Margaritas and Beyond
Innovative Cinco de Mayo cocktail recipes plus tips for cooking with Mexico's two kindred spirits, Tequila and Mezcal.
By Kelly J. Hayes
Other than perhaps St. Patrick's Day, when many bars offer their finest selection of green beer, no holiday is more closely associated with a specific drink than Cinco de Mayo is with the margarita.
While the connection between Cinco de Mayo (which, by the way, commemorates Mexico's victory at the Battle of Puebla over Napolean's French invaders in 1862 and is not Mexican Independence Day) and the margarita is based more on marketing myth than reality, it is a fact that the margarita has become one of the most popular drink concoctions in the world.
The origins of the margarita, as is the case with so many cocktails, are murky at best with there being over a half-dozen tales of creation. Many credit one Danny Negrete who in 1936 made a cocktail that featured 1/3 Tequila, 1/3 Triple sec and 1/3 lime juice at a hotel called the Garci Crespo in Puebla, Mexico. Others say that the cocktail was born on the 4th of July, 1942, in a bar called Tommy's Place in Juárez when bartender Pancho Morales improvised on a request for a "Magnolia."
Since the Tex-Mex boom of the 1970s and the release of the Jimmy Buffet song Margaritaville in 1977, the margarita has become the official libation of summer, sand and all that that entails. Unfortunately its image as a cheap drink made with bad mixers, muddled (and I use that term in the worst way) with questionable faux fruit products and perhaps worst of all, served frozen like sorbet or even a snowcone, has turned many purists away, ultimately robbing them of the simple, pure, sweet and sour taste that characterizes a good margarita.
In search of simplicity and tradition we asked some mixologists from many of the Southwest's finer resort properties to give us their best takes on this classic cocktail. Here's what they pour their patrons:
Mezcal-Rita (from the Little Nell)
At the Little Nell in Aspen, newly minted Master Sommelier Jonathan Pullis is pouring a sweetheart of a cocktail, using Sombra Mezcal, which is made from the hearts of Wild Espadin Agave.
2 oz. Sombra Mezcal
½ oz. Cointreau
½ oz. fresh lime juice
¼ oz. Agave Nectar
Method: Rim glass with Hawaiian Red Sea Salt. Combine ingredients into chilled shaker. Shake until frothy. Serve on the rocks in salted glass, garnish with lime.
Detox Margarita (from the Camelback Inn)
Mixologist Trudy Thomas has transformed the cocktail menu at the newly refurbished Camelback Inn in Scottsdale, AZ, and added a number of Tequila concoctions. In Sprouts, the restaurant at the resort's spa, the emphasis is on organic cocktails made with the freshest of juices.
2 oz. fresh lemon sour
1 oz. 4 Copas Reposado Tequila
1 oz. aloe water
½ oz. Cointreau
Splash organic agave nectar
Splash fresh lime juice
Method: In a shaker glass with ice add all ingredients and shake until cold. Pour into a margarita glass
The "Pure" Margarita (from Spago, Beaver Creek)
At Spago, in The Ritz-Carlton, Beaver Creek, mixologist and Master Sommelier Sean Razee has a margarita on his summer list that's super clean and simple. "I've named it "Pure" because there is only Agave derivatives and fresh lime juice—no oak, no simple sugar, no Sweet and Sour—just clean agave with a balancing act of sweet sour." Drink up!
2 oz Casa Noble Blanco Tequila
1 ¼ oz. fresh lime
¾ oz. Madhava brand organic agave nectar
Method: Shake with ice and strain into a martini glass.
Garnish with a lime twist.
Margarita Hernande (from Encantado)
At the Terra restaurant and bar in Auberge Resorts newest property, Encantado, just outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico, Food and Beverage Director Michel Darmon (formerly of New York's Per Se) has created a margarita that pays homage to the hotel's staff. "We wanted something a little sweeter than some of the other Margaritas in the area and when we came up with this drink we instantly thought "We should name it after Margarita Hernandez." Who's that you ask? Why, the Director of Housekeeping at the property.
1.5 oz. Herradura Silver Tequila
pinch of salt
½ oz. Cointreau
½ oz. lime juice freshly squeezed (not too much so guest can add lime depending on personal taste)
½ organic agave nectar (naturally ultra sweet, careful)
Method: Shake hard so to break ice in shaker.
Serve in salted-rim margarita glass with a little of the broken ice.
Garnish with lime wedge.
The Beyond: Tequila and Mezcal in the Kitchen
By Kelly Magyarics
When it comes to pairing Tequila with food, some restaurants venture no further than a margarita served alongside chips and guacamole. At Washington, DC's Oyamel Cocina Mexicana, though, margaritas are topped with a foam concoction called salt "air", and are served with guacamole prepared tableside and topped with queso fresco.
This authentically Mexican restaurant, run by renowned tapas master José Andres, is one of a handful in the country awarded the Agave De Oro, the highest certification by the Tequila Regulatory Council of Mexico. Recently, it was also the site of a two-week-long Tequila and Mezcal festival. Attendees sampled the best examples of Tequila and Mezcal as well as innovative cocktails (see Black & Blue recipe below) and dishes—courtesy of Oyamel head chef Joe Raffa—that feature these kindred Mexican spirits. (For the record, Mezcal refers to any agave-based distilled spirits that are not Tequila, and can be made from any of twenty-two agave varieties. Tequila must be produced with blue agave.)
When it comes to using these sprits in the kitchen, Raffa believes no hard or fast rules exist, the only exception being that one should select quality brands to assure an excellent final product—he uses Blanco and Reposado Tequilas from Siembra Azul. A baby greens salad with chiltate crusted goat cheese and roasted pumpkin seeds is lightly misted at the table with Blanco to add fragrance and flavor; while a ceviche of ultra fresh Hawaiian Pacific Blue Marlin, tangerine and passion fruit gains depth after marinating in Reposado. Although Raffa likens selecting a favorite Tequila dish to picking a favorite child, he does admit that a goat milk caramel made with Añejo and served with coconut sorbet and passion fruit is one of Oyamel's more unique plates.
Creating a new recipe involves selecting a protein and sauce, and experimenting with ingredients and cooking methods. "Then we look to see how a Tequila or Mezcal could enhance the dish, trying all the different styles of several brands to see which works best," Raffa explains.
Mezcal's brooding and smoky notes are achieved by smoking agave hearts in underground pits called hornos. "You can either use the smokiness to enhance a dish's smoky profile, like that of grilled meat, or use it as a contrast," notes Raffa, who pours both Los Amantes triple-distilled Mezcal, as well as Del Maguey Chichicapa, a single village Mezcal awarded best tasting Mezcal at the World Spirits Championships. Mezcal ups the smoky notes in Raffa's grilled calamari with a rustic sauce of tomatoes, chiles, and red onion; and partners with the earthiness in his mixed mushroom soup.
Do ingredients exist that don't work with Tequila or Mezcal? Raffa believes the fundamental components of Mexican cuisine—chiles, tomatoes, corn, cilantro and other herbs and chocolate—will find synergy with the spirit in the right dish. "There are so many flavor profiles available in the world of Tequila or Mezcal, you can find an appropriate flavor complement to a dish if you look hard enough."
Sopa de Hongos con Mezcal (Mushroom Soup with Mezcal)
Courtesy of Joe Raffa, Oyamel, Washington, DC
1 pound tomatoes
6 ounces tomatilloes
12 ounces white onion, quartered
1 small garlic clove
½ small Serrano chile
1 pasilla chile
½ cup cilantro, roughly chopped
3 cups sliced mixed mushrooms
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
6 cups chicken stock
4 ounces mezcal
¼ cup queso fresco cheese
Method: Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the tomatoes, tomatillos, onions, garlic, Serrano chile and pasilla chile on a sheet tray. Roast in the oven until the vegetables are soft, about 20 minutes. When the vegetables are soft, place them all in a blender in batches, and puree until smooth. If the mixture is too thick, add some of the chicken stock to the blender. Add the cilantro to the blender to puree the mixture.
In a large pot, heat ¼ cup of olive oil over medium heat. Carefully pour the vegetable puree into the oil, and cook over medium-high heat for 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until the color of the soup base changes to a light brown. Add the remainder of the chicken stock and two cups of the mixed mushrooms. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook for one and a half hours.
Add the mezcal to the soup. Cook for 5 more minutes, and then remove from heat. Carefully strain the soup and add salt to taste.
Pour the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet and heat over medium high heat until the oil is very hot, but not smoking. Add the remaining sliced mushrooms to the hot oil and sear until brown with crispy edges. Season them to taste.
Divide the mushrooms into 4 serving bowls, and then top with queso fresco cheese. Ladle the hot soup into the bowls.
For the non-margarita crowd, below is a recipe for José Andres' Black & Blue cocktail, a refreshing, fruit-filled tipple kicked up with a Mezcal float .
Black & Blue
Courtesy of José Andres, Oyamel, Washington, DC
2 lime wedges
1 tablespoon sugar
3 mint leaves
1 ½ oz. Siembra Azul blanco tequila
½ oz. Del Maguey Chichicapa Mezcal
3 blueberries and small mint leaves (for garnish)
Method: Combine the berries, lime and sugar in a pint glass and muddle. Add the mint leaves and tequila and shake. Strain into a highball glass filled halfway with ice. Fill glass almost to the top with Sprite. Top with the Chichicapa Mezcal. Garnish with the remaining blueberries and mint leaves.
Kelly Magyarics is a wine and spirits writer, and wine educator, in the Washington, DC area. She can be reached through her website, www.trywine.net.