Tequila!

Spirited Tastes by Diane Blair and Pamela Wright / May, 2015

In Mexico, premium tequilas have been produced and enjoyed for generations, but today their popularity reaches beyond the borders. "According to the Tequila Regulatory Council, tequila has seen the largest incremental rise in consumption among spirits, both in the U.S. and worldwide," says Sergio Ramos, business partner at Mixteca in Durham, New Hampshire, and Zapoteca in Portland, Maine.

 "Margaritas are perennial favorites, and everyone loves a celebratory shot of tequila," says Jason A. Morin, co-manager at Agave Mexican Bistro, with locations in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Newburyport, Massachusetts. "However, tequila is a complex spirit with a rich history. As the public gradually becomes more informed and educated about those complexities and history, they often realize tequila can be enjoyed in a huge variety of ways—and the demand for something better rises as well."

Seacoast bartenders agree. "We're definitely seeing a bit of a boom," says Chris McClain, bartender at The Portsmouth Gas Light. "And people are drinking it year-round, not just in the summer. "Tequila, which is 100 percent blue agave, is only produced in five regions of Mexico: Jalisco, Nayarit, Michoacán, Guanajuato, and Tamaulipas. Tequila Mixto contains a minimum of 51 percent blue agave mixed with other sugars and can be produced outside of the tequila territory.

Tequila is typically bottled in five categories: white or silver, which is un-aged and bottled immediately or aged less than two months in stainless steel or neutral oak barrels; young or gold, which is un-aged and flavored with caramel; reposado, which is aged a minimum of two months but less than a year in oak barrels; añejo, which is aged a minimum of one year but less than three years in small oak barrels; and extra añejo, which is aged a minimum of three years in oak barrels.

Mezcal can be made from different varieties of agave (not just blue agave), and while tequila is double distilled—some brands boast triple distillation—mezcal is often only distilled once. There are other differences, too. To make mezcal, the heart of the agave, called the piña, is baked in a pit oven over charcoal, giving it a signature smoky flavor. Tequila piñas are baked or steamed in aboveground ovens.

Seacoast bartenders and drinkers alike are relishing the different tequilas and experimenting with their own favorite brands and concoctions.

Mixteca Taqueria y Cantina
10 Jenkins Court
Durham, N.H.
603-397-5971

Sergio Ramos, a catador (official tequila taster) who grew up in Mexico, is well recognized in the tequila industry. He's completed a course at the Tequila Regulatory Council (CRT) and been accepted at the Tequileros Chamber in Guadalajara. He travels to Mexico several times a year, visiting distilleries and sampling products to bring back to his restaurants. "I carry all the known names—Herradura, Patrón, Milagro," Ramos says. "But when I visit tequila country, I try the smaller distilleries and work to bring new brands to the New England market.

"Today, he carries 58 different tequilas at Mixteca, all 100 percent blue agave. "You won't find any mixtos at my restaurant," he says. His personal favorites are silver and reposado tequilas. "I like silvers because you can taste the true flavor of cooked agave product," Ramos says. "And reposados have a similar flavor profile as a fine scotch."

The number one selling tequila drink at both his restaurants is the Habanero Watermelon Margarita, a Mexican sweet and sour drink. "It turns into a nice blend of flavors," he says. "Even if people don't like peppers in their drink, they like this. It hasn't disappointed anyone who's tried it." Another popular drink is the Mariposa, with a blend of berries, lime juice, and tequila. "It's a very refreshing drink and goes well with all our dishes.

"Pairing tequila with food is an important aspect of dining at Mixteca. In fact, they host a series of five-course tequila dinners, scheduled every other month. "We use the same brand but different expressions for each course," Ramos says, "including a high-end tequila served as a dessert pairing."

Portsmouth Gas Light Co.
64 Market Street
Portsmouth, N.H.
603-430-8582

"People are starting to realize that tequila is just not shots and margaritas," says bartender Chris McClain. "You can actually make a really nice cocktail with it.

"The Gas Light doesn't carry many tequila brands, but McClain mixes it up by blending them with other flavors to create unique cocktails. He touts tequila's versatility and complex, nuanced flavors that hold strong against anything you mix with it. "You can do things with tequila as well as you can with vodka, but you still maintain the flavor of the tequila where vodka takes on whatever flavor you mix with it," he says. "You can make some really, really cool drinks with tequila—winter cocktails even.

"He also likes to do infusions with tequila, usually sticking to summer flavors, like strawberries, blueberries, and watermelon, when tequila-based drink sales spike. "But I did create a winter chocolate-chili tequila cocktail that worked really well.

"McClain sees that more people are thinking of tequila as a year-round drink and experimenting with tequila-based cocktails, especially as a growing number of smaller distilleries offer high-level tequilas. "I think the big brands are being eclipsed now by smaller up-and-coming ones that are good and more affordable," McClain says. "For example, Corzo is along the same lines as Patrón in terms of price point, but in my opinion it's much better tequila, and they do a full line, including reposados and añejos. If you're sipping tequila, that's what I'd suggest."

Agave Mexican Bistro
111 State Street
Portsmouth, N.H.
603-427-5300

50 State Street, MA.
978-499-0428

"Tequila is delicious, first and foremost," says co-manager Jason A. Morin. "It's versatile and complex. It has history." Morin believes that it's the artistry, process, and rich history of tequila production that allows it to stand on its own, and people in the U.S. are just discovering it. "Producers in Mexico are often comprised of generations of the same family," he says. "For a long time, they've taken great pride in growing and hand selecting the best agave plants, as well as mastering the production and aging processes."

Agave carries more than 90 varieties of tequila and its tequila-based drink roster continues to expand. Their bartenders are encouraged to experiment, creating new cocktails, or using tequila as a replacement for spirits in other classic drink types. The challenge is to select the right tequila that will pull out and balance all the flavors. "Silver or blanco tequilas provide a blank slate of flavor, often noted as agave-forward, meaning that you taste the agave plant more boldly," Morin says. "That blend of floral and citrus flavor of the agave plant tends to combine easily with citrus, fruits, and mixers. It's almost impossible to go wrong.

"The real fun comes in working with reposado or añejo tequilas," he adds. "Due to their distillation, storage, and aging processes, they tend to have a more intricate nose, a wider palette of flavor on the mouth, and brighter finishes.

"Some of the favorite cocktails at Agave include the Añejo Manhattan, a tequila-based takeoff of the traditional Manhattan, the Herradura Margarita, made with both Cointreau and Grand Marnier, and the Paloma, combining tequila and grapefruit juice as the citrus counterpart. And, Morin says, "the perfectly balanced Habanero-Mango-Cucumber Margarita, which uses fresh chilies, mango, and cucumber infused in tequila and then made into a margarita—a fusion of sweet, savory, and spicy in one drink—is amazing."

Loco Coco's Tacos
36 Walker Street
Kittery, Maine
207-438-9322

It's not surprising that this Mexican restaurant goes through a lot of tequila; in fact, 65 percent of their bar sales is tequila based. Loco Coco's Tacos carries about 60 tequilas, including most of the well-known brands and a couple of mezcals. But Beverage Manager Nicholas Sayer likes to steer customers away from some of the big players. "There are so many other tequilas that we carry that are much better and cost a lot less than the major brands," he says.

Sayer likes to work with Milagro, which comes in silver, reposado, and añejo. "The silver is great, and the añejo, which is aged the longest, has a very subtle profile, unlike some añejos that are aged for a longer period and have a very smoky flavor."

El Jimador, Sayer contends, is the best tequila for the money. "I try to suggest it to our customers. Not only is it smoother than most in its price point, it's also better than some of the higher-end tequilas like Patrón.

"Mezcal is Sayer's personal favorite. "It's a lot more complex due to the smoking of the piña," the ball or core of the agave plant. He uses it in one of his favorite drinks, the Spicy Cucumber. "It is a drink that has many layers, with the smokiness of mezcal, the heat from the jalapeño, and the refreshing sensation from the cucumber."

In the end it's all about personal taste. "I like añejos because I feel they have the most flavor due to the period they spend in oak barrels," Sayer reflects. But, he says, mixing any tequila or mezcal with sodas and juices is not necessary. "I drink all my liquors either neat or on ice because I want to get the full flavor," he says. "A lot of time goes into making tequilas in this age. I want to see what the master distiller is trying to put out by sipping it straight."