The beverage program at Mercadito — a four-unit Mexican chain with restaurants in New York City, Chicago and Miami — is all about tequila.
In fact, only the Chicago location has cocktails made from any other liquors, and those spirits, mezcal and sotol, come from Mexico and are distilled from agave plants, like tequila.
Cocktails developed by partner Paul Tanguay include the V-9, which is made with Herradura Blanco tequila, pineapple and a “super juice” made of kale, cilantro, pineapple juice and ginger. The drink is balanced with lime juice and agave nectar and priced at $12.
Another cocktail, Misty’s Sleeve, is made with El Tesoro Platinum tequila, ginger, hibiscus, Valencia orange, Serrano chile and housemade hibiscus salt. It is also priced at $12.
Tanguay explains that all of the cocktails start with the margarita-like “base” of sweet, spice and smoke.
“The margarita has an interesting origin,” he said. “In the late 1800s, there was a category of cocktails called Daisies.” They were made with gin or brandy mixed with lemon juice and grenadine or other syrup.
“During Prohibition, people started flocking to Mexico, and it’s said that there was a racetrack in Tijuana that started making Daisies with tequila and making substitutions, like lime juice for lemon and agave and Grand Marnier for simple syrup and grenadine,” he said, noting that “margarita” is Spanish for “daisy.”
“Most of our cocktails are riffs on the margarita,” he said. “For example, our Pepino El Pyu uses cucumber as a flavoring agent, hoja-santa-infused simple syrup as the sweetener, and cumin salt for the rim. This just takes the classic elements and makes them a little more creative.” He also recommended infusing simple syrup with chile — spicy margaritas are a hot trend these days — and very acidic fruit, such as pineapple or Valencia orange.
“An extra shot of mescal in a simple margarita is another great way to add another dimension of smoky flavor to a classic cocktail,” he said.
Tanguay also gave advice about developing a good tequila program:
• When purchasing tequila, it’s important to look at the place of production. Tequila is as influenced by terroir and production methods as whiskey. Lowland tequila is a little bit spicier, with notes of cinnamon oil or wet clay. With highland tequilas you get subtle notes of the agave, as well as citrus, grassy, vegetal and floral notes, and more minerality. Overall, highland tequila comes off as more delicate, while lowland tastes a bit rougher.
• Diversity in age and brand is also important. It’s good to offer some popular brands that people will know and recognize, but also some more eclectic ones. Although Tanguay, an avid tequila drinker, only drinks minimally aged blanco tequila, which he says lets him taste the “pure essence” of the spirit, a good tequila program will have moderately aged reposado tequilas, as well as older añejo and extra añejo bottlings.
• Offer a diversity of pricing. Merdadito’s Chicago list starts at $7 for a shot of mescal and goes up to $50 for an aged Don Julio Real.
• “Definitely develop a list of specialty cocktails to show off your tequila program,” he said, starting with the classic margarita as a template and mixing up the sweetener, acid and additional flavorings.