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Latin flavors lend flair to today’s most creative cocktails
By Kathleen Furore
Chef/mixologist Junior Merino—known for creating cutting edge menus and cocktails—has a lot to say about today’s hottest food and beverage trends. But it takes just two words to sum up Merino’s take on the No. 1 thing shaping bar menus in 2013: Latin flavors.
“I develop flavor [profiles] and create new flavor combinations not only for drinks but also for companies in the general marketplace—and this year I’m basing everything on Latin trends,” says Merino, who notes the burgeoning U.S. Latino population is a key factor fueling the popularity of Mexican and Latin flavors, ingredients and restaurants today.
Fresh Ingredients Star
Generally speaking, the rule of thumb behind the bar is a simple one: The fresher the ingredients, the more flavorful the drinks. Merino, founder of The Liquid Chef, is putting a new twist on that adage by incorporating grilled fruits into his cocktails.
“I grew up in Puebla, and grilled fruits are used a lot in Mexico,” he says. Among the combinations he mixes are grilled pineapple with tequila and tamarind, and roasted apples with whisky in The Big Apple cocktail, made with grilled Empire apple juice, whiskey and Xtabentun, a Mayan honey and anise liqueur from Mexico’s Yucatan region. (Click here to read the recipe for The Big Apple, and click here for several more cocktail recipes from Junior Merino.)
The flavors grilled fruits impart work especially well with bourbon, scotch and aged tequila because they meld with the spices from the aging barrels. When fruit is grilled, the water evaporates, carmelizing the sugar and concentrating the flavor to produce complex flavors that work well with aged spirits. “The flavors are so unique and different,” Merino explains.
At Tacolicious—“a sit-down, cocktail-driven restaurant, 120 tequilas strong”—the focus is on fresh ingredients behind the bar. That means the bar menu at the restaurant’s two locations in San Francisco and one in Palo Alto, Calif., changes seasonally.
The popular Margarita Fresca is a prime example. When blood oranges are in peak season, they provide the cocktail’s fruit flavor. But as summer approaches, customers are treated to a drink prepared with a fresh strawberry/basil puree. “We still have some blood orange, but [because of the time of year] it is a little bitter, so we use strawberries now,” says Wesley Reddic, bartender at the Palo Alto Tacolicious. “Making margaritas with fresh fruit makes a big difference!”
Merino says agave is an “amazing sweetener” that is gaining steam on the cocktail scene. “It is high in natural fructose so it sweetens things faster and it has fewer calories and carbohydrates and a lower glycemic index,” he says.
Reddic agrees, noting that agave syrup sweetens many Tacolicious bar drinks, including the Margarita Fresca. “We use it a lot because it goes so well with tequila,” he explains, noting a house-made mix of two parts lime, one part agave syrup can replace sweet and sour in margarita recipes. (The formula can be adjusted, depending on a patron’s preferred flavor profile, he notes.)
The Pasion—Reddic’s favorite, and the bar’s most-ordered, cocktail—is also agave-sweetened. It is prepared with passion fruit, orange juice, lime, agave syrup and habanero-infused silver tequila.
At both locations of Chicago’s Taco Joint Urban Taqueria and Cantina, customers find agave in drinks including the Herradura Organic Margarita, which manager Sonia Sotello says was created to cater to ingredient-conscious consumers. “The ingredients are tequila, fresh lime juice and agave nectar—it's very crisp, clean and fresh,” she says.
Taco Joint takes agave to a spicier level in the Grapefruit Margarita made with El Jimador Reposado Tequila, Cointreau, ruby red grapefruit and fresh lemon juice, grapefruit bitters and citrus-chile infused agave nectar, served on the rocks and rimmed with chile piquin.
Mezcal Makes Its Move
Many chefs and mixologists have understood and appreciated mezcal for some time. Now, says Merino, that popularity is extending to the general market as consumers become more acquainted with this distilled, smoky alcoholic beverage made from the heart of the maguey, called the piña. (Click here to read Mezcal on the Rise.)
“As far as the tequila bar scene goes, one of the major trends is incorporating mezcal into cocktails,” reports Sotello, who says Taco Joint has used it to put new twists on old favorites. “A couple of our ‘new’ cocktails include the Paloma Negra, which puts a smoky spin on the traditional and very authentic Mexican cocktail the Paloma through the addition of mezcal,” she says. “Another interesting cocktail is the Smok n' beer, which combines bourbon whiskey, mezcal and beer.”
The fact that restaurants are offering extensive mezcal lists and tastings is another indication of its increasing popularity. Tacolicious, for example, features 14 mezcals with descriptions ranging from “pleasantly sweet with cinnamon and hints of smoky barbecue” to “dry and smoky with sea salt and fresh citrus” to “light, floral sweetness, followed by hints of butterscotch and anise.”
With the myriad ingredients available to bartenders today, the drink options for bar menus are almost endless. By incorporating fresh ingredients, experimenting with unique combinations, and tapping flavors from Mexico and other Latin countries, anyone who develops cocktail recipes can take restaurant bar drinks to new culinary heights.. As Merino concludes, “It can be a new experience, like creating a nice, new dish. It is a fusion of the kitchen and the bar—that is my style.”
Kathleen Furore is the editor of el Restaurante Mexicano.
Taco Joint has created a much-talked-about feature at its two Chicago locations—Chicago’s first tequila lockers.
“The tequila locker program is a very cool ‘you buy it, we store it and pour it’ program,” Taco Joint manager Sonia Sotello says. “Customers can purchase a bottle of tequila of their choice. We store it and they come back anytime they want to enjoy it with their family and friends, as shots or in cocktails.”
BAR SOURCE GUIDE
Aldelo POS. Plug-and-Play offers this reliable POS with auto bar tab creation, credit card pre-authorization and more
Aztecas Design Glassware. Blasses, pitchers and accessories hand blown in Mexico.
Beer Tubes Beverage Dispensers. Each tube holds 100 ounces of margaritas, beer and other drinks—patrons serve themselves right at the table.
Jeff Trag Craft Buying Service. Glasses for your bar plus molcajetes, mirrors and more—direct from Mexico.
Premium Blend El Guitarron 100% agave wine. Imported from Mexico. Allows restaurants with just a wine license to sell and serve tequila-type cocktails.
rokz coctail effects rimming salts. Rim cocktails with these sugars and margarita salts for extra color and flavor.
Salud! Glassware. Hand blown Mexican glassware comes in all shapes, sizes and colors.
Scorpion Mezcal. Made from 100% agave, double distilled. All production done under the supervision of ComerCom, the official mezcal licensing authority in Mexico.