Hot and spicy
I do like it hot! I'm a "chilli-head" – I love the buggers in all forms. But my favourite agent for heating things up is something other than chillies: good old black pepper. If it's of good quality (not that horrible pre-ground grey powder you find on too many restaurant tables), esp. from India or beyond, then it's still the king of spices. Chillies offer more variation, though.
My favourite chilli is the ur-chilli, the wild variety that all peppers, from Cayenne to mild veg bell peppers, are descendent from: the Chiltepin, a small fruit the size of juniper berries, which retains a fantastic flavour in addition to the heat. It's a rare commodity though, found in New Mexico, USA
, especially, but hardly marketed at all. A rare treat. Easier to come by and also very flavoursome are many of the chillies of Mexico
and Latin America. The Passilla and the yellow pulped Peruvian aji amarillo are particular favourites. Smoked Chipotle chillies are fantastic as well. The naga variety from India
is also superb. And scores of other varieties too.
It's a whole world – but only accessible, of course, to those who can take the heat. You build it up over time. I remember the days of adolescence when Tabasco was real scary – and having half a teaspoonful of it was a kind of teenage test of bravery. Today I could swallow a tablespoonful of the stuff without batting an eyelid. And only when you get to the point of having built up a sufficient heat-resistance can you begin appreciating all the subtle flavours that chillies bring out on top of the mere heat. So that standard comment from the wusses … sorry: non-fire-eaters … along the lines of "but if it's so hot you can't taste anything else anymore" is just bollocks, or rather: ignorance. The nerve-ends affected by chilli "heat" are in fact temperature receptors (tricked by chillies into feeling heat) and as such of a totally different type as those receptors that pick up the basic tastes (salty, sour, sweet, bitter and umami - the subtler tastes are all picked up in the nose, so equally not directly affected by heat ... as long as you don't snort up chillies - heaven forbid!). Anyway, poor lot, those people who can't handle anything spicy ... they don't know what they're missing out on – also because a certain level of heat-resistance is a prerequisite for exploring some of the best cuisines in the world (cf. list
First you have to differentiate what drinks you're talking about. As far as industrial soft drinks are concerned I can't say anything at all, because I simply never touch them. I don't see why, if there's water
. I can't see the beginning of a point in all those carbonated sugar and/or chemical artificial aroma infested concoctions. So don't ask me about Cola & Co. (Or maybe do – and my answer would be: the fact that they now even try to "brand" bottled water makes me see red … if I had the political power for it I'd make the practice illegal. It's a bloody disgrace for the sake of marketing alone. Shame on them and anybody who falls for it.)
Juices are of course best fresh, in the countries that grow the relevant fruits (Sri Lanka
scores very high on that front too). Bottled juices or cartons are just a replacement.
Hot drinks like tea
I can appreciate. Tea, again, is superb in Sri Lanka
, and the very best tea I've ever had was in/from Rwanda
! But there's of course good tea from India
and probably elsewhere too. I'm far from an expert, though, especially not with regard to coffee. I even drink instant coffee ... and have no trouble with tea bags – so I suppose that disqualifies me from passing any kind of judgement in those areas.
As for wine and beer
etc. – here I can make clear country-specific differentiations:
When it comes to wine, I'd put Austria
at the very top. That's partly because I prefer white over red most of the time. And Austrian Rieslings in particular (esp. from the Wachau) are just second to none. Full stop. I've never encountered any from elsewhere that even came close to that level of excellence. Unfortunately it has its price and thus has to remain a special treat. But even from other regions the average national varieties like Grüner Veltliner or those made from exotic grape types such as Rotgipfler (not found anywhere else) can be superb.
Overall, on the white wine front, none of the usual "classic" wine countries can challenge Austria
for quality. Full marks here. I can almost hear all the Italy
fans getting outraged and hysterical about this now – but here's my tip: before you shout, do try one of the better drops from the Wachau region (I won't advocate any specific names here, for fairness' sake, but it's not difficult to find out which eight or ten names to look out for especially). And then show me an Italian or French white that can compete. Any bet you won't be able to do that. Honestly, even if I want a non-Austrian alternative, I'd rather look in the other direction: east, to Hungary
in particular – or to the most traditional wines in the country that was the very birth place of all viticulture: Georgia
in the Caucasus.
Not only does Georgia boast more unique grape varieties than the rest of the world put together, they also still use the age-old method of fermenting wine in earthenware vessels called quevries, which are buried in the ground, often fermenting with the stalks even for white wines (which thus come out rather amber in colour). It's a unique taste and the best expressions are mind-blowingly good (I could name a certain 2006 vintage from the Kisi grape … wow!!). It's not for everyone, though, and the uninitiated often mistake quevri-fermented wines as "oxidized" (which they are not, not as such at least, but a certain similarity to sherry is there, but without the fortified element). Mind you, though: most Georgian wine has for too long been just mass-produced plonk for the Russian export market. But when Russia
fell out with each other over the war in South Ossetia, Russia cancelled all exports. With 80% of the export market gone overnight, the only way out for the better producers was to emphasize low-yield, high-quality winemaking. And it worked. In a way then, the Russian boycott was the best thing that could have happened to Georgia's wines … a similar story to that of Austria
, which came out at the top end after a glycol scandal damaged exports in the 1980s … the economic damage in the end paid off in the form of top-notch quality as the way out in Austria too. Interesting to note that two of my favourite wine countries were practically "forced" into aspiring to such heights in quality. Maybe some of the better-known wine countries could benefit from similar hardships ...
As for the New World, I've had superb stuff (Sauvignon Blanc esp.) in South Africa, and I know New Zealand
and the USA
all have their top-notch wines, but usually it's of the global varieties. And frankly, I just got a bit bored with them, in particular with Chardonnay. I once loved the stuff (even the really oak-heavy, manipulated varieties), but now I cannot stand them any more. Maybe it's education.
And as for red
, the best I ever had were in Moldova (see Transnistria), Chile
, but South Africa
and many more have also impressed me on occasions. But I lack the insight into red wine to really put any country first here.
As for beer
– my fellow German country folk, prepare yourself for a shock: no, Germany
is NOT the best country in the world for beer. In fact 95% of it is downright boring. Uniform, standardized, bland lagers that can hardly be distinguished from one another. Just like in most other countries too. There are exceptions, of course, but overall it's yawn-inducing. And when it comes to that particular lager style "Pilsner" that is so popular in Germany, the Czechs
still do it best (Pilsen is, after all, a Czech place). But if you want really interesting beers, and a real variety of flavours, then Belgium
and Great Britain
traditionally lead the world. The micro-brewery trend of recent years, especially in the USA
, Scandinavia and, again, Great Britain has had a major impact on quality too … Now I can even get such top-level craft beers in my current country of residence, Austria
, which has otherwise hardly been a traditional home of quality beer. And the same trend is gaining ground in Germany too. (But the very best countries for craft beer currently are Poland
!) Positive changes then. The tricky bit, however, is to find
those quality craft brews (though in many parts of teh world it's getting increasingly easier) - and if you do you will note that they cost significantly more. But that's only natural given the amount of craftsmanship that is involved in producing such hand-made beers. And it's absolutely worth it. In fact, I've reached a point where I can't even tolerate standard lager beers at all any more. I'd rather have none at all than any of that mass-produced tasteless yellow plonk. Indeed, the 'craft-beer revolution' has made me a "beer snob"! And that is a good thing! I encourage you to follow me in this: don't give those faceless drinks industry giants any of your money; instead invest it in quality made by small-scale brewries that are genuinely passionate about what they're doing. Support quality. Support the cottage industry brewers not those multinational conglomerates! Beer connoisseurs of all countries unite!
As regards the harder stuff, spirits
, I can't really say much about most varieties in that area. Cognac I find repulsive (I much prefer Spanish
solera brandies, or some of the better Georgian
varieties), vodkas to me are all bland and boring, tequila can be interesting if it's top-notch quality (very expensive), but ultimately as a category it leaves me fairly cold too. Flavoured spirits are too many to even begin to get into. That leaves the two naturally highest league spirits: rum and whisky. Of the former I have a vague idea, and have sampled some very decent drams (especially from Guyana
), but ultimately, really, it is whisky that offers the greatest variety and highest quality levels of any distilled drink in the world.
In the top niche, that of single malt whiskies
, it's Scotland
(of course) and Japan
(really!) that compete for the very top spot. Both have produced exceptional drops so good you want to kneel down and worship them. But amongst the enormous variety that is out there (thousands of single malts alone are on the market), there's also a lot that is far less impressive, and even the odd sort that is downright awful (I won't name names, though).
Over across the Atlantic and the Pacific, the USA
has cornered the market for a totally different type of whisky – bourbon
– and no one's gonna take that crown away from the US any time soon. Top-notch bourbons can be just as awesomely magnificent as a good single malt – only in different ways! Too many single malt aficionados dismiss bourbon as inferior as a matter of principle. But they don't know what they're talking about – they've probably never had a good bourbon, or made the mistake of expecting the exact same characteristics as in a malt.
But bourbons should be appreciated for their very own characteristics, which are different from malts, but that doesn't mean they should automatically receive a lower value-judgement. In fact, the average quality and value for money may even be better with bourbon than for any other variety of whisky. For a really good single malt you have to pay several times over what you have to pay for a very good bourbon – and the margin for error is infinitely greater with single malts, where neither price nor age provide any sure guidance. With bourbons of the comparatively higher price segment I've never had one that disappointed … with Scotch malts there have been plenty, on the other hand. So the notion that bourbons are generally a lower category is in my experience plainly wrong.
The other two great whisky nations, Ireland
, also have their decent styles, but are frankly not generally in the same league as the big three … that said, though, I do appreciate a good old-fashioned Irish pot-still too, but they're so hard to come by these days … Among the lower ranks, they may make for excellent value for money, however, better than similarly priced blended Scotch.
The rest of the world is competing only on a very small scale anyway (though sometimes with surprisingly excellent results, e.g. from Sweden