Meat, maté, tango, amaro. This may sound like army field code from a WWII movie, but it’s actually the four pillars of Argentinian R&R. The Beachbum encountered each during a recent trip to Buenos Aires with Tales of the Cocktail On Tour, where he led a Tiki seminar for local bartenders (you can read about it in Spanish here and in English — Camper English, no less — here).
At a ranchero outside the city, Tales producers Mr. & Mrs. Cocktail hosted a traditional asado (pictured above), an open pit barbecue where no animal part is allowed to escape uncharred. Asado menus range from cow salivary gland to pig pancreas, but fortunately the emphasis here was on short ribs. In true Argentinian style, nothing was wasted: Tales panelists Mike Ryan and Don Lee confiscated the rib fat for their “Science of Cocktails” seminar, using it to fat-wash bourbon for an Asado Old-Fashioned.
Maté, the South American tea made from dried yerba maté leaves, is another Argentinian tradition that’s found its way into Buenos Aires cocktails. At the Pony Line Lounge, we took the advice of maître d’ Tasio Baserga and ordered a mug of chilled maté infused with spirits and spices, which barman Emiliano Espinosa served alongside a pitcher of lemonade. (You add the lemonade to the spiked maté, diluting your cocktail to taste.)
If there’s anything more Argentinian than tango, it’s amaro. Buenos Aires has an amaro culture that rivals Rome’s, which is no coincidence: Italian immigrants poured into the city from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century, taking their love of bitter fortified aperitif wines with them. Fernet Branca has a plant in Argentina — the only one outside of Italy — and a bevy of home-grown amari brands, chief among them Pineral, compete for grocery store shelf space with Campari, Cinzano and Cynar.
While Fernet and Coke is the most popular cocktail in Buenos Aires, the city’s craft cocktail bars put amari to much more interesting use. At Bar 878, Javier Sosa combines lime, grapefruit and Pineral into his Pizarro, while Bahdir Malouf counters with the Aperitif For Destruction: gin, mint and tonic water embittered by a blend of three amari (Punt e Mes, Cinzano and Cynar).
While Aperitif For Destruction was the best cocktail name in town, the best atmosphere belonged to Floreria Atlantico, a bar-restaurant hidden in a long, narrow basement underneath a flower shop. You enter through the shop, and with your nose full of bouquets descend the unmarked stairs into the Atlantico. With its distressed concrete walls, flaming parrilla behind the bar, and mix of bohemian and jet-set clientele, the interior recalls an Antonioni set from his L’eclisse period — or, to use the parlance of our times, a Dos Equis “most interesting man in the world” commercial.
Speaking of movie sets, step into Cafe Tortoni — an ornate, high-ceilinged coffee house that hasn’t changed a lick since it opened in 1858 — and you’re in a period epic by Visconti or Bertolucci. Our spirit guide, local cocktailian Fede Fusco, instructed us to skip the coffee and sip as the locals do: on thick, strong hot chocolate, leavened to taste with a side of whole milk. If you must order an alcohol-free beverage, there are worse calls than this.