Weekly Mix: Sangrita at Comal

by Caroline Hatchett
Katherine Sacks
June 2013

Restaurant

Today’s agave-worshiping mixologits have stocked a backbar of tequilas that would make Oaxaca proud. When customers ponder these 60-bottle lists their heads spin as they consider the varied selection of unadulterated tequila joy. That’s the reasoning, at least, behind the sangrita program at Berkeley's Comal. Traditionally served as a palate cleanser and chaser for sipping tequila, sangrita (or “little blood” in Spanish) is also Comal’s best tool for selling his beloved spirit to novice tequila sippers. “We curated this agave spirits list, and we needed a way to present them so people would order them,” says Head Bartender Matthew Campbell.

The most common (but not necessarily most traditional) sangrita is a mixture of tomato, lime, orange, chiles or hot sauce, and salt. But Comal's modern, Californified Mexican menu called for something more sophisticated. “[Sangrita] is built on a combination of sweet, salty, spicy, and tart. It's a blank canvas that offers lots of room for expansion,” says Campbell, who built upon sangrita recipes developed by Rising Star Mixologist Scott Baird of the Bon Vivants.

Springing from that five-ingredient staple of tequila bars everywhere, Comal offers a tequila and sangrita flight with three distinctive chasers built to complement three different tequila styles. Presented in a format of three 1-ounce tequilas with three complementary 1-ounce sangritas, the seemingly low-impact flights fly off the bar. “We sell more tequila à la carte than any other restaurant I’ve worked in,” he says. At $18 to $22 a flight, Campbell says the profit margins are similar to his cocktails, but customers are ordering and learning about tequilas in a more meaningful way. (Plus, the flights come in dare-you-to-drink reverse-stop light colors: red, yellow, and green.)

Sangrita Flight: Blanco Tequila and Green Sangrita: Cucumber, Pineapple, Mint, Hoja Santa, Peppers, Sherry, and Agave Nectar; Reposado Tequila and Rojo Sangrita: Tomato, Orange Juice, Lime, Dried Chili Paste, Habanero and Fresno Chilies, and Braggs Amino Acid; Añejo Tequila and Mango Sangrita: Cacao, Cardamom, Lime, Aji Amarillo and Habanero Peppers, and Bitters

Sangrita Flight: Blanco Tequila and Green Sangrita: Cucumber, Pineapple, Mint, Hoja Santa, Peppers, Sherry, and Agave Nectar; Reposado Tequila and Rojo Sangrita: Tomato, Orange Juice, Lime, Dried Chili Paste, Habanero and Fresno Chilies, and Braggs Amino Acid; Añejo Tequila and Mango Sangrita: Cacao, Cardamom, Lime, Aji Amarillo and Habanero Peppers, and Bitters

Sangrita Flight: Blanco Tequila and Green Sangrita: Cucumber, Pineapple, Mint, Hoja Santa, Peppers, Sherry, and Agave Nectar; Reposado Tequila and Rojo Sangrita: Tomato, Orange Juice, Lime, Dried Chili Paste, Habanero and Fresno Chilies, and Braggs Amino Acid; Añejo Tequila and Mango Sangrita: Cacao, Cardamom, Lime, Aji Amarillo and Habanero Peppers, and Bitters

Sangrita Flight: Blanco Tequila and Green Sangrita: Cucumber, Pineapple, Mint, Hoja Santa, Peppers, Sherry, and Agave Nectar; Reposado Tequila and Rojo Sangrita: Tomato, Orange Juice, Lime, Dried Chili Paste, Habanero and Fresno Chilies, and Braggs Amino Acid; Añejo Tequila and Mango Sangrita: Cacao, Cardamom, Lime, Aji Amarillo and Habanero Peppers, and Bitters

Red and Reposado

Campbell pairs reposado tequila with a red sangrita of tomato, orange juice, hibiscus tea, tamarind, lime, cilantro, dried chiles, habañeros, Fresno chiles, and Bragg’s aminos. Reposados, which are oaked and produced from agave grown in warm lowland valleys, have cinnamon and spice notes. Campbell says tomato-based sangritas with a warm spice blend of guajillo, ancho, morilla, pequin chiles are a great match for lowland-style tequilas.

Yellow and Añejo

Created a few months after Comal opened, Campbell developed his mango sangrita to pair with añejo tequilas. Añejos are oaked further than reposados and have a round, vanilla nuttiness on the finish. “You can get chocolate [notes] with [añejos aged in] American oak,” says Campbell. “We started making a cacao-cardamom syrup and built it off that.” Mixed in with the syrup and mango is a combination of lime, aji amarillo, habañeros, Fresno chiles, and Amaro Montenegro for bitterness.

Green and Blanco

For blanco tequilas produced in the highlands, Cambell pairs a green sangrita of cucumber, pineapple, lime, mint, hoja santa, serrano chiles, Amontillado Sherry (for salinity and mouthfeel), and agave nectar. The sangrita mimics the green notes in the blanco—grass, bell peppers, and herbs—without overpowering it.

Dipping into the Comal kitchen mise en place, Campbell adjusts the recipes for seasonality, such as substituting espazote and tarragon for root-beer-esque hoja santa. He and his team (with a little help from Comal’s prep cooks) make about 8 liters of sangrita a week, and the batches are best after one to three days of aging. Sangrita at Comal is the ultimate bartender’s coupe: a successful batched drink with a respectable margin that helps sell and uplift a spirit that’s better known for shootin’ than sippin’. Tequila, you’ve met your match, at Comal.