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Move Over, Margarita

In Austin, Texas, La Condesa’s tequila menu offers such signature blends as the Rosa Ascendentes, the Alma Blanca and the Spiced Mango Margarita, along with flights of tequilas. Photo courtesy of la condesa. Fresh, flavorful presentations take Mexican tequila and mezcal into new realms

By Jack Robertiello

When is the last time you actually enjoyed your restaurant margarita? If you’re anything like the average American, you’ve hoisted one recently at a Mexican-themed restaurant, most likely an enormous chalice of frozen green slush. It may be the nation’s favorite cocktail, but unfortunately, the margarita has become more often than not a sour concoction devoid of freshness and spoiled by unbalanced sour mixes; it’s more an alcohol-delivery system than a culinary experience.

But things have been changing, as a confluence of trends combine to make bartenders consider tequila, the spirit base of the margarita, a high-quality and high-profile cocktail ingredient. Today, not only are hand-shaken, freshly juiced and well-balanced margaritas back in vogue, but tequila drink choices are ranging far beyond the classic lime-juice and orange-liqueur combination. As bartenders discover how well the Mexican spirit works with a cornucopia of fresh fruits, juices, vegetables and herbs, their experiments are bearing some intriguing results.

The evolution started with tweaking margaritas with fresh fruits and herbs, and now bartenders routinely serve variants made with cucumber, cilantro and jalapeño; blackberry and thyme; and tangerine and tarragon.

It’s not just major markets where the frozen schooner of slurpie has been displaced; in Brunswick, Maine, at El Camino restaurant, bartender

Dan Trefethen serves such drinks as the Horny Saint (Hornitos tequila, St.-Germain elderflower liqueur and lime juice), and the Señora Rosa (organic grapefruit-infused tequila and St.-Germain topped with Prosecco).

At El Camino, the bar is always stocked with tequila infusions, including one made with locally grown, organic jalapeños. Other innovations include hibiscus-and-passion-fruit Margaritas and such drinks as the Dusty Cowboy, made with tequila and tamarind with a chimayo chile salt-and-sugar glass rimmer. It took awhile for locals to stop thinking every margarita should be big and frozen, says owner Eloise Humphrey.

Avocado enhances mezcal in this cocktail served at Macondo in New York City. Photo courtesy of Peter Pioppo/Studio p for Macondo. “The challenge is to get people to comfortably make that leap of faith and try these unfamiliar cocktails,” says Gaston Martinez, who works with restaurants for Milagro tequila to improve their drink programs. “Some markets are advanced, but in most of the country, people are still looking for something called a margarita, something they are familiar with, and we need to ease them into advancing their palates.”

It’s a challenge Junior Merino faced when brought in to develop the menu for a broad customer base at La Cava del Tequila at the Mexican Pavilion at Epcot Center in Orlando, Fla. He worked up recipes for such variations as a Cucumber Margarita (tequila, triple sec, caramelized pineapple juice, fresh basil, cucumber and agave nectar with a cactus-lemon-grass Himalayan salt rim) and the Avocado (silver tequila, melon liqueur, fresh avocado, agave nectar and fresh lime juice, served frozen with a hibiscus Himalayan salt rim). The program has been so successful — Merino says they sell about 5,000 cocktails daily — that he’s been emboldened to develop mezcal cocktails.

It’s not hard to figure out why bartenders are interested in the range of flavors modern tequilas — and mezcals — offer. Several factors have combined to make Mexican spirits, especially super-premium brands, a continuously growing category: greater sophistication about fine and regional Mexican foods, better-managed and higher-quality spirit production, a broader range of tequila flavor profiles, the introduction of extra-aged tequila brands selling for $300-plus a bottle and the cocktail revolution that is leaving no portion of the drinking world unchanged.

The urge to create new tequila and mezcal drinks has even stirred some bartenders to get as far away from the margarita as possible. At the Drawing Room in Chicago, Chief Mixologist Charles Joly routinely opts for lemon when a tequila drink calls for sour and looks at the more savory aspects of the spirit.

“People need to release the margarita when they design new cocktails now. If I’m thinking about a tequila cocktail, I’m hesitant to put a lime anywhere near it because I’m afraid people will think it’s a margarita.”

He recently upgraded the menu at Chicago’s Mexican-themed Salud, adding more fresh flavors and spices, including cilantro, cucumber and mezcal drinks. But the clientele at Salud is less likely to accept the challenging cocktails the Drawing Room crowd welcomes, he says, pointing out that operators need to discover how far along they can nudge their patrons.

Tequila and mezcal now routinely appear even in strong, stirred cocktails reminiscent of the Manhattan and Old-Fashioned. Take the menu at New York’s trend-setting cocktail bar Mayahuel. The drinks are primarily tequila and mezcal based, almost all new creations by owner Philip Ward. His menu includes the Cantinflas (reposado tequila, mezcal, dry Oloroso sherry, amaro, Grand Marnier and molé bitters), the Herb Alpert (jalapeño-infused blanco tequila and mezcal with fresh oregano and lime) and the Barrio Viejo (añejo tequila, sugar cane, Peychaud and Angostura bitters with an absinthe glass rinse).

Ward employs lots of sherries, amaros, bitters and other standard cocktail ingredients not typically known for sharing a shaker with tequila or mezcal.

“I love it when people come in and say ‘I hate tequila,’” says Ward, whose menu helped shake up the New York market and brought many bartenders around to the possibilities inherent in the spirits. That’s because at Mayahuel, with about 50 different Mexican spirit cocktails, Ward figures he’s got a drink for every palate.

Merino, also known as the Liquid Chef, includes new tequila drinks for most of his clients; at La Condesa in Austin, Texas, the most popular drink is the Cubico, made with tobacco-infused añejo tequila, mezcal, grilled pineapple and vanilla liqueur. At Tequilas in Philadelphia, the signature drink is the Alma Blanca, made with fresh corn smashed with habanero-infused blanco tequila, ginger liqueur, pineapple juice and aloe vera.

Creating contemporary tequila cocktails takes some thought in order to effectively match ingredients, but there are no rules, only guidelines about what will work, Ward says. When working on a drink that included sloe gin and the Italian artichoke-based bitter Cynar, he imagined that lightly aged reposado tequila with its slight wood and tannin qualities would work best. Turns out blanco tequila matched better. Similarly, when coming up with a drink using strawberries, crushed ice and the Caribbean syrup falernum, Ward had blanco tequila in mind, but the vanilla and light spice notes of reposado worked far better in practice.

Philip Ward’s innovative cocktails at New York’s Mayahuel include the Pilot Punch — a blend of blanco tequila, jalapeño, Yellow Chartreuse, lime, cucumber and mint. Photo courtesy of mayahuel. STAGES OF MATURITY
The basic flavor and aromatic differences tequila develops as it ages help explain why it’s become a bar favorite. Blanco or silver tequila, essentially unaged, can bring fresh, crisp flavors to a drink, and depending on the distiller’s style or region, can be citrusy and minerally, or earthy and spicy. Reposado, aged for under a year, offers both agave fruit flavors and notes of vanilla, while añejos, aged for up to three years, can be more robust, with deep caramel and spice notes.

“Usually when I train bartenders, instead of working with new cocktails, I take the drinks they know and swap out the base ingredients,” says Peter Vestinos of Long Bar and Prospect in San Francisco. He’ll ask trainees to come up with tequila-based Manhattans or mojitos, adjusting the other ingredients to make the drink work.

“Tequila really lends itself to this method, because you can think of añejos like rums, reposados like whiskey, and blancos instead of gin or vodka.”

Agave spirits like tequila, mezcal, sotol and others, are unusual among spirits since they’re made from an agricultural product that can be grown in only a few limited regions and requires many years to mature. Aficionados claim distinct qualities for brands made primarily from one region’s growth, invoking the wine world’s well-known concept of terroir.

“Rums and whiskies are made in a barrel from grains grown in one season, and they are all about the maturation in barrels,” says Vestinos. “With tequila you also have maturation, but to me, tequila is made in the field as the agaves absorb nutrients.”

As a result, in addition to age variations, tequilas have significant ranges in flavor and aromatic profile within each sub-category, says Merino. “Depending on the region and producer,” he says, “I find herbal, floral and citrus aromatics, flavors of fruits like peach in some highlands tequilas. Other producers make a more neutral style, so it’s hard to generalize, but in the lowlands, I find more spice, soil and smoke in these drier tequilas.”

Merino notes that tequila brands differ dramatically in flavor and will overpower some drinks and underperform in others. “Certain tequilas have beautiful citrus aromatics and a long finish, others are big and bold, others are more floral and delicate,” he says. “When creating drink recipes, I have to be sure the tequila harmonizes with all ingredients.”

If tequila is a spirit many people find challenging, mezcal is a downright threat, with its wild and smoky assertiveness. But Ward points out that a cocktail is the perfect vehicle to introduce people to more-complex spirits; giving unsuspecting guests a glass of mezcal, he says, might make them think of gasoline. But introduce them to the robust flavors through a citrus-based cocktail with just a whiff of mezcal added — he recommends the Randy (tequila, ginger and sour mix with a mezcal rinse) — and they’ll be able to start appreciating the qualities of the spirit.

It’s taken a long time for tequila to shake off the stigma of collegiate misbehavior, and mezcal still struggles to overcome the impact poorly made industrial varieties have had on American tourists. But with the help of the cocktail revolution and thoughtful mixologists, those days are rapidly dwindling.


About The Author

Jack Robertiello

Jack Robertiello writes about spirits, cocktails, wine, beer and food from Brooklyn, N.Y.