When you think of cocktails what comes to your mind? Gin Tonic? Negroni? Martini? All of them are delicious, but they’re missing a Brazilian touch. With that in mind, Néli Pereira, mixologist and drink consultant, started to use very Brazilian ingredients in the drinks she prepares in her bar Espaço Zebra, which is in the Bexiga area, is a great hit thanks to her apothecary mixology)
This story started in London! She, then working as a culture journalist, went there to do a master in Latin American Cultural Studies. “By that time I hadn’t yet realized that I would end up working with gastronomy or mixology. But I always knew I wanted to talk about Brazil”, she said. Back home, she, who is natural from Curitiba (Paraná), studied wine for two years and opened Zebra in 2012, with her husband. “I was sure that I wanted the place to be somewhere we could talk about our country, not only with my work but also with his art”, she added.
“I’ve always enjoyed good drinks. My father used to enjoy and drink whisky, and that turned me into someone that is interested in the quality of alcoholic beverages and in studying about what I was drinking”, she said. At Zebra, Néli started to work with craft beer but decided to add cocktails to the menu because they were in high fashion. “I studied and researched cocktails and drinks. I wanted to find out more about apothecary mixology (which is a type of crafted mixology that uses plants, tree barks, herbs and roots infused in alcohol), how to make syrup, infusions or homemade maceration. This happened around 2013, 2014, when no one was going through that path yet”, she said. And from that point on, Brazilian flavours are a priority in her bartender life.
“When I started to do bitter (a sour ingredient used in cocktails), I saw lots of bartenders searching for ingredients abroad, but it was difficult to find them here. They weren’t looking around. Every bar here has their own infusions made with cachaça and herbs like jurubeba, baccharises and catuaba… I just needed to connect those two things”, said Néli, who remembered that digestive and bitter drinks were always part of our culture. It was all here in Brazil already. Just waiting to be valued.
“All the ingredients used in infusions at bars have a connection with popular medicine. And it was already there, at the bars. I just started to do it at my own bar. I’ve made an infusion using baccharises and vodka, sake, whisky and other distilled beverages. I’ve realized how many flavours we have. It was a choice with no return: the more you find out, the more you want to learn. I visited indigenous lands, talked to “erveiras”, people who know herbs, who work in botanics, I visited the Cerrado region,the Amazônia region…I wanted to understand how these ingredients were used and what flavours theycould add to the cocktails”, Néli said.
To be so dedicated to herbs – that can be found in backyards, in forests, but also in city squares – it is also needed love for the Brazilian cuisine. “For me it means conexion and reconexion. It is reconnecting because it forms part of our food culture.”