by Tejal Rao
If Prohibition taught us anything, it’s that low-end alcohol
can be the creative starting point for serious cocktail culture.
While gin, vodka, and whisky quickly moved on from their skanky
bathtub status to high-end distilleries where they became the muses
for expensive, grown-up cocktails, tequila lagged. In dank student
basements, tequila seemed condemned to a lifetime of salt-licking,
lime-sucking cronies. But those days are over. High-end tequila
has survived its bruised pop culture image (thank
you Mel Gibson) to become the darling of professional bartenders.
And for those bars with access to a kitchen there’s an added
bonus: tequila pairs well with food.
Mixologist Leann Berry of Ciudad in Dallas
is working on her first book, pairing cocktails with food. While
rum makes an appearance, tequila dominates her menu. Berry makes
several trips a year to Mexico for tequila tastings, specifically
to the highlands of Jalisco where the blue agave necessary for its
production grows. “I love the versatility of tequilas –
hands-down they make the most interesting drinks.” Her menu
is divided into three columns: Blancos (aged less than
60 days), Reposados (aged for 2 months to a year in oak),
and Añejos (aged from 1 to 10 years). Berry describes
La Familia Reserva, the most expensive Añejo on her list
at $19, with the seriousness of a wine taster: “rich as copper
and full-bodied with dark caramel, herbal agave, salty minerals,
and brown spices.” Not for body shots, this one.
Mixologist Junior Merino is known in the industry
for his high-concept cocktails, “right now I’m working
with tequila because Cinco de Mayo is just around the corner and
it pairs naturally with Mexican cuisine.” Specifically Merino
is into Siembra Azul, a small batch tequila made with 11.5 kilograms
of agave per liter. He goes with the Blanco, for its mild herbaceous
notes and bright citrus, when making a light match with crabmeat.
In his Orchestrated
Harmony cocktail, Merino mists the glass with Herbsaint liqueur
and fills it with a muddle of Blanco tequila, lychee, pineapple,
cilantro, grapes and lemon. The green, grassy notes and fresh citrus
compliment Chef Miguel Espinoza’s Jicama-Crab
Rollito and echo the cilantro flavor without overpowering the
delicate crabmeat. With his Nuezes
cocktail, Merino intensifies the sweet and savory suggestions of
pale caramel, milk chocolate and nuts inherent to the Siembra Azul
Reposado tequila with a rim of walnut liqueur and crushed candied
pecans. He serves it with salmon and grouper coated in two sweet,
smoky, and intensely flavored salsas – amplifying the flavor
of both cocktail and dish.
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