Latin flavors are pouring into beverages, according to experts at the “Latin Flavors, American Kitchens” conference at the Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio.
Jeret Peña, the “tavern keeper” at The Esquire Tavern in San Antonio, Texas, said he considers mezcal, tequila, peppers, chiles and Latin American herbs the top five Latin flavors popular in contemporary cocktails.
Rick Bayless, chef and owner of Frontera Grill, Topolobampo and XOCO in Chicago, said: “We are living in a great era of emphasis and enthusiasm about the cocktail culture. It has gotten an amazing rebirth.
“Where I used to ask for the wine list, I now ask for the cocktail list, because it’s exciting,” he added.
Mexican beverage traditions
Bayless said Latin American alcoholic beverages, liqueurs and mixers are also delicious. For instance, in Mexico, many cities and regions have their own flavor traditions, such as adding ground peanuts, fruits and herbs to drinks.
“It’s all of our duties to shake the bushes and find out what’s out there,” Bayless said.
In terms of distilled spirits, tequila and its cousin mezcal, made from the agave plant, are popular.
“The aging of a good tequila is made in the field, not in the bottle,” Bayless said. “It’s the slow maturing process that makes the agave taste delicious.”
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Five Mexican states are designated to produce tequila from the blue agave plant, and not all are equal, Bayless added.
In the highland areas, he explained, the tequilas have floral, herbaceous and mineral qualities. In the lowlands, they have rustic, earthy and wet clay characteristics, and sometimes taste of cinnamon oil.
Mezcal’s popularity grows
Mezcal is coming “hot on the heels” of tequila’s popularity, Bayless said, especially those from Oaxaca, Mexico.
“Where in tequila, all the hearts of the agave are roasted in great big ovens,” he said, “in Oaxaca, to be called mezcal, they had to be done in a wood-fired pit in the ground. That’s why we associate smokiness with the mezcal that comes from Oaxaca.”
Peña said tequila is one of the few spirits that can be drunk un-aged. Its flavor includes vegetal, dried fruit and dark cocoa notes.
“It is most intriguing when combining with [bitters], such as Aperol, or a full-bodied sweet vermouth, such as Carpano Antica,” he said.
He added that mezcal is his favorite cocktail spirit.
“Its wonderful smoky aromas remind me of South Texas barbecue, leather and the first time I drank an Islay Scotch,” Peña said. “None of my cocktails calls for a full shot of mescal, but rather a bar spoon to a half-ounce. A full shot of mezcal can be overbearing and will overpower a cocktail.”
Mezcal is making headway as the spirit of choice for progressive bartenders, Peña added.
“Because it is fairly uncommon and misunderstood, it can really turn heads when adding it to a well-made cocktail,” he said.