Cinco de Mayo is about a week away – on a Saturday this year. Ostensibly a celebration of the Mexican army’s unexpected victory over the French in 1862, it’s really a celebration of Mexican culture, which always includes tequila.
Tequila is the drink most closely associated with Cinco de Mayo parties, easy-to-drink cocktails, and (perhaps) some youthful overindulgence. There’s no quicker way to gather a crowd than to say “come over for some margaritas.”
Made from the agave plant only in Mexico under strict rules, tequila has come a long way in recent years. From college bar excess and dispenser frozen margaritas, it has morphed into a sophisticated, high-quality liquor commanding more and more retailer shelf space and restaurant back bar slots across the country.
By law, tequila can only be made from blue agave in the region around the city of Tequila in the state of Jalisco. It can take more than a decade for the plant to reach its mature weight of 100 pounds or more.
The harvested agave hearts, with their leaves cut off, looking a little like giant pineapples, are slowly roasted to bring out their fermentable sugars. The juice, extracted by crushing, is then double distilled to yield a clear spirit that can be bottled right away or aged in wooden barrels.
Clear tequila – labeled Silver, Plata, or Blanco – with a bit of natural sweetness, is the most popular. It should have the distinctive agave aroma and flavor: fruity, herbal, with a spicy kick, and maybe the slightest hint of smoke. Reposado (rested) is aged in white oak barrels for at least two months acquiring a touch of color and barrel flavor. Añejo (aged), rested at least a year in the barrel, can drink like a fine cognac.
All tequilas should be around 40% alcohol and say 100% agave on the label.
Mezcal, tequila’s close cousin, comes from a wider geographic region and can be made from any of 30 types of agave. But the big difference is that mezcal agave is cooked over a wood fire, giving it the smoky aroma and flavor so prized by its fans. Mezcal also comes clear (jovan), reposado, and añejo, although the aging times are typically longer.
In Mexico, tequila and mezcal are usually drunk straight, but here they’re mostly mixed into cocktails with the ever-popular margarita leading the pack. Lime juice (fresh squeezed is best), orange liqueur (triple sec, Cointreau, etc), a little sweetener, and the tequila are all shaken and served up or on the rocks in a salt-rimmed glass. I’ve seen tequila, lime, triple sec ratios from 3:2:1 to 1:1:1 and everything in between. Some recipes call for sugar, simple syrup, or agave syrup while others don’t include any sweetener at all.
We settled on 2 oz. of tequila,1 oz. lime, ½ oz. of simple syrup, and ½ oz. of triple sec for a basic recipe and tried two different tequilas. Espolon Blanco had a bright, verdant, agave flavor. Hornitos Cristalino, a clear añejo, had a rounder, smoother character.
The tequila brand and type makes a big impact on the flavor but the liqueur can make a difference too. Try different brands of orange liqueur or experiment with another flavor like blood orange, elder flower, or raspberry. Try some herbs like basil of thyme. Adjust the sugar for the sweetness of liqueur. The fun is in experimenting.
Tequila is a bartender’s favorite, with a much broader range of cocktails than just the margarita. The Paloma is grapefruit based. Colorful and tasty, a Tequila Sunrise has been around for a long time. Bartenders are getting creative with tequila’s complex flavors. The La Gracia with reposado, Benedictine, sherry, and mole bitters is a good example.
Mezcal is cocktail friendly too. A mezcal Manhattan with Cointreau and vermouth occupies the space somewhere between a margarita and a traditional Manhattan.
At Stew Leonard’s wines, JoAnn LoGiurato and Wilson Giraldo told me that both tequila and mezcal are growing categories. Don Julio is their best seller, but customers are also moving up to brands like Espolon and Herradura. Even George Clooney has jumped on the bandwagon with his ultra-premium Casamigos brand. Super-premium, well-aged, collectible añejos can go for $100 or more, but there’s plenty of quality tequila in the $25 to $40 range.
Beer and spirits writer Gregg Glazer lived for a time in tequila country. He told me that when visiting a private home, the family would offer a taste of reposado, the silver being for everyday, while Añejo was too exotic for for average families.
Tequila and mezcal offer a wide range of flavors and a good bang for the buck. Cinco de Mayo is a good excuse to stock up, but you’ll enjoy the spirit of Mexico all summer long.