Rediscover Aztec Spirits Before Salt, Triple-Sec

  • 05/24/2018
  • Richard Foss

By Richard Foss, Culture and Cuisine Writer

If you routinely check out the bar on your way into a restaurant, you’ve probably noticed that a new class of beverages has been crowding out the old favorites. Move over, whiskey, gin, and vodka, the Mexicans are taking your shelf space. A new generation of beverages has arrived and they’re different from the drinks that came before them.

The best known, of course, is tequila, but we’re not drinking the stuff that college students swilled in bygone decades. And, this seems to be the best time to note that the gaily colored bottles with the worm in the bottom that were featured in dorm room dares did not contain tequila. Those were mezcal and the worm in the bottom of the bottle was a marketing gimmick to sell novelty bottles to tourists. To explain the difference between tequila and mezcal, a little history lesson is in order.

The Aztecs fermented a mildly alcoholic beverage called pulque from the sap of the maguey cactus, and this thick, milky beverage was drunk both ritually and recreationally. At least some of the time they also roasted the heart of the maguey in order to extract more sugars and improve the flavor. Scholars have argued over whether they also distilled the result or whether that technology was brought by the Spanish. Archaeologists have recently found evidence that bolsters the case for the Aztecs. Regardless, distilled cactus juice caught on and was produced commercially by 1608.

Over time the process was improved and several different drinks emerged. Tequila was made from one particular strain of cactus, the blue agave, while others were used to make mezcal. Besides the difference in plant species there is also a difference in production; for tequila the plants are roasted in an oven, while for mezcal an open fire is used. Predictably, mezcal has a more smoky flavor, while tequila is generally smoother. A trickle of tequila was exported to the United States early in the 1900s, but most was substandard. Americans hadn’t tried good tequila and wouldn’t pay for the privilege of doing so. Therefore, most of us first experienced cheap booze that was heavily adulterated with grain alcohol.

To see how things have changed, I talked with an expert, bar manager Greg Goins of Panxa Cocina in Long Beach. He affirmed that if you tried tequila a decade or two and didn’t like it, a reevaluation is in order.

“Tequila isn’t made the way it used to be, just to be thrown into a margarita. Modern tequilas have qualities that make them worthy for sipping. A couple of years ago any time someone ordered one, they wanted to shoot it with salt and a lime wedge…. I’m seeing that less and less. Now, more people understand that the good ones deserve some time and are worth appreciating just as much as a scotch or bourbon.”

If you didn’t shoot the tequila, you probably had it in a margarita, a cocktail invented during prohibition when drinkers had to creatively use whatever they had. A popular drink of the era was the daisy, made with brandy, orange liqueur and lime juice. If you substitute tequila you have the margarita (whose name means “daisy”). Such a drink was reported in Tijuana in the 1930s. Goins said that bad bartending practices and cheap bottled mixers later made this drink a mockery of what it had been.

“I think the ‘90s ruined margaritas for everyone — we’ve come a long way from putting sweet and sour mix and triple sec in everything. We sell a lot of margaritas, but instead of a bottled mix we use straight lime juice and agave.”

The new appreciation for farm-to-bar cocktails have improved margaritas and many varieties have arisen, some well thought out and some very questionable. Still, all are variations on a recipe that is more than 80 years old. It seemed appropriate to ask why no new cocktail using tequila has made a big impression.

“There are some other good tequila drinks, like the paloma with grapefruit juice, but it’s difficult to make a unique tequila cocktail because it always ends up tasting like a margarita. Tequila naturally goes with lime and once you put that together you’re three-fourths of the way to a margarita. A balanced cocktail needs the sweet and sour to make it complex and that’s how you get there.  I have a drink called the Blind Bandito, and it’s jalapeño, agave, Campari, ginger beer, and lime…. The Campari adds that dryness and bitterness, and that separates it from a margarita.”

There have been many more new cocktails made with mezcal, a process Goins said is easier, because of the greater variety of flavors.

“Tequila needs to be made with the blue weber agave plant, while mezcal can be made from 30 different species of agave,” Goins said. “I’ve had some that have a minty taste, others that are earthy or rocky and minerally. There’s a huge range of characteristics, and you can enjoy those straight or in cocktails. I happen to prefer it straight, as I don’t want to disrespect it when it’s already so complex by itself. My favorite is probably Del Maguey and they have a lot of varieties that are worth investigating.”

At the time I talked to Goins, Panxa had just hosted a dinner featuring mezcals. He said that he used the different characteristics of the liquor in pairings with the cuisine of New Mexico.

“New Mexico is known for their chillies, most famously the Hatch green and Chimayo chillies,” he said. “Mezcals that are a little lower in alcohol and have spice notes go better with the Hatch chillies, while the smokier mezcals enhance the Chimayo flavors. There are so many flavors in this cuisine and in those liquors and there are all kinds of ways they can work together.”

Modern tequila and mezcal producers have their eye on the premium market and are producing aged versions that appeal to open-minded whiskey drinkers. These range from the briefly aged reposado (rested) varieties that have a gentle oak flavor to añejo (aged) or muy añejo (extra-old) varieties. The prices for the latter rival antique scotches, but partisans say the subtlety of flavor does too.

There is a greater interest in all categories of Mexican agave liquors from the crisp unaged blancos to the ones that are hefty both in flavor and price tag, and it’s a great time to explore the powerful but subtle spirits from south of the border. Whether you do it at Panxa, which has more than 40 in stock, or at your favorite local place is up to you, but we suggest you bring an open mind and a designated driver, because one thing hasn’t changed from the early days – it can sneak up on you and if you overindulge you will not look forward to the next day.

Panxa Cocina is at 3937 E. Broadway in Long Beach.
Details: panxacocina.com

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Richard Foss

Richard Foss is a culinary historian, author and museum consultant who has lectured around the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. He wrote the section on Croatian cuisine in the Encyclopedia of World Food Cultures and also contributed to the Oxford Companion to Sweets. He is working on his third book, which is about food in Spanish and Mexican colonial California from 1790 to 1846.