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Talking Tequila and Mezcal with Tequila Master Alfredo Sanchez of The Four Seasons Resort, Punta Mita, Mexico
PRISCILLA PILON: Why do tequila and mezcal have such poor reputations?
ALFREDO SANCHEZ: People abuse tequila and mezcal by doing shots of them. Young people choose the most inexpensive and harshest-tasting varieties giving it an undeserved reputation. Tequila is meant to be sipped and mixed with other ingredients. We have 200 brands of tequila at the resort and today we will taste eight that are completely different from each other. You cannot dislike tequila — you just have not found which one you like yet!
PP: What is the secret behind a good tequila or mezcal?
AS: We have a lot of nice water and ingredients but the most important ingredient is the agave plant. There are more than 200 varieties around the world, but over 100 in Mexico alone. There are a lot of artisanal spirits produced, but tequila is the more popular. Mezcal is gaining recognition as well. The real flavor of the agave is gaining a lot of respect around the world because the natural sugar within the plant is nicer than cane sugar.
PP: Where does tequila come from?
AS: Tequila is mainly produced by the state of Jalesco nearby our resort of Punta Mita. You cannot produce this everywhere. It starts by using local agave plants grown here and we use a particular type of distillery in the making of tequila here. We only use blue agave plants for tequila, but mezcal can be produced with other types of agave plants.
PP: What gives mezcal its distinctive flavor?
AS: In order to make mezcal, the distiller puts the heart of the plant in the ground in a in a hole and cooks it with wood to give it the roasted flavor. Some brands use banana leaves lined in the hole to give it an even different flavor; it just depends upon the type of mezcal you want.
PP: Most people have a simple understanding of tequilaand mezcal, what would you like us to know about the art of making these spirits?
AS: There are several distillations that go into making tequila and mezcal. It’s more complicated than people think. The second or third distillation we call Tequila Blanco because it produces a clear, or white, product. White tequila has citrus and peppery notes and some herbs are the aromas and flavors you can experience. You need a second taste, breathe in and out with your mouth open so you can discover more aromas than the first taste.
Like wine, we have different terroirs that make up the flavors. In the valley are the most popular brands like Cuevro and in the highlands the agave produce more sugar so they produce more sweet notes. Patrón and Don Julio brands have a reputation for being easier to drink because they are sweeter tasting.
The El Tesoro brand tries to make it with a traditional way, without machinery — in an artisanal way. The plants need to grow for 7-15 years before they can be harvested.
The second classification is called reposado. It’s been in a barrel from more than two months and no more than one year. These are more common around the world. They are perfect for the art of mixology. It’s stronger and more jealous on the tongue. It’s more for people who like a strong taste. Each brand tries to bring tradition into the area they live by handcrafting their bottles like the blue and white one on the table. The color in the second classification is more yellow and has a slightly sweeter aroma. In the beginning it is more spicy on the tongue and perhaps you can taste caramel, cinnamon, and chocolate.The most important ingredient is the agave plant; there are more than 200 varieties around the world, but over 100 in Mexico alone.
The third classification is reserved for spirits in a barrel for a minimum of one year and no more than three like Partida Anejo. This kind is for people who like cognac. The agave plant has been in the ground for seven years, plus another two or three years in the barrel. It’s not for taking a shot. It’s more complex because of the barrel, but the soul of the agave is still in there. It’s more sweet than the others so far. It’s not spicy but strong. Extra aged spirits are definitely more expensive. We have a special edition of Jose Cuevro’s aged tequila at Four Seasons Punta Mita. It is for the 250th anniversary of the brand and the bottle costs about $5,000.
PP: How well does tequila and mezcal keep? Is there a shelf-life?
AS: Here at the hotel, we set up the outside display of tequila around 2 p.m. to keep the temperature ok. Room temperature is best. There is no specific shelf-life, but it is meant to be enjoyed with friends so the best way to drink it is to do so by the end of the year.
PP: What’s trendy in tequila and mezcal?
AS: The fourth classification of tequila is very trendy. It’s a blend that the maker wants everyone to be able to enjoy. It’s white, but it’s a blend of reposado and aged tequila. They make a double filtration of the alcohol to take the color away so it’s crystal clear. It’s a like a dessert tequila with chocolate notes. Don Julio 70 is smooth on the palette at first and then a kick comes in at the end. It’s perfect for groups of people and is priced at $35-40 for a bottle. We make parings with this one. A bit of dark chocolate — pieces and the combination is interesting. It’s very popular with women because of the chocolate notes.
My tequila tasting experience was courtesy of The Four Seasons Resort, Punta Mita. Thank you to Riviera Nayarit for sponsoring my trip to agave heaven!
Tequila Blanco Criollo / Calle 23
Created by Sophie Decobecq, a French biochemist turned tequila maker, the agave for this tequila comes from the highlands of Jalisco. Tequila Blanco Criollo is made from smaller “criollo” blue agave that has a higher concentration of natural sugars. Tasters says it the tequila has aromas of cooked agave and mint balanced against flavors of black pepper and agave.
Drinking Mezcal And Tequila Cocktails With Robert Simonson: Are Agave Spirits The Best Mixers Since Gin?
After tackling the world of The Martini Cocktail and The Old-Fashioned in his previous works, Robert Simonson has now focussed his attention on the exploding popularity of agave drinks. In his latest book, Mezcal + Tequila Cocktails: Mixed Drinks For The Golden Age Of Agave, the New York Times contributor, and winner of the 2020 Spirits Award for Best Cocktail Book, features over 60 cocktail recipes that show off the range and versatility of Mexico’s favorite exports. I spoke with Simonson by phone to discuss his journey through discovering these spirits and the best cocktails to make with them.
How does a cocktail writer choose which tequila and mezcal drinks to order when working on a book?
I make choices because I know what works and what doesn’t. And if I see a strange combination, it’s almost like a dare. What does that taste like? That approach pays off about 50 percent of the time. You walk away with an original experience. I was at a bar in Tulsa, and there was a drink called PAN AM, created by Ben Walker. It had tequila, chartreuse, absinthe and creme de pamplemousse — and I was like, ok, challenge accepted! It was fantastic.
What makes this the “golden age of agave?”
These spirits have been made for long time — it finally dawned on the rest of the world we should be paying attention to them. International appreciation has skyrocketed in a short span of time, and there are a lot more tequilas and and mezcals available outside of Mexico. Americans have vast choices now, and usually any restaurant or bar cocktail list will have mezcal and tequila drinks. In many large cities you may even have a bar specializing in them. That wasn’t the case ten years ago.
What caused this surge in popularity?
I credit bartenders quiet a bit. They have this evangelistic streak when they find something they like to drink and mix with, and they want the world to know about it. They did this with gin, rye whiskey and then liqueurs like chartreuse. It took them longer to get to tequila and mezcal, but when they did they approached it with the same passion that they do almost every spirit. This started happening in late aughts, and I was among them the people they converted.
How did they convert you?
I was educated bar by bar, bartender by bartender. It was a revelation how well these mix into cocktails. One of the places I learned a lot was Mayahuel, Phil Ward’s bar in the East Village. It opened in 2007, and they said we’re not just going to serve mezcal and tequila — it’s ALL we’re going to do. I went in there a lot. It was one-stop-shopping for understanding how delicious and versatile these spirits are.
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You have a lot more of your own recipes in this book than your previous ones.
I’m slightly more confident in my abilities to come up with a drink — one would hope after 15 years you get a little smarter at making an original cocktail. I didn’t labor over them for hours, I decided to see if I could hit on things simple and delicious. The Camerón Cocktail is based on the Cameron’s Kick from the 1920s. The original mixes Scotch and Irish whiskey, so I wondered if it would work with tequila and mezcal. The result showed just how adaptable these spirits are. I think tequilas and mezcals are as mixable as gins.
For people new to mezcals and tequilas, what are two drinks to start with from the book?
An obvious one is the Mezcal Margarita. It’s a great intro, because you can notice the difference right away. It’s edgier, spicier, smokier. Same with a Mezcal Negroni. For tequila, the Siesta is a good intro into its versatility. It’s a twist on a Hemmingway Daiquiri, with grapefruit juice and Campari, and it’ll be surprising for some how easy it is to drink.
And which recipes will surprise more seasoned cocktail drinkers?
The Polar Bear, from Trick Dog in San Francisco. It combines mezcal with blanc vermouth, but also crème de menthe. I wouldn’t of thought those things mix together, but surprisingly it’s a fantastic cocktail. For tequila, the Sean and Juan, created by Brad Smith in New Orleans. Latitude 29 is a great tiki bar, and most people would not associate agave with tiki drinks, but they came up with one here. Like the Polar Bear, it’s an unusual combination of flavors — tequila, Irish whiskey, Bénédictine, crème de cacao — that doesn’t look like it will work on paper. But it does.
What are your thoughts on celebrities and foreign companies perhaps reaping more financial benefits from this indigenous spirit than the people actually from the region?
It’s a big concern. People are talking about this, and rightly so. So much has changed in the last two years since I started writing this book — seems like every week there is a new celebrity tequila. It’s great that these spirits are being celebrated and more people are getting to know them. It’s also important that the credit and the money go to the people who are creating them and responsible for these heritage spirits. The bartenders I worked with for this book care very much about these issues.
ok.. yes. yes.. tequila has to be made in mexico.. has to be from blah blah blah.. has to be certain percentages of blah blah blah.. Don't really care about their legal definitions.. if it walks like a duck.. quacks like a duck.. swims like a duck and looks like a duck.. must be a duck.
So with that in mind.. here is what I came up with for a cheap Duck that tastes, smells and acts like tequilla. Basically it is a sugar wash that tastes like tequilla. and yes.. again.. it might be mezcal.. it might be none of the above.. but don't really care because it came out tasting good, smelling good, and was pretty cheap.
Ingredients for 5 gallon wash:
Honey Trees organic agave nectar 24.7 oz from the local walmart.. about $5 (it added very little to the sugar content by its self)
Heated 4 gallons of water up to 200 degrees.
Stirred in the agave
added sugar to where the wash contained 10% potential alcohol
Added 1 gallon of cold water and let it cool to 80 degrees. Adjusted the sugar content back to just under 10%.
added my yeast and let it ferment for 5 days until the potential alcohol was down to about zero. I could have let it go another day because the yeast was still slightly active but wanted to test it out to see what it would come out like. After 2 days I did pitch in an additional packet of yeast and stirred it because it had appeared to slow down. Noticed with this batch it did not bubble through my air lock but it did continue to ferment fully so let it take its time and finish out. Had very small bubbles being released through most of the process.
Cooked it out, bypassing the thumper with a head temp starting about 180 degrees and kept cooking it out until the output in the catcher was a little over 80 proof. Wanted the flavoring from the wash to get into the batch.
I do not like or drink tequilla.. but the Mrs claims it has great flavor smells good and does the job quite well!
HOW TO MAKE NON ALCOHOLIC TEQUILA
A lot goes into crafting a bottle of tequila. It’s a very manual process, aka hard work. It takes hands-on experience to be able to know how to tend to an agave plant until it becomes ripe, then expertise to know when it’s ready to be harvested. Jimadores are the experts, and often come from multiple generations of family in the business. One fun fact about mezcal is that it’s WILD. It can be made from any agave plant, so there are endless possibilities for flavor. Jimadores forage for wild agave plants in the desert and mezcaleros make some exceptional one-of products.
To begin, the leaves are cut away from the agave plant, leaving the core, called the piña. The piña is baked slowly in an oven, then mashed to a pulp in order to extract the juices. The pulp is discarded or repurposed, then the juice goes into a stainless steel vat for fermentation. After a few days, it has become a wort, which is then distilled twice. After this, it’s either bottled or aged, and there is more information about these styles in the next section.
Non-alcoholic tequila does not undergo fermentation, neither is the whole product distilled. A lot of non-alcoholic spirits are simply blended ingredients trying to mimic a specific flavor, and the same is true for non-alcoholic tequila. Sometimes the individual botanicals are distilled before being blended, but not always. Under each brand below, the individual processes are described.
How To Drink Tequila
Step away from the shot glass. Quality tequila is not to be downed in one. “The best way to taste it is to take a sip and hold the liquid in your mouth for a minimum of five seconds,” says Moncrieffe. “The idea is to allow all the flavours to coat different areas of your mouth and then swallow slowly.”
The receptacle you drink from also has an impact on the overall effect. “You can sip a good-quality blanco tequila out of a small sherry glass, enjoy good quality reposado tequila in an old fashioned whisky glass with some ice and zest of orange, or even try an añejo in a warm brandy glass.”
Ready to start adding mezcal smokiness to your cocktails? Here are a few easy ideas.
Mix it with tequila: Adding mezcal to tequila-based drinks is the easiest way to start incorporating the spirit into your cocktail diet. The similarities between the two liquors means they'll work well together while mezcal adds its signature smoky flavor. Just swap out half the tequila in a cocktail for mezcal. The most obvious place to start is with a margarita, like this Beachfire Margarita--sweet, smoky, and satisfying.
Use it as a base spirit in your favorite classic cocktail: Rather than figuring out if five other ingredients in a modern cocktail can balance out and compliment the brawny assertiveness of mezcal, the booze-heavy structure of two- or three-ingredient classic cocktails make substituting bases easy. Plus, you'll start with a flavor combination you already know and be able to see how it affects the drink.
You'll want to look for drinks that have a good amount of bitterness or acidity to play off the mezcal: Think ingredients like ginger, Campari, sweet vermouth, lime juice, and sherry. Smokified variants on classics like the Mezcal Manhattan, Mezcal Mule, and Smokey Negroni all seamlessly sub out their key players (rye, vodka, and gin, respectively) for mezcal.
Drink it straight: This one's for advanced mezcal drinkers only. Before you break out the Margaritaville shot glasses, remember: We're not talking about throwing back two-ounce pours in one go here. Once you grasp the basic idea of what mezcal brings to mixed drinks, it's time to explore what different bottles of mezcal can bring to the table.
Just as with tequila, there are aging-related classifications out there--joven (aged under two months), reposado (aged two months to a year), and añejo (aged one to three years). Sipping straight mezcal, without any of the distractions of other spirits or mix-ins, is the best way to hone in on what you really prefer.
To get started, grab a bottle of Del Maguey Vida Mezcal: its slightly lower proof and reasonable $34 price point make it the perfect starter mezcal for anyone looking to work the spirit into the home bar rotation.
Coconut cocktails are the perfect remedy for a hot summer’s day—but drinking right out of the coconut itself? That’s instant, imbibable vacation. On the beaches of Mexico, you’ll find people cracking open coconuts, squeezing in fresh lime juice and spiking it with a little booze. We chose to take it a little further by blending mezcal, lime, fresh coconut water and honey syrup with crushed ice, before pouring the frosty mixture back into the coconut shell.
This innovative spin on the Mexican Bulldog is sour and rich—and one of the most interesting beer-tails you’ll ever taste. While the tart, punchy flavor of blackberries is a natural fit for mezcal, porter beer isn’t quite as obvious a match. But no matter how strange it seems, the brew’s bitter, chocolaty notes complement toasty mezcal beautifully—after all, dark chocolate is a common tasting companion to mezcal.
Let’s Talk Tequila
I spent a large part of my life in what I call the “Salmon Phase.” This era consisted of me
fighting my way through life—swimming upstream against the current. I was trying to force everything to happen, but the only thing I accomplished was making things harder! One day, exhausted and defeated, I decided to start going with the flow. Once I started to float down the lazy river of life, all the pieces just fell together beautifully.
Fear not, this article isn’t about salmon-based cocktails, but it is about how you can make an amazing cocktail by switching out the main ingredient for tequila, mezcal, or sotol!
I know what you’re thinking: “Rachael, you lost me at tequila.” But I’m going to open your eyes to amazing spirits that are essentially the “cousins” of tequila.
Let’s start out in familiar territory: tequila. Originally, to be considered authentic, it had to be made from the blue agave plant in cities surrounding Tequila, Mexico. However, regulations now allow for a “mixto” tequila, which is 51% blue agave. The other 49% is dealer’s choice (and that’s usually cheap and not the best choice). Mixto can also have artificial colors and additives.
I had the pleasure of experiencing Titanium Tequila Blanco, and CEO Casey Hartle explained what makes this product so smooth. He told me they don’t over-distill because, “Allowing the agave to speak is as important as having that refined finish.”
Hartle wants the drinker to “enjoy the rewarding flavors of a highlands agave while getting a refined finish that melts off the palette where others leave a heavy burn.”
It’s a classically created spirit made in Mexico, which blends old and new techniques. They use “organic ingredients as much as possible during the process, as higher quality ingredients make for a better tequila.”
Since Titanium was so smooth, I decided to try it in my version of an espresso martini, and the result was a delicious cocktail with extra body, fullness, and flavor layers. By switching out the vodka and adding a smooth, high-end tequila, someone who isn’t a vodka drinker can experience a cocktail they might never have ordered. Or, a customer who already imbibes tequila will be exposed to a memorable option that they will come back for.
Next stop: mezcal! Mezcal can use any type of agave (there are over 30 different varieties). Tequila is made by steaming the agave inside industrial ovens, then distilling it up to three times in metal pots. Whereas mezcal calls for cooking the agave in underground pits lined with lava rocks and filled with wood and charcoal before distilling it in clay pots. The result is a delicious, smoky flavor with a surprising hint of saltiness. Using salt and saline is a popular trend on the cocktail scene, and mezcal has it built in!
Smoking cocktails are another huge mixology trend, but you don’t have to buy a smoking gun, the smoking box, and wood chips to achieve this. Use a smoky mezcal, and you get all the taste with much less effort. I’m very drawn to working with mezcals because, besides adding an amazing flavor profile to any drink, they are handmade and created in small batches. In other words, this is an exceptional booze.
Because the majority of mezcals are artisanal, most are very exclusive. Yes, these are fine spirits that can hold their own against any great single-malt scotch. You will not find these brands at Señor Frog’s in Cancun. Many are created by hand in small villages occupying a particular region of Mexico. Picture a donkey pulling a large grinding stone that mashes the charred and caramelized agave hearts into a pulp before fermentation.
Bruxo Mezcal Brand Ambassadors Anna Karp and David Ruis expanded on the interesting production process, “Bruxo is made in several villages, all of which are a good trip from Oaxaca City. Because we are a collective of mezcaleros, sometimes families and relations work in the palenques. Bruxo No. 2 is produced by Don Pablo and his family.”
Bruxo No.2 is considered “joven” or silver, but joven is often blended with a small amount of older mezcal to add some of the richer, more mature characteristics found in reposado and añejo. This is clearly the case with Bruxo No. 2, as it has a buttery hue and more viscosity then a typical silver. In this case, the smokiness takes a back seat to the floral, chocolatey, sweet and spicy notes, and is rich on the saltiness.
Because the smokiness is subtle, I decided to do a riff on a Tequila Sunrise. With Bruxo No. 2 as the base, I’m already starting with a complex flavor. By adding high-end ingredients like fresh muddled pineapple, lime, and Cocktail & Sons Fassionola Syrup, I created a sophisticated version of a very simple, classic cocktail. A fine spirit like Bruxo Mezcal deserves to be accompanied by equally worthy ingredients, so skip the artificial grenadine!
If you’ve read any of my previous articles, you know that I am a farm girl with an affinity for all things natural. So when I read the ingredients in Ilegal Mezcal are “100% Agave, Oaxacan Sun, Water, and Time,” I was already sold. When I tasted the reposado, I was immediately smitten by the complexity. Each bottle is hand corked, labeled,
and numbered. They are advocates of biodiversity and environmental protection in the Oaxaca region.
Ilegal is the “dude” of mezcals, and I wanted to use it in a recipe that reflected its old-world charm and badass-ness. I made a classic sidecar and used the mezcal in place of cognac. Now I never want a sidecar any other way!
Next up, sotol! Don’t worry, I didn’t know what this was either. Hacienda De Chihuahua was kind enough to send me a bottle of their Plata and talk about this pure, richly flavored, highly valued, 800-year-old spirit. “It is an organic agavacea, wild-harvested in the Chihuahuan Desert of Northern Mexico, which takes 15 years to mature,” said Hacienda De Chihuahua. The master distiller “meticulously oversees our state-of-the-art production process, which starts by slow steam cooking the wild-harvested plants, and naturally ferments them with champagne yeast.” Their Plata (or un-aged) is twice distilled in double-column copper and directly bottled.
My first sip reaction was wow. It had so many appealing flavors—mint, fresh cut grass, subtle sweetness, herbaceous, and even a slight vanilla finish.
I had a notion that this would be great in my favorite cocktail, a negroni, and I was right. Because sotol is similar to gin in that it is rich with a multitude of flavors, it held its own. I made my negroni with the new Galliano L’Aperitivo and Carpano Antica Formula Sweet Vermouth, but you can play around with your favorites.
These four brands are high-end, delicious, and master crafted, so I would encourage you to have your customers try them straight up or on the rocks. Adding them to a classic cocktail could also make the difference between a good drink that fades from memory, and an unforgettable visit to your establishment. Add these three liquors to your bar, and float down life’s lazy river as your profits soar!
By Rachael Robbins, who owns Chickologist, a cocktail consulting company. Her objective is to infiltrate “the boy’s club of mixology” and show that chicks can mix a mean drink too. She’s tended bar in NYC, Miami, LA, & NJ for 20 years. She opened a speakeasy in Jersey City and created innovative cocktails. She’s the in-house Mixologist for VDKA 6100. Reach her at chickologist.com or @chickologist.
Photos by Chris Capaci: @capacityimages or capacityimages.com.
(All by Rachael Robbins)
1.5 oz Ilegal Reposado Mezcal
1 oz Triple sec
.5 oz Lemon juice
.5 oz Lime juice
1/4 oz Allspice Dram
Stir until chilled and serve up in a martini glass. Garnish with a cinnamon stick.
Is that Sotol Is?
1 oz Hacienda De Chihuahua Sotol Plata
1 oz Sweet Vermouth
1 oz Galliano L’Aperitivo
Stir all ingredients until chilled. Serve with one large ice cube. Garnish with a lemon twist.
Dirty Chai Martini
(Espresso Martini variation)
1 oz Titanium Blanco Tequila
1.5 oz Kahlúa
.5 oz Espresso
.5 oz Grand Marnier
4 dashes Dale DeGroff’s Pimento Aromatic Bitters
Shake all ingredients until chilled. Serve up in a martini glass. Top with fresh, unsweetened whipped cream and grated nutmeg.
Just Another Mezcal Sunset
(variation on a Tequila Sunrise)
2 oz Bruxo No. 2 Mezcal Joven
2 oz Fresh Pineapple juice
1 oz Lime juice
1 oz Cocktail & Sons Fassionola Syrup
Add the Fassionola Syrup to the bottom of a thin Collins glass. Chill the rest of the ingredients. Add crushed ice to glass. Top with chilled mixture. Garnish with pineapple leaves.