Thursday, October 13, 2011

XXQC - The Margarita

Since my last XXQC post finished up with a tequila/mezcal version of an Old Fashioned, I felt compelled to take a closer look at these oft confused spirits...and with tequila, it invariably paved the way to another of the XXQC, the Margarita. But first, as reference, a bit more on the distinction between tequila and mezcal.

Tequila and mezcal share a similar affiliation, both with origins from the pinas (hearts) of the agave plant. It is true, and widely appreciated, that to be distinguished as a tequila, the spirit must be made within five states of Mexico (Jalisco - wherein the town of Tequila is found, Michoacan, Nayarit, Tamaulipas, and Guanajuato), and is best produced from 100% blue agave. Mezcals, on the other hand, are made in the region of Oaxaca to the south, and are made from one, or a blend, of 28 other agave varieties. While these geographic and varietal differences both affect the profiles of the respective spirits, nothing is more influential in their distinction than the manner in which the pinas are prepared prior to fermentation.

There are over 400 varieties of the agave plant (known as 'maguey' in Mexico), most of which resemble a cross between an over-sized pineapple and cactus. The starch laden pina of the agave typically takes 6-10 years to mature, often weighing in at 50-100 lbs when finally ready to begin the journey to the bottle.

An agave farmer (jimador) trims the fronds from a blue agave pina.

After harvesting the pinas for tequila production, they are split, sometimes shredded, and slowly roasted for hours in large wood-fired ovens called hornos. Incidentally, many cheap tequilas are often made from pinas which have been steamed in an autoclave, a relatively quick and efficient process for sure, but the spirit suffers accordingly. And since I don't use products of this paltry caliber (nor should you)...the types which often add 'caramel coloring' to insinuate a richer, more aged product...I will speak of it no further. Moving on. For a mezcal, the pinas are roasted in a large covered pit which has been lined with hot rocks, as well as the cactus-like, leafy fronds of the agave plant. This combined roasting/smoking process takes many days, sometimes weeks, and lends a predictably more earthy and smoky character to the agave. Regardless of the methods employed, the heating of the pinas converts their high internal starch content into sugar. From this point on, the pinas for both tequila and mezcal follow similar paths as they are run thru presses to harvest the sweet juice (masquow), which is then fermented and distilled. The resulting distillate is either bottled or aged in oak barrels (ie. bourbon, sherry, Cognac casks), with different classes distinguished by the duration of the aging process. While there are some subtle differences in classification between the tequila and mezcal, generally speaking, there are three age categories: blanco ('white') spends less than 2 months in large barrels, reposado ('rested') between 2-12 months in small or large barrels, anejo ('aged') 1-3 years in small barrels, and extra anejo (tequila only) over 3 years in small barrels. Among other influences, the length of the aging process serves to mellow and lend other flavor profiles, inherent to the cask varieties themselves, to the spirit. Now, on to the cocktails...mas rapido.

When contemplating tequila in a cocktail, the Margarita is certainly the most popular. Although its exact origin is clouded in mystery, one commonly cited story is that the first version of it was inspired by an Irish bartender in the early 1930s. As cocktail legend has it, Mr. Madden ran what was one of a handful of post-Prohibition era bars in Tijuana, Mexico, and when asked by a patron for a Brandy Daisy cocktail, he mistakenly gave a pour of tequila as the base spirit. The Brandy Daisy (originally published version below) was a very popular pre-Prohibition era cocktail first described in the 1876 2nd edition of Jerry Thomas's 'The Bartenders Guide or How To Mix Drinks: The Bon-Vivants Companion'.

The Brandy Daisy
1 small wine-glass of brandy
Juice of half a small lemon
2-3 dashes Curacao liqueur
3-4 dashes gum syrup

With a couple of subtle adjustments, it takes no stretch of the imagination to see how this might have been considered a precursor to such 'sour' cocktails such as the Sidecar (brandy, Cointreau, sugar, lemon) or the Margarita...recalling that typically, the group of cocktails referred to as sours are based on a ratio of roughly 2:1:1, spirit, sweet, sour. Consider as well that the Spanish word for daisy is 'margarita' and the connection appears all the more likely.

2 oz tequila blanco
1 oz Cointreau
3/4 oz lime juice
1/4 oz agave nectar

Rub a lime wedge on the outside edge of one half of a cocktail glass, roll it in coarse salt, and chill. Shake all ingredients with ice and strain into the chilled cocktail glass.

As with many cocktails, variations abound...and it is certainly not uncommon to hear of one locale making a rather different, and perhaps more preferable, version compared to another. That being said, the basic recipe has remained for quite some time, and it's predecessor, even longer.

There are a ton of variations on the Margarita...from swapping and/or mixing different types or classes of tequilas, to the addition of fruits or fruit liqueurs, or others adding spirits such as rum or brandy. In an endeavor to create a version of my own, I felt it important to stick with the basic framework that makes this cocktail so well loved. With that being said, the derivations I chose stay relatively true to the flavors which comprised the original. To begin with, I went with one of my favorite tequilas, Clase Azul reposado. Yes, it is expensive, but this is one of the few cocktails in which I use it...there are obviously plenty of other solid reposados (Espolon, Pueblo Viejo, etc) that can take its place here, or perhaps even a lighter anejo. That being said, Clase Azul is exceptionally smooth, slightly sweet with caramel, and distinguished by the use of a combination of bourbon, sherry, and Cognac casks in the aging process. Mandarine Napoleon, a brandy-based mandarin orange flavored liqueur, possesses a touch less sweetness than Cointreau, and provides a bit more complexity and depth. As an aside, a number of early versions of the Margarita actually called for the use of Grand Marnier, a brandy-based orange liqueur from France, instead of today's more popular use of Cointreau, which has a neutral grain base. The particular mezcal, a blanco made from 100% agave espadin, lends just a touch of smokiness, a vibrant hint of agave, and along with the grapefruit, some sweet citrus notes. Lime and agave nectar add to the 'sour' component to the cocktail, and the citrus salt serves to further enhance this aspect. And with that, 'The Margarita, Revamped'...

La Margarita Renovada
2 oz Clase Azul tequila reposado
3/4 oz Mandarine Napoleon
1/2 oz Del Maguey Vida mezcal
1/2 oz lime juice
1/4 oz agave nectar
1/4 oz grapefruit juice
citrus salt*

Rub a lime wedge on the outside edge of one half of a cocktail glass, roll in citrus salt, and chill. Shake all ingredients with ice and double strain into the chilled cocktail glass...salud!

Citrus salt*
Grated zest of one lime
Grated zest of one grapefruit
1 Tbsp kosher salt

Pre-heat oven to 200 degrees. Spread zest out on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet, and place in oven for 30 mins, checking periodically to break up any clumps of zest. Remove from oven and cool to room temperature. Blend zest and salt in mortar and pestle (or spice blender) until well combined. Store in airtight container.

La Margarita Renovada

While a cool, rainy, and windy evening in Chicago doesn't exactly typify the kind of climate or surroundings which best suits a cocktail such as this, it's pretty damn tasty regardless, so I'm not complaining...give it a shot.

No comments:

Post a Comment