Top tips on signature sips

A deep appreciation of local customs can be found at the bottom of a glass, writes Louise Goldsbury.

For some travellers, sampling a country's signature drink is simply an excuse to ditch the sightseeing and head to the pub. For others, it's very much a part of the cultural experience - just think of the Singapore Sling, Scotch whisky or French champagne. Sometimes, however, people just get it wrong. Consider the misguided souls who proudly order Foster's in Australia, thinking they'll acquire a deep appreciation of our customs.

To avoid this shame (save that feeling for the morning after), it's best to call on the expert advice of a local bartender. Here are five ideas to get the party started - always drinking in moderation, of course.

Mexican firewater

Most encounters with tequila involve a lick, sip, suck and the most screwed-up facial expression possible in humans. It takes a trip to Mexico to appreciate the true spirit of its native firewater.

The incoming street to Tequila, in the western state of Jalisco, is lined with shops stocked with bottles and barrels filled with the town's namesake drink. From there, you can self-drive around the distilleries dotted across spiky fields of blue agave, the plant used to make tequila.

The so-called Tequila Route (Highway 15) cuts through valleys and villages, with various stops to taste the local version.

An easier alternative is to perch in a cantina in the more accessible Mexico City or Cancun.

In the capital, El Estribo ("The Stirrup") is an upscale lounge bar serving more than 300 varieties of tequila - the largest selection in the world.

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Found in the grounds of the 16th-century Hacienda de los Morales restaurant, this is one classy place. Chandeliers drip from the ceilings, casting a dim light over the carved wooden walls and leather chairs. It's the ultimate place to push your palate on the potion.

In Cancun, on the Yucatan Peninsula on the Caribbean side, you can learn to drink tequila at La Destileria. One half of the property is a cucina serving 150 types of tequila on a terrace overlooking Nichupte Lagoon; the other half is a tequila museum. Theory and practice.

The young and the tasteless can party on afterwards at nightclubs such as Congo Bongo or Senor Frog's, where free shots are poured into unfussy mouths.

Manhattan chic

New York City is so synonymous with cocktails that three are named after its boroughs: the Manhattan (whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters), the Bronx (martini and orange juice) and the Brooklyn (bourbon, dry vermouth and maraschino liqueur).

But thanks to a certain television series, it's the Cosmopolitan that has become the most famous girly guzzle - a sweet blend of vodka, triple sec, cranberry juice and fresh lime.

The Sex and the City tour includes a stop where coach loads of women can have a Cosmo at Onieals, also known as Scout, the bar owned in the show by Aidan and Steve.

However, unless you're a diehard fan, there are better cocktail bars in town.

For truly skilled mixologists, head to the uber-cool Death & Company. The problem is, they take their craft way too seriously and a Cosmo is so 1999, it's not even on the menu here. The clientele would never dare ask for one out loud but if you don't care about your street cred, go for it.

Many bartenders have opted to pep up the tired Cosmo with an alternative flavour, such as black cherry, pomegranate or elderflower. My favourite is a Crystal Cosmo, which uses white cranberry juice to tone down the sticky taste of the original. This version is available at the Hotel Plaza Athenee's exquisite Bar Seine, where a scene from Sex and the City was filmed, so you can still have that Carrie Bradshaw feeling.

More recently, another television program, Mad Men, has revived the lunchtime martini in Manhattan. Again, this classic is given a modern twist at chic places such as the Pegu Club, home of the Earl Grey MarTEAni, made with tea-infused gin.

Just remember to leave a tip: a few dollars for each expertly mixed cocktail will ensure your next round is a little stronger.

Irish religion

You would think a simple stout was the same the world over but, when it comes to Guinness, the purists are as bad as wine snobs.

The consensus is that Guinness tastes better in Ireland - in Dublin, where it's brewed, to be exact.

Which pub holds the crown for the best pint in the country is the subject of ongoing debate. The Stag's Head and Mulligan's are common contenders.

Served at room temperature, "the black stuff" has to be poured in a specific way - the glass is tilted at a 45-degree angle until three-quarters full, then after time to allow the stout to settle, it's topped up to create the creamy head.

The process takes a good five minutes and a true aficionado is willing to wait. In an authentic Irish pub, the regulars may leap up to stop anyone who tries to drink their pint before it's ready.

Distinguished by its black and white colours and almost-burnt barley flavour, Guinness is an acquired taste for some but a religion for others. Its global followers have turned Dublin's Guinness Storehouse into Ireland's top international tourist attraction.

Located in the St James's Gate Brewery, this seven-storey temple includes exhibits, a tasting lab, several bars, a souvenir shop and a virtual master brewer. On the top floor, visitors are rewarded with a free pint and panoramic views of the city.

Russian spirit

Moscow has gone crazy for cocktail lounges with city vistas and "face control" (bouncers) at the door. Easier to get into, the unimaginatively named Vodka Bar does what it says on the label: serves every type of vodka imaginable. Ruski Standard is a safe choice but the brave go for the Nemiroff honey-chilli vodka.

Brightening up the Park Kultury district, this large, sleek venue has reasonably priced shots, cocktails and food.

The pop music and dance floor push it closer to a club but it is relaxed and stylish, with a restaurant and lots of tables.

The centrepiece bar is adorned with items of nostalgia such as sickle and hammer mosaics, Soviet Star chandeliers and televisions playing Russian cartoons and movies. Go-go girls, in varying states of undress, strut their stuff on a raised platform, which is the norm throughout most modern bars in the capital.

For vodka with a view, Bosco Bar is superbly located on the edge of Red Square. In summer, tables are set out across the footpath for an unbeatable position next to one of Russia's greatest landmarks.

To fit in with the locals, one should drink vodka only in shots - never sip it or mix it - and always eat immediately after it. Russian zakuski are salty or acidic snacks that help neutralise the alcohol; such as lemon, caviar, pickles, sardines or a herring salad.

During the day, complete your education at the Vodka Museum. The exhibition showcases the role that this famous white spirit has played in the history of Russian civilisation, from its folklore and financial system to its language and lifestyle.

Japanese ceremony

Although beer is the most popular drink in Japan, sake (rice wine) is a more important part of Japanese culture, evidenced by the etiquette associated with it.

Pronounced "sah-keh", the clear liquid is about the same strength as wine (15 per cent alcohol) but is usually served in a small cup or an ochoko, which resembles a shot glass. This doesn't mean you knock it back in one go - the correct method is to sip slowly.

Contrary to what is found in many Japanese restaurants in Australia, sake is not meant to be hot - this is reserved for winter or to disguise the nasty taste of bad (or fake) sake. The tradition is to chill it, which helps bring out the different, delicate flavours.

The main thing to remember is to never serve yourself and always wait for someone else to pour your drink. Hold your glass or cup with both hands while the sake is being poured - or one hand if you're being served by someone of lower status than you.

This rule also applies when holding the jug to serve other people, however, visitors are forgiven for breaches. Just remain respectful and follow the lead of the locals.

Japan's first sake tours were launched this year by a local company, Michi Travel. The five-day tours visit several breweries, which are usually closed to the public, and include sake-centred meals and other sightseeing options.

In early 2010, tasting tours are planned to take in breweries in Kansai and San'in.

For a popular bar in Tokyo, Kuri offers more than 100 types of sake and convenient tasting sets of six. It's tiny and the menu is not in English but the knowledgeable staff are happy to help.

TRIP NOTES

MEXICO

El Estribo, 525 Vazquez de Mella Hacienda de los Morales, Mexico City, see haciendadelosmorales.com.

La Destileria, Boulevard Kukulcan, Cancun, see ladestileria.com.mx/cancun.

NEW YORK

Death & Company, 433 East 6th Street, near 1st Avenue. See deathandcompany.com.

Pegu Club, 77 West Houston, near West Broadway, see peguclub.com.

Hotel Plaza Athenee, 37 East 64th Street, see plaza-athenee.com.

IRELAND

Guinness Storehouse, St James's Gate Brewery, Market Street, Dublin 8, see guinness-storehouse.com.

The Stag's Head, 1 Dame Court, Dublin 2, see thestagshead.ie.

Mulligan's, Poolbeg Street, Dublin 2, see mulligans.ie.

RUSSIA

Vodka Bar, Lva Tolstovo ulitsa 18B, Moscow, see vodkabar.ru.

Bosco Bar, 3 Red Square, Moscow, see bosco.ru.

Vodka Museum, 73G, Izmailovskoye Shosse, Moscow, see vodkamuseum.ru/english/museum.

JAPAN

Sake World Sake Brewery Tours, see saketours.com.

Kuri, Tony Building, 6-4-15 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo.

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