It's Cinco de Mayo, a day to celebrate Mexican history and heritage. In the world of spirits, Mexico's great contribution has been tequila, the indispensable ingredient in this country's favorite cocktail, the margarita.
Margaritas need no explanation here. Most Americans who have ever parked themselves on a bar stool and ordered a drink have experienced the pleasures of that seductively lip-puckering concoction.
We have been slower to appreciate tequila as a spirit worth savoring without the leavening benefits of lime juice, liqueur and a salted glass rim.
But as American tastes have become more sophisticated, the market for high-end tequilas has seen an increase like that for other premium spirits.
So if you're a margarita fan ready to take the next step, if you like Southwestern-style food and need a spirit that will stand up to the culinary heat, or if you're simply eager to expand your taste horizons, you'll enjoy getting better acquainted with fine tequilas.
First, a quick lesson.
For a liquor to qualify as tequila, the Mexican government requires that at least 51 percent of the sugars used to distill the product come from the blue agave plant, one of many species of agave. Mixto (mixed) tequilas are those that use other forms of sugar as well.
Fine tequilas must be 100 percent blue agave. These tequilas have been less well-known in this country, but they have recently been showing impressive growth in U.S. sales. Many bars and liquor stores are stocking increasing numbers of labels, and the finest tequilas are even showing up in snifters for those who take pleasure in slowly sipping fine spirits.
Age is another important factor, with tequila falling into three categories. Plata, or silver, tequila is not aged. This is straightforward tequila, swashbuckling enough to challenge a chili pepper. It's also the kind usually found in margaritas or other mixed drinks.
Tequila that is labeled reposado, or rested, has spent at least two months in wood. This is tequila with a grown-up face, versatile and mature, but not yet well-marked by age.
Anejo, or aged, tequila has spent at least a year in wood. The aging adds complexity, producing a beverage that can entice you back for another sip. It carries a hint of mystery, like an elegant aunt who, you suspect, never told you quite everything about her spirited youth.
What is the best tequila? As with any spirit, it's the one that best satisfies your palate.
Dale DeGroff, author of The Craft of the Cocktail (Clarkson Potter, 2002) and one of the country's most inventive cocktail mavens, is a fan of Gran Centenario tequilas and features them in his recipes.
All Gran Centenario tequilas are 100 percent blue agave. I recently tried the distillery's plato, reposado and anejo versions, and it's easy to see how they can lift the quality of any mixed drink or provide a satisfying drink by themselves.
This Cinco de Mayo, stretch your tequila experience. Consider savoring a neat sip of fine tequila. Or try a high-quality version of this intriguing spirit in a flavorful cocktail.
This is the last week for the Sips column. Next week, we begin Dinner Tonight, a column to help you plan quick and delicious weeknight meals.
Makes 1 drink
1 1/2 ounces Gran Centenario plata or reposado tequila
1 ounce sweetened passion fruit puree
1 ounce fresh orange juice
orange peel for garnish
Shake all ingredients, except orange peel, well with ice and serve in a chilled martini glass. Garnish with a twist of orange peel.
Per serving: 169 calories; 2 grams protein; 0 grams fat; 0 grams saturated fat; 13 grams carbohydrate; 0 grams fiber; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 22 milligrams sodium
- Dale DeGroff
Makes 1 drink
several mint leaves
1 1/2 ounces cranberry juice
1 1/2 ounces Gran Centenario anejo tequila
3 ounces ginger ale
1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
a mint sprig
Muddle the mint leaves with the cranberry juice in the bottom of a highball glass. Add ice and the rest of the ingredients, except the mint sprig. Stir. Garnish with the mint sprig.
Per serving: 155 calories; 0 grams protein; 0 grams fat; 0 grams saturated fat; 15 grams carbohydrate; 0 grams fiber; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 7 milligrams sodium
- Dale DeGroff