Vortex had descended on the city.  All I knew that it was very cold as I emerged from my car on barren 134th Street just off the Bruckner Boulevard. I was in what is known as the “Mott Haven” section of the Bronx. I know it as the south Bronx.

The wind was howling as I pushed open the non-descript heavy steel door and made my way up two flights to the world headquarters of the Tirado Distillery. I could hear music playing behind a closed door—disco from the 1970’s. I knocked. The music stopped. Dr. Renee Hernandez, the owner of, according to Dr. Hernandez, the Bronx’s first distillery since prohibition, was expecting me.

The Tirado Distillery sign

The Tirado Distillery door sign

The heat was on in the brightly lit room where folding tables and chairs held samples of the products made at the Tirado Distillery, but I was still cold. I was more familiar with rum among palm trees and sugar cane fields; often being whisked beach side to warm weather distilleries. Now, however, I was exploring that same spirit on grimy city streets within the grips of a polar vortex. I tried to keep an open mind as Dr. Hernandez offered me tasting sips of his products. I started with the corn whiskey.

“It’s organic,” Dr. Hernandez told me. “We get the corn from farms upstate.”

I winced at the taste, not that it was bad , but that I wasn’t quite ready for the bracing jolt it gave me.

“Bronx moonshine,” Dr. Hernandez called it. “It goes great in a ‘sex on the beach,’” he said.

I looked at him. He had to go and mention the beach?

I next tried the black rum. It was hearty; heavy-bodied in the style of what is known as Navy rums.

“I like to mix it with passion fruit juice,” Dr. Hernandez told me and I couldn’t argue. It needed something to cut its denseness.

“Where do you get your molasses for the rum,” I inquired. “Puerto Rico? The Dominican Republic? Jamaica?”

“New Jersey,” he answered.

I nodded, but said nothing.

“From International Molasses,” he added.

I understood but didn’t inquire further as to where New Jersey’s International Molasses got their molasses.

Finally I sampled the distillery’s “Maple Delight,” a blend of whiskey with a hint of local New York maple sugar. Surprisingly smooth, the Maple Delight was my favorite in the Tirado Distillery repertoire.

The sips had taken the chill off and Dr. Hernandez took me into the production facility down the hall which featured rows of plastic buckets used for fermentation, a few small stainless steel stills and boxes of empty bottles ready to be filled and labeled. From the loft-like facility, you could see the flickering lights of Manhattan.

Tirado's fermentation tanks.

Tirado’s fermentation tanks.

“We only produce around 300 bottles a year and concentrate on making our products clean and smooth. You won’t get a hangover from our rum or whiskey.” Dr. Hernandez proudly proclaimed.

I thanked him for the personalized tour and made my way back out into the cold. I got into my car and turned up the heat. The last time I made the rum rounds was on the island of Martinique. There are eleven rum distilleries on that French Caribbean island and the local tourist board promotes visiting them with what they call “la route des rhums.” Here in frigid New York, after Tirado Distillery, I had two more to visit. Would my escapade qualify as a route des rhums?

One of the distillery's on Martinique "route des rhums."

One of the distillery’s on Martinique’s “route des rhums.”

My next stop was Brooklyn and I soon found myself in an industrial, truck-crammed area similar to Mott Haven. I was in Williamsburg—or was it Bushwick—searching for my destination TNE (The Nobel Experiment)NYC, the distillery that makes another New York-produced rum called Owney’s. And I soon found it—the TNE NYC painted in big bold black letters above a graffiti-strewn steel door.

The door to TNE's headquarters.

The door to TNE’s headquarters.

On one of my tropical, beach-centric rum assignments many years ago I met Owen Tulloch, the master blender for J. Wray & Nephew’s Appleton Estate rums in Jamaica. At the time, the esteemed Mr. Tulloch was grooming his young associate, Joy Spence, in both the scientific and the sensory ways of blending fine rums. Soon after we met, Mr. Tulloch retired and Ms Spence became the spirit industry’s first female master blender.

Now, almost twenty years later, many miles north of the Caribbean during—I have to say it again— a polar vortex, I was greeted by Bridget Firtle, the CEO and founder of TNE who is not only another female master blender of fine rum, but one who also operates every physical aspect of the rum making process as well as distribution. The Noble Experiment is literally a one-woman show.

What can you say about a young, up and coming Wall Street and hedge fund mover and shaker who gives up that potentially very lucrative, yet soulless career for one that , albeit risky, actually enriches others’ (speaking of my own) lives by following her passion and creating a beloved (by me) hand-crafted spirit in her polar vortex-challenged hometown? That is what Bridget Firtle has done and some might think that maybe inhaling too many alcoholic vapors might have compromised her career choice decision while others, me included, applaud her for chasing her dream.

The Noble Experiment, so named as a nod to one of the terms associated with Prohibition when rum running was the rage, was housed in an open, airy room where towering mashing tanks and copper pot stills glittered in the natural light that poured through the big windows. The machinery looked imposing to me, but Ms. Firtle learned to handle them all expertly enough to churn out 23,000 bottles in her initial 2012 batch, and to also earn Owney’s Rum, named in another nod to the Prohibition Era after notorious bootlegger, Cotton Club owner, and gangster, Owney Madden, a silver medal at the 2013 New York International Spirit’s Competition.

Some of the machinery at the TNE Distillery run by Bridgit Firtle.

Some of the machinery at the TNE Distillery run by Bridget Firtle.

Fortified with sugar cane molasses from Florida and Louisiana and made with that same coveted New York water that is credited with making New York bagels and pizza so good, Owney’s is a smooth white rum. The sip offered me at the handsome wood burnished bar in the lobby of the distillery reflected that distinctive water; clean enough to enjoy on the rocks with a wedge of lime or, even better, as the soul of a classic daiquiri. Firtle’s own experiment is not only noble, but very impressive and though Wall Street might be the “poorer” for losing her talents, the New York rum establishment, such as it is, is much richer for it.

Polar Vortex Rum

I wasn’t far from the next stop in my urban rum route, also in Brooklyn, and even though I found my way to Red Hook, I wasn’t really sure exactly where I was going and what I was going to see. My interest was in Cacao Prieto rum, but did that mean I needed to go to the Widow Jane bourbon factory that was associated with Cacao Prieto, which was also, as its name connotes, a chocolate making enterprise. I noticed the colorful mural of workers harvesting sugar cane on the wall of a warehouse. I knew I had to be close and then around the corner saw the old brick building with the prominent “Cacao Prieto” sign on it. I was where I wanted to be. At least I thought I was.

Harvesting sugar can in Red Hook during a Polar Vortex.

Harvesting sugar cane in Red Hook during a Polar Vortex.

The doors were locked but a sign on it left a phone number to call to gain entry or to “knock loudly.” I knocked loudly. A man in worker coveralls opened up. I told him what my interest was. Another man, bearded and heavily tattooed with a roguish, Captain Jack Sparrow smile, introduced himself as Vince Oleson. “I’m a distiller,” he said.

A distiller at a rum distillery could certainly help me. And Mr. Oleson did. He took me past the American and French oak barrels, copper pot stills, through a small yard where live chickens roamed, and then to the fermentation tanks in a back room.  Oleson told me how the rum was made from organic sugar cane from Daniel Preston’s, the owner and founder of Cacao Prieto, family’s farm in the Dominican Republic where the cacao for the artisanal chocolate made at Cacao Prieto also came from. He explained how the water used was from the “Widow Jane” mine in the Catskills and packed with minerals adding even more depth to the finished product, and how the cacao beans were actually fermented with the white rum to create their signature and unique “Don Rafael Cacao Rum,” and “Don Esteban Cacao liqueur.”

I did a lot of nodding as Oleson schooled me in the Red Hook rum making process. It all sounded almost too impressive. No one ever emphasized the water during my various other Caribbean rum tours. No one blended organic cacao with organic sugar cane in Martinique, Jamaica, Barbados or any of the other rum-making islands I’d visited. But this was Brooklyn, home of the artisanal food movement: I should have known.

Polar Vortex Rum

After the tour, Oleson set me up at their tasting bar with samplings of a number Cacao Prieto’s rums including a small batch produced of what they call Widow Jane Rye rum, or rum aged in the oak barrels formerly used to age the company’s rye. The result was a subtle smoky flavor from the rye. “With this you could make a rum sazerac,” I said.

“Now that’s a great idea,” Oleson replied, again with the rougish, Jack Sparrow smile.

After that sip I was full of great ideas and it got even better when I sampled Cacao Prieto’s Don Rafael Cacao rum; the company’s smooth white rum infused with their own rich chocolate. But this wasn’t just chocolate, this was “cacao,” and the flavor was both intense and clean. Finally I sipped the white rum. Like Owney’s, it’s was fresh, fortified by that mineral-rich New York water and would work just fine on the rocks or in a lightly flavored drink like a daiquiri or even a French Caribbean Ti Punch.

The Cacao Prieto Tasting Bar.

The Cacao Prieto Tasting Bar.

I let Mr. Oleson get back to work. There were rums to distill. My self guided route des rhums was over and I was stuck in traffic on the BQE. The windshield of my car was beginning to ice and I turned on the defroster. Now that my hometown had its own burgeoning rum making industry did I really need to travel all the way to those lush, warm tropical islands to experience what had been lacking here? As I pondered that question, there was more blather on the radio about the polar vortex.  By the time I crossed the Kosciusko Bridge into Queens, I pondered it no more.

On the Polar Vortex rum route.

The scenic Polar Vortex rum route.

Tirado Distillery
755 W. 134th St.
The Bronx

The Noble Experiment
23 Meadow Street,

Cacao Prieto
218 Conover Street
Red Hook, Brooklyn

Ti’ Time

5 Apr

Ti’ (pronounced “tea”) time for me is usually just before dinner. Drinking a Ti’ helps spur my appetite, or that’s how I justify it. It’s what is called an aperitif. In the French Caribbean they don’t bother to justify spurring their appetites; Ti’ time is before just about every meal, including breakfast. The Ti’ in question is actually called Ti’ punch, with Ti’ meaning tiny or “petit” in Creole.

Ti' Punch ingredients

Ti’ Punch ingredients

I’ve heard it said that big gifts come in small packages. The Ti’ punch is a good example of that.  This little cocktail packs a hefty punch and might do a little more than spur your appetite if you aren’t careful.

The main ingredient for a Ti’ punch is Rhum Agricole Blanc from one of the French Caribbean Islands. Most accessible here in the States are the rums from Martinique. And I wrote about some of those in my post Neckbones Rum Diary: The J.M Incident. If you can get your hands on white rum from Guadeloupe or Haiti, I’m sure they will more than suffice in this recipe

Next you will need a small Old Fashioned or rocks glass.

To the glass you will add a few ice cubes. Not too many and if you prefer none at all, that’s fine too.

Take a thin wedge of lime, squeeze it lightly and drop it into the glass.

Fill a demitasse spoon, if you have one, with cane sugar syrup (brown only please). If you don’t have the demitasse spoon, drop in a quarter or half a teaspoon instead, depending on how sweet you like your drink.

In goes the syrup

In goes the syrup

Finally, pour two to three ounces of the Rhum Agricole Blance into the glass. Give it a mix with the spoon, or better yet, a little tropical mixer.

...and finally the rum.

…and finally the rum.

How fast you would like to drink it is up to you. I don’t like to savor it too long, but neither do I like to down it like a shot. Somewhere in between is the desired rate of consumption.

Stir it and drink.

Stir it and drink.

The only bad thing about Ti’ time is that it doesn’t last very long—unless you choose to take it into overtime.

A Lime Cut Three Ways: The Third Cut

20 Jul

Rum Punch

I’ve saved probably my oldest, most reliable “lime” drink for the last cut. Looking back on the three cuts, besides the presence of lime, I’ve noticed that all three use spirits derived from sugar cane.

In the first cut, The Caipirinha, I used cachaca from Brazil. In the second cut, The Mojito , I used a white, neutral Puerto Rican rum, and now here, for the third cut, I am using one of my favorites, a full bodied, dark West Indian rum.

The recipe for a good rum punch, this one put together from many trips to the Caribbean, is a universal one. And here it is in my best patois:


1 part sour

2 parts sweet

3 parts strong

4 parts weak


The sour, sweet, strong, and the weak. (plus a dash of bitter).

The differences between the rum punches come in what forms those parts take. The first part, however, is standard. The sour must be lime juice, freshly squeezed. I’ve seen recipes that call for lemon juice, but it’s just not the same—and not as good in my opinion.

The two parts sweet offers many variations. Some use grenadine syrup. Others fruit-flavored syrups that are sold in Caribbean markets. I use, as I have in the other two lime drinks in this series, simple brown demerara sugar syrup.

The strong is, of course, the alcohol, and in the Caribbean it is always rum. Mixologists might tweak the cocktail by adding a sweet, colorful liqueur or another type of spirit other than rum. I never get that fancy.

The only variation I’ve included is the addition of overproof rum (or rum with a 60 plus alc/vol) to one of the three “strong” parts. In the past few years, I’ve pretty much ceased that practice. Imbibing a rum punch spiked with overproof rum can be fun, liven a party and provide “memorable” moments. At my age, however, the consequences faced the next day are no longer very pretty to justify adding it to the punch.

So now I just stick to three parts of dark rum; something from Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, or one of the other islands once colonized by Great Britain. Don’t go for an “aged” rum or one that comes slickly packaged and advertised as “super premium.” An expensive “sipping” rum will just be wasted amongst all those other ingredients.

The weak in the recipe calls for the most variation. That’s where personal preference really comes into play. I like adding tropical juices; preferably mango and guava. Others add pineapple or orange juice to the punch. You can add whatever type of fruit juice you like.

Adding nectar to the rum.

And for me, four parts of fruit juice, makes the punch just too sweet so for one of the four parts of sweet, I just add ice or water. Don’t worry, your punch will not be watered down and if it seems that way, just balance it out with a little more rum or fruit juice.

Now as far as the parts go, they can be tablespoons, half cups, or more. I just go with each part being a full cup. You’ll end up with a nice jug of punch that will quickly be consumed at a party or, if it’s just for you, store it in your refrigerator. With all that alcohol, it will last for weeks and only get better with age. Just make sure to shake it up before serving.

Store the rum punch in the refrigerator…right next to the milk.

Here are the ingredients and quantities I use in making my version of the rum punch:

1 cup of freshly squeezed lime juice

2 cups of simple sugar syrup

3 cups of dark, West Indian rum

4 cups combined of mango and guava nectar, or 3 cups of juice/nectar, plus one cup of water (or a handful of ice).

Angostura Bitters

Combine the first four ingredients in a punch bowl or jug. Refrigerate for at least an hour before serving.

To serve, pour into ice-filled glasses and top with a splash of Angostura Bitters. If you have fresh nutmeg, grate a little into the glass.

Stir and sip.

A Lime Cut Three Ways: The Second Cut

20 Jun

The Mojito

I always thought of the mojito as an amateur’s drink. Part of my thinking was because of the rum used. I’m partial to the rums of either the West Indies; Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad, etc., which are molasses-based, and robust, or the exquisite French island “agricole” rums of Martinique and Guadeloupe, made from distilled sugar cane juice. The rum traditionally used for the mojito is of the smoother, Spanish variety; Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican, etc. So smooth, in fact, that to me, the rum is indistinguishable; practically devoid of any flavor.

Further damaging the mojito appeal in my narrow mind was that the rum usually poured into the drink was the one with the enormous marketing budget making it, in my estimation, the Coca Cola of rums. And speaking of Coca Cola, the rum in question is usually best enjoyed in that abomination: rum and coke. But there I go again, displaying my rum snobbery by thrashing a drink enjoyed over the years by millions of people. It’s an unseemly trait of mine that, as I grow older, hope I am losing. Who am I, some sort of food and beverage critic or something? It’s not my place to belittle one’s rum preference?

Cuba Libre??

A big part of my conversion to the mojito was the forest of mint that, since we moved to our new apartment, has accumulated on our terrace. Mint, along with lime, are the dominating flavors of the mojito and excellent bedfellows they make.

A forest of mint.

You can take your mint tea, mint ice cream, mint and lamb and whatever else you might use fresh mint for. I use it exclusively for the mojito. And yes, I do use smooth—err—bland, Puerto Rican rum in the drink (though not the Coca Cola of rums whose name will not be mentioned here). I wouldn’t dare attempt a mojito with a rum from Martinique or Trinidad. The result would be a completely different drink. The neutral rum from Puerto Rico seems to meld the other two dominant flavors of lime and mint perfectly in the cocktail.

Mojito mix

What follows is my version of the  mojito.


1 lime cut into tenths.

10 or more fresh mint leaves including sprigs.

4 teaspoons simple sugar syrup*

2 ounces of white Spanish rum (Puerto Rican or Domincan, if you can get Cuban, I’m sure that would work well too).

A splash or two of seltzer

*You can use superfine sugar, granulated sugar, or even confectioner’s sugar instead of simple syrup, but I prefer homemade syrup which eliminates having to dissolve the sugar into the drink. The recipe for simple sugar syrup can be found on my post, A Lime Cut Three Ways: The First Cut.

Add most of the lime and mint leaves, saving a few of each, to a highball glass. Mash and muddle the mint and lime together with a pestle or whatever type of apparatus you might have on hand.

Add the sugar syrup, the rum, and ice and stir.

Pour in a splash or two of seltzer to top off the cocktail and stir again.

A splash of seltzer.

Garnish with a couple of lime pieces and a sprig or two of mint.

Sit back, put your feet up, and enjoy.

The mojito

I no longer demean the mojito and want to admit here that I was very wrong about its many merits. It is a summer cocktail supreme and I now count it as one of my go to drinks. Could it be that this public admission is testament that I am finally maturing? One can only hope.

A Lime Cut Three Ways: The First Cut

1 Jun

The Caipirinha

My first exposure to Brazilian food, if you can call it that, was at a three-level place in the theater district called Cabana Carioca. At lunch on all three levels, there was an “all you can eat” buffet were rice and beans, plantains, potatoes, hearts of palm salad, baby shrimp salad, chorizo, roast chicken and  macaroni were some of the offerings. Depending what level you ate, was what you paid. The higher you climbed, the cheaper the buffet.

On the main level was a flat out, standard restaurant. I don’t think I ever ate there, but maybe I did. I just don’t remember. The second level, where the kitchen was located, was a bit more casual than the main level and the most popular of the three.  It was on the second level where I ate most of my meals. The third level was bare bones; dark and usually empty—used probably only when the other two levels were packed or for private parties, but still serving the restaurants’ enormous portions of steaks, fish, shrimp, and the specialty: feijoada, also known as the “Brazilian National Dish.”

Cabana Carioca’s feijoada came in a cast iron pot stuffed with black beans and a variety of meats; pork shoulder, chorizo, kidney, beef, and other cuts that at the time, I could not identify. They were all coated in the black gravy of the beans and, really, since by then I was probably on my second or third caipirinha, no longer cared what I might be shoveling into my mouth.

The Brazilian National Dish

Along with the alcohol’s numbing effect, the caipirinha, as opposed to beer, helped cut through the density of the feijoada and made it much easier to navigate. The only problem was the next day’s hangover from too much cachaca, the Brazilian spirit made from pressed and then distilled sugar cane juice and used to make the caipirinha.

I think the last time I had a caipirinha at Cabana Carioca was in 1998 watching Brazil lose to France in the World Cup. The restaurant, all three levels, closed soon after and now, both its caipirinha and feijoada are just memories.

I’ve never had the fortitude to try to resurrect the feijoada in my kitchen, but the caipirinha is a frequent guest. The ingredients are simple; cachaca (available at most liquor stores), sugar, ice, and of course limes. Despite the easy ingredients, making a really good caipirinha requires a little sweat, or, as they used to say, “elbow grease.” The result, however, is well worth the effort.
What follows is the first cut of the lime: the caipirinha.

Some of the tools and ingredients in making a caipirinha.


1 or 2 limes

2 to 3 ounces of cachaca*

2 to 3 teaspoons of sugar syrup **

3-5 ice cubes

*Spirit importers are beginning to market “premium” cachaca, which really just translates into a glitzy bottle design along with an upscale marketing campaign all in the hopes of selling a much higher priced product. I advise you not to go that route when purchasing cachaca for your caipirinhas. In Brazil there are two very popular brands that are used at most restaurants and clubs in making caipirinhas and they can be found here for well under $20 a liter. Seek them out. I guarantee you will not be disappointed.

**Most caipirinha recipes call for granulated sugar. I prefer pre-made sugar syrup thus skipping the “dissolving” process that is necessary in making the drink. To make simple sugar syrup, combine equal amounts of sugar and water, bring to a boil, lower the heat and let cook until the granules have dissolved. The syrup will last for weeks in your refrigerator. I like to use Demerara brown sugar for my syrup, but basic white sugar works just as well.


Sugar syrup and cut up limes.


To make the caipirinha you will need:

1 lime muddler. I have a parrot lime muddler that was given to me by my brother; a souvenir he picked up on a trip to Brazil.

The parrot

Cocktail shaker and strainer.

Cut the lime into eighths or even tenths.

Toss the lime pieces into the cocktail shaker and using your muddler, it can be a pestle, if you have a mortar and pestle, or anything that can mash and muddle lime pieces, muddle mash the lime, extracting the juice from both the rind and the pulp. Don’t be stingy with that aforementioned elbow grease.

Let the lime muddling begin.

Add the sugar syrup, cachaca and a some ice cubes.

Shake vigorously and then strain into an ice cube filled glass.

Almost cocktail time.

Do not be fooled by the drink’s petite size. It will be tempting to down it in a few gulps, but try to sip slowly.  Drinking the caipirinha too hastily will only mean a quicker return to the kitchen and more work for you to make another.

Neckbones’ Rum Diary: The J.M Incident

4 Nov

After boarding the ferry in Dominica, I downed an extra-strength Dramamine. The weather was clear, the waters calm, yet I didn’t want to risk a bout of seasickness before arriving at my destination: the J.M Rum distillery in Martinique.

Keeping my eyes straight ahead and sitting upright, I ignored the young man next to me and the others around me who were retching into plastic bags given out by the ferry’s crew as the boat was pummeled mercilessly in the channel between the two islands, also known, as I found out later as the “Blue Vomit.”

The ferry on the seemingly tranquil “blue vomit.”

With Martinique in sight, I was a bit groggy and wobbly, but my stomach remained intact and, once I exited the ferry onto the streets of Fort-de-France, Martinique’s capital city, a taxi whisked me to the northeast tip of the island to a place known as Macouba. I knew we were close and as the taxi descended down a steep incline, the red copper-tin roofs came into view and I could see the steam from the stills rising from the distillery through the dense greenery of palm fronds.

The distillery in Macouba

As we pulled in front of the old distillery, I smelled the alcohol-tinged cane juice as it was being “cooked” in the stills. Taking a healthy whiff, the vapors immediately restored my equilibrium, still somewhat shaky from the Blue Vomit nightmare.

Passing barrels of rum and ignoring a tour of the facilities, I headed straight to the tasting room/gift shop. A sample of J.M’s velvety white rum improved my situation even further but it wasn’t until I sipped the brand’s  VSOP “rhum vieux”  that I knew I had finally found what I was seeking. The taste was something so pure; so delicately smooth that the horrors of the Blue Vomit were worth the ordeal just to sip this amber nectar.

Stills and barrels of rum

My mission complete, I bought a bottle and returned to Fort-de-France where the next day I was to board a plane to San Juan and then another back to New York.

Keeping my precious cargo close by in my carry on bag, I was instructed by security at the Martinique airport to put the rum in a clear plastic bag. I did as told and was granted access to the plane.

Rushing through San Juan’s Luis Munoz Marin International Airport to make my connection to JFK, I waited on line at security. When it was my turn to pass through the gates, an overzealous customs officer, and most likely a rum aficionado, spied my bottle of J.M.

“You can’t take that on,” he said gruffly.

“But it’s in a clear plastic bag,” I pleaded.

“You could go back and check it in,” he offered, obviously knowing I had no time to do so. “or…I’ll have to take it from you.”

I stared at him. He stared at me and then held out his hand. I had no choice. He took the bottle, hiding a satisfied grin behind his bogus official demeanor.

The shock hit me as I settled into my seat. I was trembling. Once we were in the air and I knew my prized possession was gone, tears came to my eyes.

“Why are you so sad,” the abuela  who was sitting next to me and on her way to visit her daughter and grandchildren in the Bronx,  asked. “Have you left a loved one behind?”

I turned to her, dabbed at my eyes and nodded.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Time will cure your sorrow. Watch the movie. It’s funny.”

I looked up at the small screen. It was something with Adam Sandler. I didn’t laugh.

Even the comedy of Adam Sandler could not penetrate my sorrow.

The wise abuela was right. Time did heal the deep wound of loss. When I first returned to New York, I frantically searched the many liquor stores looking for the J.M VSOP Rhum Vieux, but with no luck. I abandoned my search and resigned myself to settle for other “old” rums.

But then, one evening when dining at a cacophonous, yet delicious high end eatery downtown, my eyes were drawn to the offering of Rhum J.M VSOP on the restaurant’s cocktail menu. My heart pounded. I looked for my waiter and saw him at another table. I waved. I snapped my fingers. I rudely whistled. People were staring. I didn’t care.  I needed him now.

Seeing my frantic state, he rushed over. “I want that!” I pointed to the listing of the J.M VSOP on the menu.

I tried to control my excitement as I waited at my table. I tapped my foot. I chewed on my lower lip. I stroked my cell phone and then it arrived. The beautiful amber fluid, served with just a twist of lime. I sipped. It was exactly how I remembered it. “Where,” I asked my waiter, “can I buy this?”

Liquid gold

He said he would check with the beverage manager. He returned with the name of the liquor store on a business card. I knew the place. I checked my watch. It wouldn’t be open now. I would have to wait until the next day.

I slept little that night, got up early and headed to the store to wait until they opened. As soon as the gates were pulled and the doors unlocked, I rushed in and found the rum section. There it was. The price was astronomical, at least twice what I paid for in Martinique, but I didn’t care. I bought a bottle that came in decorative box.

The rum now sits in a glass cabinet. I have yet to open it. I tried one evening, but I couldn’t do it. If I opened it, I would begin to drink it and eventually, maybe in a month, maybe more, the bottle would be empty. The thought chilled me to the core.

I’ve come now to accept that I will never open it, yet I do not care. It is mine. I possess it. And no one can take it away again…

Mine. All mine.

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