Summer entertaining typically calls for bottles of beer or a few tried-and-true cocktail recipes. But this year, we encourage you to take a second look at tequila and mezcal for your refreshment needs. Once considered rough brews only fit for bandits and cowboys, agave liquors are now sought-after artisanal spirits. Leave the saltshaker behind and savor the complexity straight — sip by sip — or let it shine through in a crafted cocktail with fresh-squeezed juices.
A new type of tequila
Let’s start by setting the record straight about tequila. In past years, the tequilas available in the United States were mixto tequilas, typically less than 50 percent agave and fermented instead with cane sugars. These sub-par tequilas even contained caramel coloring and glycerin, and were sold to tourists and spring breakers. Some bartenders use mixtos for cocktails like margaritas, claiming the other ingredients would mask the taste of better-quality tequila. If you’ve been turned off by tequila cocktails in the past, we bet they weren’t made with 100 percent agave and fresh-squeezed juice. In fact, knocking back shots of the less-than-pure, fiery liquid of our youth is what gave tequila its bad reputation for hangovers. Savor 100 percent agave liquor, and you should find (unless you’ve been particularly reckless) those hangovers are a thing of the past.
Using fresh juices
Keep in mind, however, that the taste of a good tequila or mezcal can be lost if it’s combined with premade mixers. You make an effort to buy local, organic and in-season produce — so why are you using canned juice in your cocktails? It takes a little extra time to squeeze fresh juice, but trust us when we say it will make all the difference in your drinks. The flavors are brighter and blend better with the alcohol.
A Tequila Sunrise made with golden, just-pressed orange juice? Incredibly simple, but so delicious it will make you wonder what you were drinking before. Store-bought mixes are full of junk like artificial flavorings and HFCS — our Homemade Sweet-and-Sour Mix requires just three ingredients and produces a large batch that you can make in advance and keep in the fridge.
The variety of mezcal
Nowadays most people know that tequila is made from the agave plant, and may have even heard of mezcal, often given the misnomer of “sister” to tequila or the “poor man’s tequila.” Tequila is actually a type of mezcal, referring to a mezcal that only uses the blue Weber agave plant. Mezcal allows for much more variety as the species of agave is not predetermined, and the spirit can be made from about 30 different kinds of the plant.
By Vianney Rodriguez and Yvette Marquez-Sharpnack, Hippocrene Books, 224 pages
Mezcal takes on its characteristic smoky flavor from the way it has been produced for generations — cooked by hand in a giant earthen fire pit. Volcanic rock seals in the heat over several days, and the type of agave used can result in a mezcal that has fruity, sweet, spicy, floral, herbaceous and even chocolate notes. We love to add it to a classic Mexican cocktail, the tart and bubbly Mezcal Paloma. More and more brands are imported to the U.S. every year, and it’s not unusual to find mezcals made from wild species that grow at high altitudes or take decades to mature priced at $100 and up.
Bloody Marys and more
Since tequila is only made from agave azul, the variations in taste come from the aging process. Blanco or joven (young) is a clear liquid; either unaged, or aged under 2 months. Reposado tequila is aged anywhere between 2 and 12 months, giving it a smoother taste. Añejo rests for even longer, between 1 and 3 years, taking on intricate layers of flavor.
Try a reposado or añejo into your cocktail recipes for a subtle but still complex taste, such as a Reposado Margarita. Some producers now offer extra añejo, a tequila that has been aged for more than 3 years. Small batch extra añejo such as Clase Azul Ultra are a clear sign of tequila’s upscale makeover: The liquor is aged for five years in sherry barrels and bottled in a striking black porcelain decanter embellished with platinum and 24-karat gold, and purchased by collectors who can afford the $1,800 price tag.
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If you’ve shied away from tequila or mezcal in the past, fear them no longer! Tequila is already becoming a spirit to reckon with, and soon smoky mezcal will also be competing with the finest cognac and scotch in the world. If you prefer not to sip it straight, start slow with cocktails such as a margarita or a paloma. You can also experiment with infusing fruit or herbal flavors with tequila and mezcal. Spice aficionados will love Serrano Chile-Infused Tequila, which can be sipped on its own or added to a Bloody Maria. But whatever you do, use freshly squeezed fruit juices and splurge on quality 100 percent agave tequila and real mezcal. You deserve it. Salud.
Yield: 1 drink
Paloma (Spanish for “dove”) is perhaps the most refreshing cocktail ever created. Sweet, sour, a little bitter, and salty, it’s got all four taste groups, plus ice, bubbles, and tequila or mezcal; what’s not to like? We love this refreshing margarita with bubbles.
1/4 cup fresh grapefruit juice
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1/4 cup mezcal or tequila
1/4 cup club soda
Grapefruit wedge, for garnish
Rub rim of an 8-ounce glass with a grapefruit wedge. Pour some coarse salt out onto a plate and rub the rim of the glass in the salt to coat. Combine grapefruit juice, lime juice, and sugar in prepared glass; stir until sugar is dissolved. Stir in mezcal, add some ice, and top off with the club soda. Garnish with grapefruit wedge.
Main photo: Once considered rough brews only fit for bandits and cowboys, agave liquors are now sought-after artisanal spirits. Credit: Copyright Jeanine Thurston