Spirits

Beyond The Basic Margarita: Craft Cocktails In Mexico

26 May 2017

Chilenito cocktails at Auberge Chileno Bay

Mexico has many problems, but the lack of a national cocktail is not one of them. Everyone, in the U.S., at least, associates one cocktail, and one cocktail alone, with Mexico: the Margarita. (Only a pedant would argue for the Paloma.)

I imagined that I would be offered a non-stop parade of Margaritas in Mexico. Some might be made with mezcal, tequila’s smoky/spicy sibling, and some might incorporate mango juice or some such. But I expected that basically the cocktail lists at most restaurants and hotels wouldn’t differ much from that at the average Cesar’s.

To be honest, this prospect did not inspire within me feelings of unmixed disappointment. I love a good Margarita. I make them myself with some regularity. A good Margarita, to be clear, uses fresh lime juice (not chemical-green sour mix), silver tequila (or reposado, if you prefer a mellower flavor), orange liqueur like Cointreau or Triple Sec, and a dash of simple syrup or agave nectar. I serve it up, in a martini glass or coupe, and garnish it with nothing, not even salt. I’m a simple kind of guy, and simply kind of lazy.

It was quite a surprise, then, when my welcome cocktail at my first resort in Los Cabos incorporated mezcal, poblano pepper liqueur, fresh pineapple, fresh ginger and B&B bitters. It was called a Chilenito, and it was a delight: sweet, smokey, a little vegetal and a little spicy.

Cocktails with sophistication and complexity, I was soon to discover, are more the rule than the exception in Cabo’s finer bars and dining establishments. Baja has as much craft cocktail cred as Brooklyn these days. Consider the evidence, in both Margarita and non-Margarita form:

A Spritz Bay by the pool at Auberge Chileno Bay, a mix of Prosecco with strawberry, lime and ginger. A very refreshing sort of Mexican/Italian sangria, if you will. I certainly did!

*****

A Humo de Comal, at Comal, the main restaurant of Auberge Chileno Bay. It combines mezcal, purple chicha (fermented corn) and lime to great effect. The rim of tortilla ash is something you smell more than taste, its smoky note heralding the smokiness of the mezcal, which mixed beautifully with the hibiscus-like sweetness of the chicha.

*****

Flora Farm may call this a Margarita, but it’s unlike any I’ve ever had. This Ginger & Beet Margarita, as you might guess, mixed tequila, fresh beet juice and fresh ginger. It had excellent balance and an invigorating freshness. Beet and ginger, it seems, add quite the frisson of health to two ounces of tequila!

*****

Tamarind strikes me as a grossly underutilized cocktail ingredient. This Mezcalita at Esperanza‘s La Palapa restaurant mixed it with mezcal and lime, and wow. It moved from sweet to smoky to sour to paprika spice, in that order. Complex and delicious.

*****

Speaking of tamarind, this Tamarind Margarita at Los Tres Gallos in Cabo San Lucas ranks among the greatest Margaritas I’ve ever tasted. The sour notes positively popped in the mouth, tempered with precision by the sweetness of the tequila, orange liqueur and agave syrup. Magnificent.

*****

A Prickly Pear Margarita by the pool at Esperanza, with silver tequila, mango, grilled prickly pear (nopal) and lime. It might have been perfectly fine, this cocktail, with just the sweetness from the fresh mango and tartness from the fresh lime. But the grilled prickly pear gave the drink subtle earthy and vegetal notes, taking it to another level entirely.

*****

Rancho Pescadero on the coast just south of Todos Santos has an immense garden, and the bartender took full advantage of its bounty in this cocktail. I watched, amazed, as he grabbed great handfuls of mint, fennel fronds, basil, chervil and cilantro and muddled them together, mixing the resulting juice with lime, simple syrup and Hendrick’s Gin, topping it all off with tonic. This Herb Tonic cocktail tasted quite refreshing, of course, with bright herbaceous and citrus notes leavening the booziness (it looks like healthy green juice, but this was a seriously strong cocktail).

As wonderful as it was to consume these drinks in beautiful Mexico, you don’t have to brave the incipient border wall to enjoy creative cocktails made with tequila and mezcal. There’s no reason you can make a delicious drink yourself at home.

A formula with which to experiment: 2 parts tequila or mezcal, 1 part liqueur, 1-2 parts fresh juice (sugar syrup and/or fresh herbs optional). For example, right now, I’m loving a concoction of mezcal, fresh lemon juice and Stirrings Ginger liqueur. Sweet, citrusy, a little smoky, and a little spicy from the ginger.

I would love to hear what you come up with — if you discover a delicious and unusual tequila- or mezcal-based cocktail, please don’t hesitate to share the recipe!

Grappa: Not Just For Breakfast Anymore

10 March 2017

Pork belly eggs Benedict and Nonino grappa

Tell people that you’re going to a grappa tasting, and the response will likely be “Ugh.” Go on to say that the tasting is at 9 a.m. over breakfast, and the response will likely be some sort of attempt at an intervention. In my defense, there is, in fact, a long tradition of drinking grappa at breakfast (or at least with espresso), as evidenced by Caffè Corretto, or “Corrected Coffee.”

Actually, no one I talked to expressed any concern whatsoever about my tasting spirits at breakfast (I’m not sure if that’s good or bad). But grappa… that concerned everyone. This northern Italian spirit distilled from grape pomace — the stems, seeds, skins and pulp — has a reputation for rusticity, to put it kindly. Indeed, for a long time, it was a spirit of the poor, created from the leftovers of winemaking. A “refined grappa” was an oxymoron.

I was lucky. The first time I tried grappa was in Venice at a bar just off the Fondamente Nove, about 15 years ago. It was a Grappa di Amarone — even then I knew that Amarone was something special. The bartender approved of my choice, and I still remember its rich raisiny quality mixed with alcoholic fire. I also purchased a slender bottle of delightfully floral Moscato grappa to bring home.

At the time, I didn’t know that varietal grappas were a relatively new creation, invented by the estimable Nonino distillery (traditionally grappas are blends of various grapes). Nonino first distilled a single-varietal grappa in 1967, and it wasn’t until 1973 that the distillery created “the first Cru single varietal Grappa: not by chance this time but as the result of their love for their work, study, research and experimentation,” according to the company’s website.

“We go against the rules for grappa,” Elisabetta Nonino told me over a breakfast of avocado toast. “The rules are very bad. They are all against quality.” Grappa is not Cognac. You really have to choose your producer carefully. And I can’t imagine that there are many producers which take more care with their grappa than Nonino.

Elisabetta Nonino

First, there are the stills. The distillery contains no fewer than 66 pot stills (12 for each member of the family, plus one for each niece and nephew, Elisabetta explained). Why so many? Nonino produces numerous single-variety grappas as well as various fruit brandies, and all the fruit is distilled fresh, making a big difference in terms of flavor. That means the stills are in use only nine or 10 weeks each year, during the harvest season, but during that time, each is required.

Second, Nonino removes the grape stems from the pomace, distilling only the pulp, skins and seeds. This extra step adds to the refinement of the grappa.

Elisabetta grew up in the distillery, learning the art of grappa production from observing her family at work. Her parents told her, “First learn to distill, then study whatever you want.” But her heart was always with the family business, even as she studied Political Science at the university. “It took longer than usual to graduate,” Elisabetta said. “‘I can’t take my exams in April,’ I told my professors. ‘No no, that’s Vinitaly!'” If the grappas I tasted are any indication, she made the right choice for her profession.

The traditional Nonino Vendemmia grappa, made from a blend of Prosecco, Malvasia and Pinot Noir, has a fresh, slightly raisiny aroma and ample raisiny flavor. It remains smooth on the tongue for quite some time, delaying the alcoholic power until the last moment. It’s spicy, but classy. I noticed that when I smelled this grappa, it didn’t burn my nostrils at all — nor did any of the others I tried.

Even more interesting was Il Merlot di Nonino grappa, which started with a lush texture and lots of raisiny fruit before moving to clean, alcoholic spice. But I really fell for Il Moscato di Nonino grappa, which brought back memories of that trip to Venice. I loved its aroma, reminiscent of lily of the valley, as well as its slow development on the palate. It moved gracefully from smooth and perfumed to powerful and spicy. It cut right through the fat of my pork belly eggs Benedict.

On Elisabetta’s recommendation, I tried making some cocktails with the Moscato grappa later at home. You can find plenty of interesting grappa cocktail recipes on the Nonino site, but in order to really let the grappa come to the fore, I wanted as simple a cocktail as possible. First I tried the Moscato grappa with some fresh lime, but I preferred the roundness of fresh lemon juice. Two parts Moscato grappa, one part fresh lemon and a healthy dash of simple syrup (or a couple of teaspoons of sugar) makes for an exceedingly delicious drink: round, citrusy and just a touch floral, with a pleasantly raisiny aftertaste.

I also sampled some barrel-aged grappas, akin to French Marc. The Noninos take no shortcuts here, either, keeping their aging cellars under lock and key, controlled by a government official who records each entry into the facility. When the Noninos tell you that your grappa was aged, say, a minimum of three years, there is no question that it was. The distillery has documentation to prove the fact.

Aged one year in barriques, Il Chardonnay di Nonino grappa had the classic raisiny aroma, but there was a vanilla note in there, too. It tasted rich and balanced, starting almost sweet, with a touch of cream and a bit of wood, moving to a spicy build-up followed by a freshly herbaceous finish. What a delight.

Made from a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Schioppettino grape pomace, the Riserva grappa is aged between three and 18 years in barriques. Its aroma had more wood to it, underneath notes of dark fruit. After a rich start, a note of fresh tobacco took over followed by a spicy midsection and a lift of green herbs. The finish, marked by notes of wood, vanilla and caramel, seemed to go on and on.

Italy has a knack for turning food and drink that was originally popular with peasants into something fit for royalty. Nonino’s grappa happily fits right into that tradition. Next time you’re out to eat at a nice restaurant, check the spirits list to see if the bar offers a Nonino grappa. It makes for a surprisingly elegant digestif, and not just at breakfast.

Note: The grappa tastes and my pork belly eggs Benedict were provided free of charge.

The Spirit Of The Moment: Mezcal

2 June 2016

The author in a Guanajuato cantina, consuming mezcal in as manly a fashion as possible

Just a couple of years ago, finding more than a handful of mezcals on a bar menu in the United States was rare indeed. Even Mexicans sometimes seem a bit scared of this spirit. I’ll never forget how, when I ordered a shot at a traditional cantina in Guanajuato (the kind with a urinal next to the bar), the bartender first offered me mezcal flavored with mango or coconut! He and my guide both raised an eyebrow when I requested the real stuff, though perhaps that says more about my distinctly gringo appearance and less about mezcal.

Gringos, however, have recently begun to take quite a liking to mezcal. In fact, as of March, Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood now has an official mezcal bar, Mezcaleria Las Flores, which has some 78 mezcals on its menu (including related spirits like sotol and raicilla). Those who find that selection too restricting should head instead to Leña Brava, Rick Bayless’s newest restaurant, which stocks a remarkable 112 different mezcals!

The rather sudden rise of mezcal may leave some readers wondering what the heck it is and what all the fuss is about. Mezcal is a sort of parent to tequila. But unlike that ubiquitous spirit, which can be made only from blue agave, mezcal can be made from just about any agave cactus variety. In addition, the piña, the heart of the agave plant from which mezcal is fermented and distilled, is roasted underground for about three days, whereas the piñas used for tequila are baked, not roasted. If tequila is like bourbon, mezcal is like scotch.

I love it. The flavor typically starts with something fruity, fresh and/or herbaceous before it moves to some warm, smokey spice reminiscent of Hungarian paprika. Sometimes it feels rustic, sometimes it feels refined, but it’s always exciting to drink.

A Monteromero (foreground) and a Leña Fire at Leña Brava

Monteromero (foreground) and Leña Fire cocktails at Leña Brava

I consume mezcal most often neat, but like scotch, it can also work beautifully in certain cocktails. Leña Brava’s cocktail list contains seven mezcal-based drinks, for example, and on a visit last week, I had the chance to try two of them. I ordered a Monteromero, composed of Montelobos mezcal, crème de cassis, fresh lime juice, black pepper and a sprig of rosemary. What a delight — the complex, well-balanced cocktail combined sweet, smokey, herbaceous and citrusy flavors to great effect.

My friend Scott ordered a Leña Fire, a powerful combination of Leña Wahaka mezcal (the restaurant’s house mezcal), Ocho Sientos sotol (see my post about sotol here), Ancho Reyes chile liqueur, Yellow Chartreuse, Gran Torres orange liqueur and fresh lime. This veritable parade of high-proof spirits tasted bright, spicy, citrusy and very, very strong. A couple of sips was enough for me, but Scott had no trouble polishing it off. (Also see this post about a mezcal-based Negroni I had in Vienna a couple of years ago.)

Chef Bayless’s daughter, Lanie, acts as the restaurant’s mezcal sommelier, and she offered to pair glasses of mezcal with the five courses we had ordered. Fortunately, she anticipated our desire to leave the restaurant in a semi-coherent state and gave us half-size pours. Lanie knows her mezcals. Her suggestions were excellent, contrasting or emphasizing flavors in various dishes, just as well-considered wine pairings do.

Tasting the mezcals in rapid succession highlighted their distinct characters. The Vago mezcal had a lovely freshness to it, with a sweet cucumber note balancing the ample paprika spice. But the Wahaka Reposado Con Gusano (aged six months in oak barrels) tasted richer and rounder, with something of a mocha note under the spicy heat. “Con Gusano,” incidentally, means that the bottle has a worm in it. Adding an agave worm is “…a proven, age-old method for clarifying the radicals of the barrel while balancing the spirit’s overall flavor with notes of earth and salt,” according to Wahaka’s website.

Words like “spicy heat” and “worm” may make mezcal sound intimidating. But if you give it a try, I suspect you’ll be pleasantly surprised. I find it much more interesting than tequila, and its quality-to-price ratio is very much in the consumer’s favor. More and more bars carry it — if you see it on a spirits list, I highly recommend ordering a shot to pair with a cool appetizer or with a creamy or chocolatey dessert. And if you already like scotch, mezcal is an ideal summer alternative.

Legui: Argentina’s Best Digestif

24 April 2016

La Esquina de MertiAfter traveling in Argentina for a week or so, finding luscious Malbecs seemingly on every street corner, I began to wonder what sort of liquors the country produced. It was around this time I found myself in the town of San Antonio de Areco, a center of gaucho culture about 90 minutes northwest of Buenos Aires. This town did not strike me as a place to order a glass of wine.

I strode into an atmospheric bar called La Esquina de Merti, with art nouveau display cases along the walls and shelves laden with ancient bottles of unfamiliar spirits. It probably would have felt touristy in another town, but here, it was exactly what I was looking for.

Behind the bar, I spotted a shelf of local-looking spirits. “Esta licores — esta licores Argentinos?” I asked in my not-very-good Spanish. “Que me recomienda… una licores Argentinos?” The bartender looked a little puzzled. I pointed to a promising-looking bottle. “Esta Legui… Esta bien? Recomienda esta?” She said something that sounded very positive. “Bien. Uh, bebida esta con hielo? No? Solo? OK — perfecto. Una Legui, porfavor.”

LeguiShe somehow managed to understand me and served me quite a large shot of Legui, which is named after a notable jockey, Irenaeus Leguizamo. He won, according to this website, some 3,200 races in Argentina and he ranks among the greatest jockeys in history. Legui, it turned out, was the perfect drink to try in this center of Argentine horse culture.

I took a sniff, and I can’t deny that I recoiled. This liqueur of herb-infused alcohol and sugar reminded me of cough syrup, a certain yellow cough syrup that disgusted me in my youth. And indeed, it had the same yellow-green hue. I might charitably describe the aroma as herbaceous and bitter, with a note of anise. With great reluctance, I took a sip.

The Legui started sweet, moving on to cinnamon spice and green peppercorn. There was little bitterness; in fact, it tasted quite balanced. And because it has only 29.9 percent alcohol, I felt little alcoholic burn. Indeed, drinking it felt quite soothing.

If, after dinner in Argentina, you’re looking for a digestif — and after the uninterrupted meat parade I’ve experienced here, I certainly was — Legui is the liqueur to order. It doesn’t seem to be available in the United States, according to Wine Searcher, but in Argentina, it’s certainly worth seeking out.

And don’t worry about trying to down it like a shot. The cowboys here wear berets, after all, so you can feel free to drink your Legui in civilized sips.

Cocktails In Belize

12 March 2016
A "Spicy Mayan" cocktail at Belcampo Belize

A “Spicy Mayan” cocktail at Belcampo Belize

I must admit that I didn’t expect to enjoy much fine drinking in Belize. I knew the country made rum, and, for better or worse, cashew wine, but that certainly wasn’t the reason I visited. What drew me was the uncrowded Mayan ruins and sensational snorkeling. I didn’t have hopes of finding unique craft cocktails in remote jungle lodges.

Nevertheless, there they were:

SPICY MAYAN

My first stop in the country was Belcampo Belize, a jungle lodge near the coast with a very creative barman, Tim. He created the best thing I drink in all of Belize, the “Spicy Mayan.” Fortunately, Tim put a lot more thought into the cocktail itself than he did the name. I’ve never tasted anything quite like it.

First, he muddled some fresh allspice leaves in a shaker, releasing their oils. Ancient Mayans, a guide told me, used to chew allspice leaves in order to numb their mouths before dentists embellished their teeth with jade dots or performed other dental procedures. I tried chewing an allspice leaf, and while I did notice a numbing sensation, the leaf did not strike me as an adequate substitute for Novocaine. As a nibbled the leaf, my guide said something insane about ancient Mayans using molten jade to decorate their teeth, and I took a moment to heartily thank God for modern dentistry. But I digress.

Tim muddled several allspice leaves, shaking them with a mix of white rum, lime, simple syrup and Casa Mascia Apothecary Culantro Elixir, a liqueur made from cilantro’s wild cousin. The result, served over ice and garnished with an allspice leaf, had an inviting aroma of cilantro. Sour, sweet and herbaceous flavors balanced each other beautifully, and the slight numbing sensation of the allspice enhanced the cocktail’s general feeling of freshness. This drink, in short, was absolutely superb.

Watermelon Smash at Belcampo Belize

WATERMELON SMASH

While staying at Belcampo Belize, I also tried a delightful Watermelon Smash. Fresh watermelon, I find, makes a delicious and versatile mixer, and I would love to see it used more often in U.S. cocktail bars. In this drink, it was combined with bourbon, fresh lime juice, mint and Peychaud’s Bitters. It was sweet, a little tart, and far too easy to drink. I rather loved it.

Planters Punch at Victoria House

PLANTER’S PUNCH

My lunch at Victoria House, one of the most highly regarded properties on Ambergris Caye, was not a success. The seared grouper had obviously emerged straight from the freezer, not the sea, which is unconscionable considering that countless numbers of the fish swim along the reef within sight of the hotel. I played dumb and asked my waiter where the Victoria House got its grouper. Pointing to the ocean, he exclaimed, “Right there!” But he gave the game away when he continued, “We get it from local fishermen every Tuesday and Thursday.” (I dined there on a Sunday.)

Fortunately, my Planter’s Punch tasted much better than the bland, gummy fish on my plate. The bartender modified the standard recipe a bit, using both white and dark rum instead of just dark, and omitting the grenadine. I didn’t miss it, however. The drink tasted of pineapple tinged with a hint of molasses, and though it was fruity, it didn’t feel overly sweet. It was a pleasure to sip it as the palms along the beach swayed in the breeze.

Edward the Cucumber at Ka'ana

EDWARD THE CUCUMBER

The photo above makes this unusually named cocktail look like something sent from heaven, but this drink was more of a taste of purgatory. I ordered it at Ka’ana, a jungle resort near the ancient Mayan city of Xunantunich. It sounded perfectly lovely; the menu described it as a fairly straightforward mix of vodka, cucumber, mint, lime and ginger. But what should have been refreshing, cool and complex tasted almost unbearably tart, and when that flavor had finished bashing in my palate, some overbearing ginger spice gave it an extra kick for good measure.

My waitress confided that very few people actually like the drink. Who would? But why Edward the Cucumber continues to dishonor the menu with his presence remains a mystery.

Hibiscus Daiquiri at Ka'ana

HIBISCUS DAIQUIRI

Ka’ana’s bartender redeemed himself the next night with this cocktail, an attractive Hibiscus Daiquiri. A standard Daiquiri is one of the simplest and loveliest of cocktails, a perfect mix of rum, fresh lime juice and simple syrup. Here, the bartender steeped fresh hibiscus flowers in hot water and used the resulting infusion to make the simple syrup. The drink tasted tart and sweetly rummy, as it should, and just a touch floral. Delicious.

Belize, it turns out, isn’t just good for ancient cities hidden in the jungle, or eye-popping coral reefs inhabited by purple sea fans, acid-green eels and turquoise parrot fish. The compact country has more than its fair share of bartenders mixing up superlative cocktails. And there’s something especially wonderful about sipping something as civilized as a well-crafted cocktail while surrounded by unspoiled nature.

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