There is a bottomless pit of information about this beautiful world of booze, and I know I have just skimmed the surface. I love that I am always learning about new things, whether it’s through reading and research, or through new cocktails I try, or through the wacky and knowledgeable bar folk I’ve met along the way. This constant learning is one of the greatest appeals about my profession (well, and the drinking, of course!) and I am thrilled when I can see something old in a new light. Which brings me to my old nemesis: tequila. I don’t think I’ve ever really given tequila the respect it deserves. If you don’t respect tequila it will bite, and I have the scars to prove it. Ever had a hangover so bad your eyelashes hurt? There is a nuance and beauty to tequila I’ve never taken the time to see. I guess it’s a little difficult to focus on nuance when someone is yelling, “shots!” and by someone, I mean me. I suppose the best way to compare my relationship to tequila is to image that every time I go to the best restaurant in the city, all I ever order is a bowl of fries that I proceeded to request be smothered in ranch dressing and cheese. Delicious and a little naughty? Yes, all of those things. Stomach ache inducing? Absolutely. So now, here I am, a new student to tequila and I couldn’t have picked a better time. Gin is typically my go-to warm weather spirit of choice, but I think for the sake of research I will add tequila to my summer repertoire.
So, as a new student, it’s best to start at the beginning. What is this misunderstood spirit that is tequila? Tequila is a distilled spirit that must be made from the succulent called agave, specifically, blue agave and per Mexican laws can only be produced in the state of Jalisco and limited municipalities in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas. Blue agave plants typically take between ten to twelve years before they are harvested. Jimadors (or agave farmers) have the dutiful task of deciding when an agave plant is ready for harvesting. A jimador who has not yet cultivated his skill and harvests unripe agave will result in a bitter or overly sweet taste, ruining the distilled spirits made from them. After harvest, the agave is cooked and shredded then the juice is extracted for fermentation. Just as grapes are reflective of the terroir (a fancy word for a combination of geography, geology and climate of a specific place), such is the same for blue agave. Blue agaves grown in the highlands Los Altos region and are larger in size and sweeter in aroma. They also have a sharp, fresh grassy flavor profile. Agaves harvested in the lowlands, on the other hand, have a more herbaceous fragrance and flavor. Tequila comes in 4 age categories: Blanco, Reposado, Añejo, and Extra Añejo. Blanco is unaged, Reposado is tequila that is matured in oak barrels for at least two months and up to a year. Añejo is tequila matured in oak barrels with a capacity no larger than 600 liters for at least one year and up to three years, and Extra Añejo is matured in small oak barrels for at least 3 years.
So what of tequila’s cousin Mezcal? I’ll admit, Mezcal and I are strangers and I’ve only read about the amazing layers this spirit brings to cocktails. I’m thrilled to delve into this new world of agave and all of the new flavors it will bring to my cocktail rolodex. Mezcal is also made from the agave plant, but because it is not specifically limited to the blue agave varietal, the spectrum of quality and flavor profiles of Mezcal is wide and far reaching. Mezcal is made by cooking shredded agave underground in pits filled with hot rocks for several days and sometimes for weeks at a time. This process is what gives Mezcal its distinct smoky character. The time and care it takes to create a great agave spirit is no different than what it takes to create a great barrel of bourbon. I will be sure to remember this the next time I try to order shots.
We’re all familiar with the go-to tequila cocktail the margarita, one of the most common and often misrepresented cocktails in all the land. I wouldn’t consider myself a snob by any means – I think there is a time and place for every spirit, but I loathe, absolutely loathe poorly made, pre-batched bottled sour mix. I care about you all and I mean this: you’re all better than that. Sour mix at home is so easy to make. Below is the recipe, and I promise you’ll never even look at those giant plastic bottles again.
Homemade Sour Mix
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1 cup fresh lemon
1 cup lime juice (strain out the pulp)
First, combine the water and sugar in a small pot and simmer until the sugar completely dissolves. Turn down heat and add the lemon and lime juice. Remove from heat and let the mixture cook before straining a final time into an airtight glass container then store in refrigerator.
The best thing about this recipe is once you’ve made it, you can adjust it to your palette. You can switch out the citrus, you can do whatever it takes to make your sour mix the most delicious damn thing that ever came out of a bottle. The same goes for the humble margarita. Find a recipe that suits your palette, and then start adding fruit, spice, herbs etc. I love a good fruity margarita with some spice in it. The margarita world is yours for the taking.
I love a good savory cocktail, and agave spirits have the backbone to stand up to both sweet and savory flavor profiles. The next recipe is a take on a Paloma, which is tequila with grapefruit juice, or grapefruit flavored soda. I created a cucumber dill simple syrup to add something fresh and savory to the party. If you’re not into dill, sub out for rosemary or tarragon for an equally flavorful cocktail! You can also split the base spirit by doing half tequila/half mezcal to add a nice smokey element to the drink.
MY OLD PAL
Glassware: rocks glass
Garnish: dill or cucumber slice
1 1/2 oz tequila
1 oz cucumber dill syrup
3 oz grapefruit juice
Cucumber Dill Syrup
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup water
1/3 cup fresh dill
1/2 cup chopped cucumber
Place sugar and water in a small saucepan; bring to a boil, stirring frequently. Right as mixture begins to boil, add dill and cucumber then reduce heat to a medium low simmer for 15 minutes, or just until cucumber becomes translucent. Strain mixture, then store in an airtight container in your refrigerator.
SUNDAY SCHOOL: At next month’s Sunday School on 06.28.15, I will delve further into the complex world of tequila and mezcal and create some fun and tasty cocktails, and hopefully we’ll all learn a thing or two! We’re sold out for our May Sunday School, so make sure to make your reservation early! And to make it even better, starting MON 06.01.15 – SAT 06.27.15, book a semester package for the next 6 months of Sunday School classes for $130. Hope to see your thirsty faces there!
Your neighborhood bartender,