Tequila Takes Center Stage
It’s only been a few years since it was hard to find even an acceptable Margarita, let alone a tequila cocktail that went beyond the agave spirit-orange liqueur-lime triumvirate. But as the continued supply increase of great and inexpensive tequilas and mescals coincided with the new creative cocktail revolution, bartenders began going all out to include Mexican spirits in the mix.
We’re going beyond just adding fruit: At La Cava del Tequila at the Mexican Pavilion at Walt Disney World's Epcot in Orlando, Fla., consultant Junior Merino has worked up recipes for variations such as a Cucumber Margarita (tequila, triple sec, caramelized pineapple juice, fresh basil, cucumber and agave nectar with a cactus-lemongrass Himalayan salt rim) and the Avocado (silver tequila, melon liqueur, fresh avocado, agave nectar and fresh lime juice, served frozen with a hibiscus Himalayan salt rim). The program has been so successful — Merino says they move about 5,000 cocktails every day at the little mass-market outlet — that he’s been emboldened to develop mescal cocktails as well.
At Mayahuel in New York City, Philip Ward’s recent menu includes the Cantinflas (reposado tequila, mescal, dry Oloroso sherry, amaro, Grand Marnier and mole bitters), the Herb Alpert (jalapeno-infused blanco tequila and mescal with fresh oregano and lime) and the Barrio Viejo (anejo tequila, sugar cane, Peychaud and Angostura bitters with an absinthe glass rinse). Ward employs lots of sherries, amaros, bitters and other standard cocktail ingredients not typically known for sharing a shaker with tequila or mescal, but because Mayahuel offers about 50 different Mexican spirit cocktails at any one time, he figures he’s got a drink for every palate.
Merino includes new tequila drinks for most of the clients he consults: At La Condesa in Austin, Texas, the most popular drink is the Cubico, made with tobacco-infused añejo tequila, mescal, grilled pineapple and vanilla liqueur. At Tequilas in Philadelphia, the signature drink is the Alma Blanca, made with fresh corn smashed with habanero-infused blanco tequila, ginger liqueur, pineapple juice and aloe vera. Cinco de Mayo now stirs up many Margarita variations; at Richard Sandoval’s Zengo in New York City, the menu goes from the Zen-like Tamarind-Togarashi Margarita (silver tequila, citrus, togarashi salt) to the Pomelo Mescal Margarita (including pomelo, citrus and grapefruit bitters), while the restaurant's La Biblioteca de Tequila basement bar/lounge serves La Vida Piñas (Del Maguey Vida Mescal, caramelized pineapple, citrus, chili, candied lemon zest) and Tequila Snow Cones in tamarind, hibiscus and strawberry varieties.
Meanwhile, new tequila temples continue to open. Sandoval is about to open the 200-tequila El Centro D.F. in Washington, D.C., where the undergound Tequileria serves a comfort food menu alongside 200 tequilas and mescals curated by tequila Sommelier Danielle Griffin and Courtenay Greenleaf, who manages the tequila list at the aforementioned Biblioteca, which claims to have the largest list in North America — anyone say otherwise? Tasting flights are offered, of course, and barman Brennan Adams’ drinks include the Gutierrez, where a mezcal takes the place of gin in a variation of the classic Martinez, and the Michelada Tochino, where house-smoked bacon forms the backbone in this variation of a traditional Mexican beer cocktail. At Manhattan’s Ofrenda for Cinco, there’s the Jalisco Firing Squad (blanco tequila, lime juice, homemade grenadine, Angostura bitters, muddled red bell peppers), the Broken Bridge Fizz (blanco tequila, mezcal, aperol, pineapple juice, lemon juice, agave, orange bitters, muddled cucumber) and the Old Oaxacan (añejo tequila, tanteo cocoa, mezcal, orange bitters).
More than just Mexican-themed restaurants are including new tequila cocktails. At Los Angeles’ 1886 at the Raymond Hotel, the new spring menu's seasonal section includes Greg Gertmenian’s Tequila Daisy 2.0, a Margarita innovation topped with strawberry foam. In the “shaken” section, Marcos Tello offers a liquid version of his favorite childhood candy called the Saladito (mescal, lime, honey, salt and chile). Also new there: Lacey Murillo’s Sangre del Agave (Italian blood-orange tea-infused anejo tequila, Lillet Blanc, Amaro Lucano and Benedictine).