Jan
15
2015

Imbiber

Tequila Time with 3 New Anejos

Article by Virginia Miller

Recently, I received no less than three new Añejo or Extra Añejos imports from Mexico. “Añejo” means aged in Spanish and this tequila category is essentially the clear spirit one starts with as a blanco tequila, but aged a minimum of one year (and less than three years) in oak barrels. Extra Añejo is a newer category that means the tequila was aged a minimum of three years or more.

Photo Source: dulcevidaspirits.com

Photo Source: dulcevidaspirits.com

I’ve tasted some notable Añejos in my day, but by and large when it comes to tequila (a category — and region — I love), I am most drawn towards Reposado or Blanco tequilas because it is all about letting that agave shine. In whisk(e)y, oak is such a critical factor in the character and flavor profile. While I enjoy some of the woody notes of Añejos, my favorite Añejos still taste most strongly of the agave plant, which is what sets tequila apart from whisk(e)y, rum, brandy and other spirits. Agave is the heart and soul of tequila and to not be able to taste the freshness of the plant, for me, is what ruins it. Young tequila lets the vibrant, green notes shine, although there are exceptions on every front.

That out of the way, here are my notes on these three new releases, one of them an Añejo and two of them Extra Añejos, that are just hitting the shelves.

Espolon Añejo Tequila ($35)

Photo source: tequilaespolon.com

Photo source: tequilaespolon.com

Espolon Blanco and Reposado Tequilas have long been one of the strong value-for-taste tequilas (plus they sport that cool, Day of the Dead, skeleton artwork), working well in margaritas and other tequila cocktails. For the first time, Espolon is releasing an Añejo. Master Distiller Cirilo Oropeza ages the Añejo in American oak for 10 months, then finishes it in heavily charred Wild Turkey bourbon barrels for another 2-3 months. Vanilla and bright agave hit hard on the nose while the taste is heavy on vanilla, spices and caramel without obliterating the agave. For the value, it is a strong cocktail tequila.

Dulce Vida Organic Extra Añejo Tequila ($169)

Photo source: drinksuerte.com

Photo source: drinksuerte.com

Actually certified organic, Dulce Vida Tequila, produced in Mexico from an Austin, TX-based company, just released their 5 year anniversary tequila: an extra anejo aged 5 years in Napa Valley red wine barrels (the first tequila aged in red wine barrels). It smells and tastes the most like a whiskey of the three, if that is what you are after. There are tannins from the red wine barrels and dominant whiskey characteristics of caramel, cedar and leather with a bit of dried fruit sweetness. This one is most ideal as a sipping tequila of the three. It is a limited edition release so once the bottles are gone, they are gone.

Suerte’s Extra Añejo Tequila ($110)

Released in October at less than 1000 bottles, Suerte’s Extra Añejo Tequila was aged five years. Produced in the highlands of Jalisco, Mexico, it is 100% tahona processed, which means the slow-roasted agave is crushed by a two-ton, volcanic rock wheel (a tahona), an old world practice still found often in mezcal but rare in tequila. There are silky, vanilla, spiced — even apple — notes to the Extra Anejo, but there is also the strongest agave plant taste and liveliness of three, meaning the oak is present but thankfully does not dominate.

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Dec
01
2014

Imbiber

3 Spirits Picks for November

Article by Virginia Miller

Many spirits cross my desk — or are tasted at numerous bars or distilleries — in any given month. For November, here are international spirits — mezcal, a cacao spirit, an agave spirit and a single malt whiskey — that stood out or offer something different.

Amaras Mezcal ($49.99)

Photo Credit: Mezcal Amaras website

Photo Credit: Mezcal Amaras website

Amaras, also known as Mezcal Amores in Mexico, is a mezcal made from espadin agave, just released in the US in November through Anchor Distilling, starting with a handful of cities, including SF, LA and NY.

Founded in 2010 by Jorge Rodriguez-Cano and Santiago Suarez Cordova, they sought the best distillers for espadin mezcal (and have also started growing tobala agave plants for future release), tahona processed, which means the slow-roasted agave is crushed by a volcanic rock wheel (a tahona), an old world practice I’ve seen in my travels to distilleries around the state of Oaxaca (more here) and on a rare occasion, in tequila production in Jalisco.

Amaras is a soft — but by no means subtle — mezcal, one that sits in the happy middle both mezcal novices and aficionados can appreciate.

Solbeso Cacao Spirit ($35)

Photo Credit: Solbeso Twitter page

Photo Credit: Solbeso Twitter page

Distilled from cacao, and yet it functions like a tequila or an unaged rum? Yes, that is the surprise of Solbeso, a cacao fruit-based spirit based on an ancient practice of distilling cacao fruit into a clear, unaged spirit. It’s distilled from the pulp, not the beans, so don’t expect chocolate-y notes so much as a floral, clean citrus aroma from the 12 varieties of cacao from farms in Peru and Ecuador used in the distillate. It makes an unexpectedly bright, lively margarita and even works well in gin cocktail classics heavy on the lemon, like a Bee’s Knees or a Daisy.

Venus Spirits’ El Ladron Blanco & Wayward Single Malt

Venus Spirits is a distillery newcomer to Santa Cruz this year, opened by founder/distiller Sean Venus. He’s distilling gin, vodka, aquavit, whiskey and agave spirits. I sampled Venus’ unaged and aged gins (the latter will be released in Spring 2015), the agave spirit, El Ladron Blanco, and Wayward Single Malt Whiskey.

Photo Credit: indiegogo.com/projects/venus-spirits-the-tasting-room

Photo Credit: indiegogo.com/projects/venus-spirits-the-tasting-room

The first standout: El Ladron Blanco made from 100% organic blue weber agave from Mexico — akin to tequila and distilled twice in their alembic pot still — it is fruity, bright, salty and plays well in classic tequila cocktails (namely a margarita).

The second standout: Wayward Single Malt Whiskey made from organic malted barley, twice-distilled and aged 5 months in new American oak (Venus is also aging bourbon and rye). With a background in craft beer, whiskey wasn’t a big leap and, in fact, was his inspiration behind starting a distillery. Inspired by a pale ale beer recipe, this whiskey plays light, partly due to its young age but also its pale ale nature (there will be a two-year aged version released in a couple years) — but it isn’t without caramel, woody character.

Watch the Venus Spirits website for pricing and links to where you can purchase – currently, the site merely links to social media.

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Sep
01
2014

Imbiber

5 New Under-the-Radar Spirits to Try

Article by Virginia Miller

Many spirits cross my desk or are tasted at countless bars or distilleries I visit in any given month… here are 5 international spirits — from gin to mezcal, Scotch to rye whiskey — that have stood out in recent months.

CALEDONIA SPIRITS’ BARR HILL GIN ($35)

Barr HillThomas Hardie (a distiller I was privileged to meet recently on his trek out West) runs a farm in Vermont where he produces Barr Hill Gin and Vodka, made from local organic honey and grains, both recently gaining distribution in California. Growing up as a lifelong farmer, Hardie has been beekeeping with his family since he was 12 and started doing so commercially by age 20. His raw honey is exquisite and is the fermented base — with corn grain — for his products. Rather than sweetness, the honey imparts a subtle freshness to both products, the creamy-grassy gin is happily juniper-forward.

They are working on beer-distilled whiskies to be released over the coming months: the 1st release is 5 months aged corn whiskey made of 80% corn, 20% rye and barley. I also hope to try Barr Hill Reserve Tom Cat, essentially an Old Tom-style gin distilled with juniper and honey.

Where to Buy: At K&L and Wine Warehouse

HIGHLAND PARK’s DARK ORIGINS ($79.99)

HP Dark OriginsOut this fall, one of my all-time favorite Scotch houses, Highland Park (the 18 year is the quintessential Highland Scotch) is just releasing Dark Origins, a non-chill filtered single malt (ABV 46.8%) that ups the sherry cask quotient compared to the classic Highland Park 12 year Scotch. All that sherry wood means spice and chocolate notes, but I also appreciate its nuanced nutty, softly smoky aspects.

MARCA NEGRA MEZCAL ($64.95 – $139.95)

Marca Negra Mezcals are distilled in the mountains of Oaxaca, near the village of San Luis del Rio, with a horse pulling a stone wheel to crush the roasted agave plants pre-fermentation. This is a process I was privileged to see in my journeys around Oaxaca (along with witnessing ancient clay pot distillation first hand, an almost dead art in most spirit categories).

Marca Negra MezcalThough I wish I could visit Marca Negra’s distillers directly, I’ve enjoyed tasting 4 of their mezcal releases (there’s 5 total in California, with the 5th an Arroqueno varietal), from a semi-sweet, floral and white pepper-inflected Ensamble Mezcal Marca Negra, to the herbaceous, sweet and smoky Dobadán Mezcal Marca Negra (both $139.95).

But my favorites are the elegant Tobalá Mezcal Marca Negra ($139.95), with its vegetal, tropical notes undergirded by smoke (only 1250 bottles), and the smoky, woody spice of the dry Espadín Mezcal Marca Negra ($64.95), both Double Gold and Gold medal winners (respectively) in the 2012 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. They are both beauties and welcome new mezcal options.

GLENGLASSAUGH ($64.99-$79.99)

Anchor Distilling recently began importing Glenglassaugh Scotch from a Speyside distillery dating back to 1875, bought in 2013 by Billy Walker and BenRiach Whisky Company. They just imported 5 single malts, including a 30 ($500) and 40 year ($3000) Scotch, from barrels ranging from 1963-1986.

On the more affordable end, three releases cover a range of Scotch tastes: Revival ($64.99, 46% ABV) is the first single malt from the reborn Glenglassaugh, aged in red wine, bourbon and Oloroso sherry barrels, the softest, sweetest and roundest of the three. Evolution ($79.99, 50% ABV), matured in first-fill George Dickel Tennessee whiskey barrels, and Torfa ($74.99, 50% ABV), the Norse word for peat, both exhibit a progressive peatiness, Evolution being soft with smoke and spice and the Torfa surprisingly peaty for a Speyside whisky.

Where to Buy: D&M

LOCK, STOCK & BARREL 13 Year STRAIGHT RYE WHISKEY ($140)

Lock Stock RyeOut longer than the other spirits listed here, Lock, Stock & Barrel Rye is expensive, no question. Though I’ve heard some rumors of it being a blend of pre-existing whiskies, the story behind it is that is Pennsylvania distilled from Pacific Northwest rye grain (100%) modeled after the historic styles of rye during the American Revolutionary War when it was our country’s drink of choice.

Robert Cooper (who founded St. Germain) created this 13 year-aged rye. While it is a soft one, each sip grows on you. There is minimal spice compared to some bracing ryes, notes of honeyed oak and salted caramel, but what surprises me is rosy, pink apple notes that impart a soft freshness to the rye. If you want spice and robustness, this isn’t your rye, but I appreciate its unique slant and place in the category.

Where to Buy: At D&M for $119.99

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Nov
01
2013

Wandering Traveler

In the remote Oaxacan mountains taking in Old World (clay pot) mezcal distillation

In the remote Oaxacan mountains taking in Old World (clay pot) mezcal distillation

MEZCAL JOURNEYS in OAXACA

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

One of my favorite mezcals in the Los Siete Misterios line, Barril

One of my favorite mezcals in the Los Siete Misterios line, Barril (bottle shot photos: www.sietemisterios.com)

Exploring mezcal distilleries with bartenders and staff from the fantastic Los Siete Misterios Mezcal, was one of the most unforgettable trips of my life. Besides amazing days in Mexico City (read more here) and the enchanting town of Oaxaca (more here), I had unreal experiences at distilleries where Los Siete Misterios’ different mezcal varietals are produced – there are six regular varietals, the seventh/siete being a changing varietal. For the first time in my life, despite visits to dozens of distilleries around the world, I witnessed clay pot distillation, the ancient way of distilling where liquid is distilled in a pot in the mud, not through a still.

I spent time with jimadors (agave plant harvesters) as they hacked agave plants with a machete, or with mezcal distillers working up winding, narrow roads in the Oaxacan mountains in the regions of Sola de Vega. After a day up in the mountains, we ended with a home-cooked meal at one distiller’s home with a number of distillers and their families. We filled up on mole they cooked for two days and sipped mezcal as kids and dogs ran around and grandmothers looked on.

Los Siete Misterios' whimsical Day of the Dead-influenced artwork, different for each varietal

Los Siete Misterios’ whimsical Day of the Dead artwork, different for each varietal

About an hour outside Oaxaca city in Matatlan, I chopped roasted agave myself with a machete. This distillery was described as “modern” compared to what we saw up in the mountains, as they use a copper alembic still and crush agave plants with a horse and wheel – still clearly Old World but not as ancient as clay pot distillation.

How could I forget stopping roadside up the mountains where two women made salsa, grilled Oaxacan cheese quesadillas on a streetside grill, while we drank from coconuts they’d just hacked open with a sword as we gazed across mountain vistas? Spend some time exploring the region and you will surely happen upon similar, once-in-a-lifetime moments.

Here are a few of mine, via photos:

Sola de Vega, Oaxaca

A jimador since he was a child

A jimador since he was a child in the mountains of Sola de Vega

Watching a mature agave plant cut down by machete from a lifelong jimador

Watching a mature agave plant cut down by machete from a lifelong jimador

Mezcal distiller walks us through agave fields

Mezcal distiller walks us through agave fields

Unreal: experiencing distillation in clay pots as it was hundreds of years ago

Unreal: experiencing distillation in clay pots as it was hundreds of years ago

Open air fermentation in hollowed-out trees

Open air fermentation in hollowed-out trees

Wild goats roam mountainside

Wild goats roam mountainside

Fermenting mezcal under leaves

Fermenting mezcal under leaves

Lush mountain views

Lush mountain views

Funneling mezcal into containers

Funneling mezcal into containers

Tobala agave, up close & personal

Tobala agave, up close & personal

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Distiller

Distiller blowing perlas (bubbles) through hollowed out carrizo (akin to a bamboo reed), sucking up the mezcal from the jicara (gourd), then letting it stream back to note quality of perlas which tells alcohol level

Clay pot distillation

Clay pot distillation: a marvel of Old World processes with clay pots buried in the mud, natural distillation running through hollowed out reeds, funneled via leaves into plastic containers

 

Stopping for roadside tortillas grilled up with Oaxacan cheese, served with homemade salsa & just cut coconuts to drink

Stopping for roadside tortillas grilled up with Oaxacan cheese, served with homemade salsa & just cut coconuts to drink

Matatlan, Oaxaca

The more "modern" method of crushing agave with a horse and cement wheel

The more “modern” method of crushing agave with a horse and cement wheel

Just-roasted agave

Just-roasted agave

Hacking agave with a machete

Hacking agave with a machete

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Distilling in

Distilling in Matatlan

Fermenting agave

Fermenting agave

Alembic still

Alembic still

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Roasting agave in a pit

Roasting agave in a pit

Befriending the horse

Befriending the horse

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Oct
15
2013

The Latest

Huevos con chorizo, the artful presentation

Huevos con chorizo, the artful presentation

MEXICO CITY in SF: La Urbana

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

LA URBANA, Western Addition (661 Divisadero Street at Grove, 415-440-4500)

La Urbana's muse on chairs...

La Urbana’s muse on chairs…

After a preview a few months back and a visit to Mexico City exploring some of the city’s stellar restaurants (read about it here), I was excited to see La Urbana open in Western Addition this September. Having already dined there three times in the roughly five weeks it has been open, I can vouch for the usual “finding itself” struggles a new restaurant faces. But the vision of Mexico City (also based in SF) owners, Eduardo Rallo and Juan Garduño is clear: bring a Mexico City-style restaurant to San Francisco with the most extensive mezcal selection on the West Coast. The design of the space is inventive and playful, with mezcal bottles lining mismatched shelves from Mexico hanging in a colorful patchwork on the wall.

La Urbana Margarita

La Urbana Margarita

La Urbana’s next door garage is about to open, a laid back space where tacos, smoothies, beers, sangria, and margaritas will flow against a backdrop of black and white over blue, Aztec-esque graffiti art that was their temporary construction covering outside when they were building out the restaurant. I previewed the garage space a couple weeks ago, appreciating the yin-yang contrast of the neighboring spaces.

Smoking ceviche

Smoking ceviche

In the restaurant, they are still exploring how experimental they want to be (experimental would be fully in line with Mexico City, Mexico’s most cosmopolitan dining city), and what they want to save for upstairs, where tasting menus will be de rigueur
when that space opens.

s

Upcoming cocktail: Gulf of Mexico

I am drawn towards their most experimental expressions, first, because that is what lacking in the endless excellent Mexican restaurants around, and as this is where Chef Benjamin Klein and Chef de Cuisine Julio Aguilera shine. Consistent with my impressions at the restaurant preview, huevo con chorizo ($6) remains my favorite dish. Twice I’ve had it in artful form: inside a delicate egg shell, the top cracked off. But for greater approachability, in the restaurant it has evolved to a mini bowl of eggs and chorizo whipped with light potato puree, lime crema, dotted with pickled jalapeno and tortilla chips. It’s savory, textured, gorgeous, even if the egg shell is the more dramatic presentation.

Preview of Mercado Urbano garage

Preview of Mercado Urbano garage

Roasted corn

Roasted corn/esquites

Ceviche ($11) is so ubiquitous, I passed over it on my first visit, but in the interest of trying everything on the menu by the second meal, I ordered it. Surprisingly, it’s one of La Urbana’s best items. Using fresh fish of the day, like California sea bass, tossed with avocado, orange chunks and a smattering of cucumber “dust,” it’s a fine ceviche. But the presentation sets it apart from every other version: it arrives in a blue-tinted mason jar, the lid removed to a billowing release of mesquite smoke, which infuses the fish and the air with delicate smokiness.

d

Huevos con chorizo, the still fantastic restaurant version

The kitchen hand grinds their own corn every day, utilized in blue corn mini-quesadillas “Tijuana” ($9). More like mini-empanadas, these warm bites ooze Manchego cheese and okra, delightful when dipped in a smoked crema and smoky salsa. Sides are unexpected standouts, whether roasted, summer-fresh corn/esquites ($7), accented with Meyer lemon aioli and Manchego cheese, or oregano-tinged squares made of paper thin slices of potatoes/papas ($5). Entrees don’t always wow, but a silky salmon or halibut al huitlacoche ($24) accompanied by cauliflower, gains complex flavor from the corn fungus funk of huitlacoche, artfully touched with citrus corn foam and nasturtium petals.

Chocolate cremeaux in mezcal gourds

Chocolate cremeaux in mezcal gourds

Salads can be freshly gratifying, like an ensalada verde ($12) of bright fava beans, avocado and frisee, in a cilantro dressing. Another salad, betabeles y chayote ($11), is bright with roasted beets, carrots and habanero jam, but had an excess of rather tasteless chayote, made more exciting on first visit when a salty smattering of chapulines (grasshoppers) was on the salad – they are now using a popped wild rice to simulate that texture and flavor (bring back the grasshoppers, please!) Desserts are strong, particularly a fluffy Oaxacan chocolate crémeux ($9) over vanilla ice cream, served in a traditional mezcal gourd with mezcal gélée, punctuated by canela (cinnamon) crisps.

Luis

Luis Ranzuglia lights a volcano bowl

Lucas Ranzuglia oversees the cocktail menu, bringing bar experience from his native Buenos Aires, cocktail mecca London, and Mexico. A number of his drinks from the preview remain the best on the menu, like a mezcal-tinged Margarita ($9), and particularly Mezcal & Cacao ($9), an icy blend of mezcal and Oaxacan cacao in a coffee mug, touched with rose water, lavender flowers, vanilla, orange peel and spices.

La Urbana's Day of the Dead skeleton

La Urbana’s Day of the Dead skeleton

Playful themes occur in the likes of The Mexican Dude ($10), a take on The Big Lebowski and White Russians, going the Mexican route with house horchata and mezcal, a bit of Belvedere vodka and espresso coffee liqueur. From the extensive mezcal collection (including a number of rarities), there’s 1.5 oz. pours of mezcal or trio flights of 3/4 oz. pours. Mexico City’s common after-dinner drink, a Cafe Royal ($8) – aka Carakillo or “Con Piquete” – is on offer, with espresso on the rocks sweetened by citrus-vanilla-tinged Spanish liqueur, Licor 43.

Recently I had a preview of drinks Ranzuglia is about to launch in the restaurant, with his unique vision that starts first with a concept shaped into a cocktail recipe. Currently, he’s creating cocktails themed around different locations in Mexico. Sure to be a crowd-pleaser is the Gulf of Mexico, a cocktail inspired by visions of sand, Gulf winds, and vacation: Bols Genever mingles with coconut water, ginger tincture, finished with frothy-sweet-spicy guava-habanero foam. It’s complex yet utterly approachable and refreshing.

Mexico City cocktail

Mexico City cocktail

The tortilla water (which tastes like fresh tortilla chips) in the fantastic, nonalcoholic tortilla lemonade I sampled at the restaurant’s preview is now thankfully going into a cocktail, Mexico City. The drink combines Casa Noble blanco tequila, mezcal, tortilla water, lemon and guava puree, then Ranzuglia dips a lavender and chile-laden tea strainer infused with dry ice into the glass which smokes and bubbles, meant to resemble MX earthquakes, imparting a hint of carbonation. Ranzuglia covers the drink with a cement-like disc that holds in the vapor, representing the cement covering of the massive city built into a water basin, bubbling underneath. He describes it as: “A glass of pure surrealist city, the flavors of Mexico City’s valley.”

Urbana's muse on the building's exterior

… and La Urbana’s muse on the building’s exterior

Back dining area under agave plant map of Oaxaca

Back dining area under agave plant map of Oaxaca

Pyrotechnics come into play with shareable volcano bowls inspired by the volcanoes of Pubela, lit with incense and filled with boozy, shareable cocktails reminiscent of Tiki volcano bowls, soon to be on offer. A more classic off-menu cocktail is a twist on a Hemingway Daiquiri, subtly mixing mezcal, cilantro, lime, grapefruit, Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur and Luxardo Maraschino.

If this sounds fussy, it isn’t. Drinks taste alternately sweet, agave-rich, smoky, whatever the elements may be, enriched by stories behind them for those of us who care, merely tasting good for those who do not. Ranzuglia’s vision is refreshingly unique, welcome in a city that has long mastered cocktails and could use a fresh perspective.

Mezcal flight

Mezcal flight

La Urbana will hopefully unfold to a fully realized expression of Mexican food unlike any other restaurant in a state that has long perfected Mexican food. Offering a range of experiences and tastes from garage to mezcal bar, one hopes La Urbana will evolve along with the exciting dining scene of Mexico City.

Eclectic Urbana bar shelves from Mexico

Eclectic Urbana bar shelves from Mexico

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Oct
15
2013

Wandering Traveler

The new Mexico: international, chic, clean flavors and culinary mashups like Mexican sashimi at La Trainera

The new Mexico: international, clean flavors, like Mexican sashimi at La Trainera

MEXICO CITY RISING

Article & Photos by Virginia Miller

Tree-lined streets and fountains

Tree-lined streets and fountains

Mexico City’s (MX) dining scene is HOT. Gorgeous diners smoke cigarettes while dining on sashimi platters accented by Mexican flavors from chiles to avocado. Experimentation – the likes of which is far advanced even from what one finds in Mexico’s second largest city, Guadalajara – reinvents classic Mexican flavors through an international, cosmopolitan lens (in San Francisco, the recent arrival of La Urbana from MX owners, brings a snapshot of what is happening in MX to SF).

Flying in to MX, the massive expanse of a city of nearly 20,000 million people looks like a dense maze of traffic covered in thick, brown smog. But on the ground there’s a surprising amount of parks, tree-lined streets, European-influenced architecture and impossibly chic restaurants. Some of the most raved about restaurants, like Pujol from CIA-trained Chef Enrique Olvera, reach gastronomy magic, working wonders with larvae and insects, frog legs and squash blossoms.

Charming Sabor Amor

Charming Sabor Amor

MX street food and markets are fascinating, full of gourmet treasures. Here one can explore all the complex regions of Mexico and the varying dishes and specialties from around the country in one market. In this metropolis of a city, “New Mexican” reaches its most realized state, reinventing Mexican cuisines for the next generation.

Far more than in Guadalajara and vastly different from traditional, romantic towns like Oaxaca, Mexico City is the culinary future of Mexico, where the world’s cuisines collide, informed by Mexican ethos, even as other Mexican culinary capitals keep tradition alive. Both are important. Despite my many travels to Mexico, I feel as if I hadn’t fully experienced the possibilities of Mexican cuisine until I visited Mexico City.

Fish on display at La Trainera restaurant

Fish on display at La Trainera restaurant

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Cocktail ingredients in Los Siete Misterios competition at Aurora Roma

Exploring mezcal distilleries in Oaxaca with the fantastic Los Siete Misterios Mezcal, we spent a few days in MX. There I judged a cocktail competition involving bartenders from NY, Toronto and Mexico City using Los Siete Misterios mezcals, while also visiting restaurants and cocktail bars. Mexico City is on the cusp of an artisanal and classic cocktail scene. There are up-and-coming bartenders with a fine sense of balance, like David Mora and Rodrigo Martinez Trejo, honing craft in some of the city’s best bars.

Cocktails at Sabor Amor

Cocktails at Sabor Amor

One thing I noticed at cocktail bars here is masking alcohol is common. The best drinks often tasted like complex layers of fruit and herbs… with little booze kick. While emerging craft bartenders in MX are using a fascinating mix of Mexican herbs, chiles, fruits and so on, veering away from sweet or giant martini glasses to classic glassware and balance, there’s still a big gap between what we see across the US or major cocktail cities internationally in terms of a broad and deep grasp of classic technique or understanding (or even much of a selection) of brown spirits, from whiskies to brandies. But Mexico City masters agave spirits and an innovative use of produce, so it’s only a matter of time before the international cocktail renaissance fully takes hold here.

Aurora Roma sign

Aurora Roma sign

Few have done more initially to usher in this renaissance than Limantour, with the tag line “Live the old new days.” Limantour advances the cocktail revival in MX, having just opened a second location. I visited both, one with an open storefront, warm glow and a bustling bar, the other, an intimate, upstairs lounge – both bars are relaxed yet sexy, serving elegant cocktails, including a San Francisco tribute, the hilariously-named San Francisco Homie, a rum recipe adapted from none other than 15 Romolo.

Common dessert cocktail in MX: espresso & Licor 43 (Spanish vanilla citrus liqueur) on ice

Common dessert cocktail in MX: espresso & Licor 43 (Spanish vanilla citrus liqueur) on ice

Aurora Roma in the Colonia Roma district – marked by a beetle sign – is a cocktail den graced with a long black bar and low, pressed tin ceiling. It was the site of the cocktail competition I judged.

Whether visiting pulque (viscous, milky, alcoholic drink made from fermented sap of agave plants) havens like Las Duelistas, or mezcalerias like El Palenquito, agave spirits are (of course) well represented across the city.

Here are dining and food recommends, from restaurants to bakeries, around the city:

QUINTONIL, Polanco

Mezcal cocktails at Quintonil

Mezcal cocktails at Quintonil

The best meal in my recent visit was the humble green structure housing Quintonil (which means amaranth leaf). Chef Jorge Vallejo, a young chef who comes from the aforementioned Pujol, showcases impeccable technique, indigenous ingredients and modern, unexpected combinations. Whether a clean cactus sorbet with burnt corn husk, or pork jowl marinated in achiote, each dish (paired with mezcal on my visit) was enlightened, highlighting the innovation and freshness that is Mexico City dining.

Superb dishes at Quintonil

Superb dishes at Quintonil

ROMITA COMEDOR, Colonia Roma

David Nava prepares cocktails at Romita

David Nava prepares cocktails at Romita

Romita Comedor is an impossibly cool spot. Up winding stairs in a 1900’s building above a clothing shop and salon, its high ceilings, black and white tiled floor, and massive, open window, combines Old and New World touches. The space is casual yet hip, serving delicious tacos, octopus and shrimp dishes, at mid-range prices.

Romita ceviche

Romita ceviche

Romita is a cocktail outpost for refreshing classics like Tom Collins, Negronis, and Caipirinhas, but also creative creations by bartenders like David Mora (who won the Los Siete Misterios cocktail competition I judged at Aurora Roma), like a bright blend of serrano chilies, mezcal, apple, lychee and cucumber, or a creamy Horchata de Aquacate blending Don Julio blanco with house horchata.

Striking, open air dining room at Romita Comeador

Striking, open air dining room at Romita Comedor

MONTAGU GASTRO WINE BAR, Del Parque Lincoln

Guacamole topped with fried grasshoppers

Guacamole topped with fried grasshoppers

Mexico City native Chef Rogelio Weber infuses dishes at intimate, glowing Montagu Gastro Wine Bar with international flair. Studying cooking in Barcelona, he’s cooked in London, New York and between Africa and Asia. His duck confit tostadas, black octopus tacos, mole amarillo, or chapulines (grasshopper) topped guacamole (a nod to Oaxaca) are comforting yet delicate. In addition, Montagu is a wine bar so expect a thoughtful array of wines from Mexico, South America and beyond.

Experimentation with varied local ingredients in cocktails at Montagu

Experimentation with local ingredients in cocktails at Montagu

SABOR AMOR, Colonia Roma

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El Irreal at Sabor Amor

Sabor Amor is in a dreamy, multi-floored house with a terrace and dining rooms of different colors and themes, including a pink and creme-striped room that feels meant for high tea. It’s the most romantic setting of the places I dined, offering earnest service and generous, artfully designed dishes.

Brightly colored rooms

Colorful rooms

Besides serving Oaxaca’s ubiquitous guacamole dotted with chapulines (fried grasshoppers), Sabor sends out rich dishes like a round tower of whipped cheeses (“El Irreal”) layered with eggplant, red pepper, basil and tomatoes, accented by chile oil. The restaurant does best with its Italy-or-Spain-meets-Mexico dishes, such as a bacalao (salt cod) and huitlacoche (corn fungus) ravioli.

LA TRAINERA, Centro Historico

Raw fish tostadas at La Trainera

Raw fish tostadas at La Trainera

Impossibly hip La Trainera sports greenery growing on walls, a rooftop dining area, and mountains of fresh fish and seafood in a multi-floored mansion.

The aesthetic is as chic as the Hollywood-by-way-of-Mexico clientele. On the open-air top floor, everyone is (ironically) smoking as they dine on spanking-fresh sashimi. Raw tuna tostadas are a hit, a ubiquitous dish around MX, made popular by the restaurant Contramar. There’s a range of ceviches and tacos utilizing their impressive fish selection, but I found the sashimi and tostada menu sections offered the most gratifying dishes.

BOTTEGA CULINARIA, Condesa

Delirio

Delirio

A gourmand’s food shop, Bottega Culinaria stocks impeccable breads, cheeses, pastas, spirits, jams, sauces, cookbooks, and would be similarly at home in New York, San Francisco or Paris. It was a strong choice for French-style pastries and coffee in the leafy Condesa district.

DELIRIO, Zona Urbana Río Tijuana

With sidewalk seating evoking European cafes, atmospheric Delirio is a strong wine bar, cheese, charcuterie shop and all-day, casual cafe serving organic dishes for breakfast, lunch and wine hour.  While no dish I had here was exactly memorable, the setting is, making it a worthwhile stop for gourmet foods and even a few select mezcals we can’t get in the US.

In addition, food markets shine in Mexico City, particularly the “chef’s market,” Mercado San Juan in the Centro Historico, offering foods and produce from across Mexico.

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Aug
15
2013

Imbiber

3 NEW DEL MAGUEY MEZCALS

Article and Photos by Virginia Miller

Wild Tepexate - San Jose Rio Minas Del Maguey - Virginia MillerTHE reason mezcal has become popular and widely available in the US can be traced back to one man: Ron Cooper, who founded Del Maguey, a brilliant line of mezcal producers from a wide range of Mexican villages. I have long been a fan of the entire line, and, in fact, it took years before I found mezcals even worth drinking in comparison.

Once I traveled to the magical state and city of Oaxaca, I found even more to love, visiting mezcal producers hours up in the mountains, in remote places, and sampling rare mezcals in the town of Oaxaca at Mezcaloteca. Since I first fell under the spell of the agave spirit years ago, there are far more mezcals on the US market, most recently in the last 2-3 years.

As the category of the “oven-cooked” agave spirit expands (the “piña”, or heart of the plant, often being cooked underground), it’s news for any mezcal aficionado when Del Maguey releases new product. Lucky us, there are three new Del Maguey releases. Two just came out mid-August, the other releases in November, all at limited quantities around the US.

Here are my brief notes after tasting each.

Just Released

Wild Papalome - Virginia MillerWILD TEPEXTATE ($99

The rare wild agave, tepextate (agave Marmorata), often takes a full 25 years to grow in high altitudes, making it a rarity as a mezcal varietal. From the same producer who makes Del Maguey’s Tobala and Espadin Especial, Wild Tepextate is “green”, bright with bell pepper and jalapeno notes, with an undercurrent of subtle earthiness and dusty cinnamon/canela (Mexican sugar).

SAN JOSE RIO MINAS ($99)

A new Del Maguey producer in Oaxaca’s remote Northern Mixteca Alta region produces this floral beauty. San Jose Rio Minas sings to me of wildflowers, apple orchards and peach blossoms, balanced by a sweet smoke. The story of how they found this producer is classic Ron Cooper (read here under San Jose Rio Minas).

November Release

WILD PAPALOMETL ($99)

Wild Papalometl migh be my favorite of the three new releases – if forced to choose. It is produced by Fernando Caballero Cruz in San Pedro Teozacoalco, also in the Mixteca Alta region of Oaxaca, hours from anywhere off rocky, dirt roads. Made from the papalome maguey (the Nahuatl name for butterfly), the plant looks similar to Tobala agave but much larger. Made by an ancient distillation process, which I witnessed in remote Oaxacan villages in the mountains, Wild Papalometl is distilled in a stainless pot with a clay condensor and Mexican bamboo tube. The result is earth, smoky, meaty goodness, expressing hints of sweet corn, slate and mushroom.

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Jul
01
2013

Imbiber

TWO SPIRITS to DRINK NOW: CALIFORNIA AGRICOLE & HIGH PROOF TEQUILA

Article & Photos by Virginia Miller

Perfect for summer cocktails (or neat pours), here are two new spirits I’m rather crazy about.

ST. GEORGE’S CALIFORNIA AGRICOLE RUM, $50

AgricoleRumIt’s back! Sporting a new label aligned with their gins, St. George Spirits released its California Agricole Rum this week. Formerly Agua Libre (first released in 2010), it’s no surprise, given that agricole is my favorite rum category, that I take to the grassy, funky elegance of St. George’s agricole. Most notably from the French Caribbean island of Martinique, this style of rum (or rhum) is made from fresh sugarcane juice rather than molasses, often notably earthy, vegetal and other flavor profiles I crave.

Keeping it local, St. George’s sugarcane is grown in SoCal’s Imperial Valley. Stalks are then pressed at their Alameda distillery in a sugarcane press, while the fresh-pressed cane juice is distilled (post-fermentation) in a 500-liter copper pot still.

Delight is not too keen a word to describe how I feel about seeing this rum back on the shelves and on bar menus. Lance Winters, Dave Smith and the incomparable St. George crew, prove that the refined umami funk of agricole needn’t merely come from the Caribbean. I’m proud to say this local agricole keeps up with quality Martinique rhums.

TAPATIO 110, $48

B110_Blanco110ProofTapatio tequilas are a pleasure (the bright and affordable blanco – $34, reposado – $38, and anejo – $44), distilled by the genuine Carlos Camarena of Mexico’s 75-year-old Tequila Tapatio and El Tesoro. Just released in the US? Possibly my favorite of the line: B110 Tequila Blanco (55% alc. by vol.), averaging 114 proof.

At 110 proof, it is less watered down, more intense than the basic blanco, yet does not feel “hot” or out of balance. Floral, spice notes, even hints of tea and earth, shine more vividly in the smooth B110. Distilled at La Alteña Distillery (alongside El Tesoro, Tequila Ocho, Charbay Tequila – the latter of which should be re-released later this year), Tapatio’s blue agave plants are 100% estate-grown. In conversation with renowned tequila experts, I’ve learned Carlos is the last producer left in Jalisco to own and source all plants from their estate rather than purchasing plants from growers. Carlos’ grandfather, Don Felipe, opened the distillery in 1937 in in the Arandas Highlands, although tequila distilling goes back in his family into the early 1800’s.

Ukiah Sour # 3

Ukiah Sour # 3

Distilled first in a stainless steel Alambique still, with a second run through a copper Alambique, then aged for 6 months in stainless steel, B110 is certainly a tequila-lovers’ tequila. It ups the ante in flavor for any classic tequila cocktail, from a Margarita to a Paloma.

In downtown Napa, Mercantile Social bar in the lobby of the Andaz hotel features local, craft spirits, including one of the best ways to try Tapatio (ask them to “perk it up” with B110 or enjoy with the standard Tapatio blanco): the Ukiah Sour #3, mixing Tapatio blanco with bay leaf syrup, lime and Tempus Fugit’s earthy, lush Crème de Cacao.

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