Until recently, tequila outside Mexico was consumed almost invariably in one of two ways. You either belted it back, Clint Eastwood-style, and extinguished the afterburn with a lime wedge, or you sipped a frou-frou margarita. More often than not, the booze was a pedestrian mass-market brand such as Cuervo Gold or Sauza Silver and the margarita was a woeful, radioactive-green Slurpee made from off-the-shelf mix.
In short, tequila drinkers had a choice: hangover or diabetic coma.
As a new generation of discerning drinkers traded in their shot glasses for crystal snifters and began slow-savouring connoisseur brands such as Cazadores, Leyenda del Milagro, Olmeca Tezon, Cabo Wabo and Patron, however, things seemed pretty quiet for a while on the cocktail front. Not any more. Inspired by these richer and more complex craft-distilled tequilas, bartenders have been creating bold new mixed drinks and reviving old classics, showcasing rather than masking the Mexican spirit's spicy-vegetal flavour. At fine establishments everywhere, it's a post-margarita world.
"Tequila has so much flavour and it's easy to pair with tons and tons of flavours," says Cameron Bogue, bar manager for db bistro and Lumière, two Vancouver restaurants run by New York chef Daniel Boulud.
Bogue says that his biggest-selling cocktail in May was by far the paloma, a tequila-based grapefruit-soda highball that is the gin and tonic of Mexico. "It blew everything out of the water," Bogue adds.
As a new-school bartender who operates more like a chef than a bottle slinger, Bogue has refined the drink, meticulously creating grapefruit syrup from scratch with fresh zest and other ingredients, then topping up the glass with club soda and citrus juices. His tequila of choice for the paloma is a brand that I love, Cazadores Reposado, which was introduced in British Columbia two years ago and has subsequently been rolled out to the prairie provinces and Ontario. Priced at $40 in Ontario, it's scheduled to be released in Quebec and the Maritimes next year.
Bogue features about 10 tequilas at his restaurants. Another reasonably priced favourite of his and of other tequila-savvy bartenders I spoke with is Don Julio. I also happen to like Tezon Reposado and Milagro Silver, although, at about $90, Tezon isn't cheap.
Also taking his cue from a classic Mexican cocktail is Toronto's Sandy MacFadyen, general manager and owner of Reposado Bar & Lounge, one of several tequila dens that have sprouted up around the world in recent years. His signature is the bloody Julio, a play on one of his favourite tequila brands (Don Julio) and the tomato-based bloody Mary. For the non-alcoholic portion, he creates his own sangrita, the spicy tomato-citrus punch typically consumed in Mexico as a chaser for straight tequila.
Like several bartenders I spoke with, MacFayden is no big fan of the expensive and "overrated" Patron Tequila, a $100 brand launched by John Paul DeJoria, one of the founders of Paul Mitchell hair-care products, and plugged by such celebrities as Dan Aykroyd and the aforementioned Eastwood.
Of the typically dozens of brands on offer at tequila bars, Cuervo and Sauza are two others that tend to get short shrift. The main reason? Their entry-level products are adulterated with sugar-cane or grain spirit (essentially cheap rum or vodka respectively). Tequila is made from the agave plant, which is native to central Mexico and looks like a beer-keg-sized pineapple top. But by law the spirit can contain up to 49 per cent foreign content.
Fine tequila comes in several tiers, blanco (or "white"), reposado ("rested"), anejo ("aged") and extra anejo . The first is fresh from the still and clear, featuring more of the floral-vegetal notes typical of tequila. Reposado, matured for a few months in wooden barrels, takes on a green-brown tinge and mellower flavour. Anejo spends at least a year in barrel and takes on distinct notes of caramel and vanilla from the wood. Most tequila connoisseurs consider it sacrilege to mix anejo into a cocktail.
"There's such a variety and depth to it," says MacFayden of Reposado, where straight tequila accounts for more than 30 per cent of the bar tab. "I find it a lot more interesting than Scotch, personally."
But Tequila aficionado Gord Martin, chef-owner of Bin 941 in Vancouver, encourages using the high-quality stuff, specifically silvers and reposados, in mixed drinks. His passion for the spirit blossomed while he lived in Mexico for five years and he refuses to use light-tasting blanco in a margarita, the way many bars do.
At Bin 941, he uses El Jimador Reposado, one of the best-value brands on the Canadian market. "I would make it at least a reposado because the way they make it in Mexico you can really taste the tequila. And always on the rocks, no crushed ice and no salt. It ends up being a martini, really, only with tequila."
Actually, not quite. There's a newly popular drink that is much closer to the classic martini and simply swaps tequila for gin. It is heavier, though, on white vermouth, usually two parts spirit to one part vermouth. I'm a fan of a version publicized by rocker Sammy Hagar, who developed the Cabo Wabo brand. Add ice to an old-fashioned glass, pour in the tequila and vermouth, dunk in a whole red chili pepper as a garnish and stir.
Another variation comes from the company that markets Olmeca Tezon: Use blanco tequila and garnish with a strip of orange zest for a chic martini-like look and lighter flavour.
I'm fond, too, of the Milagro brand's version of the mojito, which is made with silver tequila (instead of rum), eight fresh mint leaves, granulated sugar, fresh lime juice and sparkling water.
And this summer, my favourite concoction comes from Vancouver mixologist Jamie Boudreau. It's featured in the fun new pocket book Food & Wine Cocktails '09 , a product of the U.S. magazine Food & Wine. The Latin Trifecta is one ounce blanco tequila, one ounce Cynar (the Italian bitter liqueur), half an ounce of dry sherry such as Tio Pepe, three dashes of orange bitters and an orange twist and garnish with an orange twist that has been set on fire.
"The margarita is not the end of tequila [uses]" says Ray Isle, the wine editor at Food & Wine magazine. For many bartenders, in fact, it is just the beginning.