By Lucinda Hutson
I began my Mexican agave adventures over 30 years ago, in quest of the formidable sword-leafed plants and the potent inebriants that derive from them: tequila and mezcal. I traveled alone on buses to rustic distilleries in small towns in Jalisco, and to primitive and remote mezcal stills in Oaxaca. Speaking fluent Spanish allowed me to experience and collect recipes, traditions and culture, which I’m excited to share in this column and in my forthcoming book, ¡VIVA TEQUILA! Cocktails, Cooking and Other Agave Adventures, due out in the spring of 2013.
Mexicans take great pride in their beloved national spirits, tequila and mezcal. They sip and savor them in caballitos (small “pony” shot glasses), often accompanied by a shot of sangrita, (diminutive for “blood”)—a tasty, nonalcoholic, bright red chili salsa and citrus chaser that piques all of the taste buds at once. Mexican bartenders showcase tequila in simple drinks made with fresh fruit juices and lots of lime—to enhance, as opposed to detract from, the flavor of agave. They make a very popular and refreshing cooler called a paloma by simply mixing tequila (blanco or reposado) with grapefruit soda and ice (I like adding fresh pink grapefruit juice, a squeeze of lime and a pinch of salt). In my opinion, some of today’s mixologists and bartenders concoct newfangled cocktails that mask the agave’s intrinsic flavor; those peppery, bright citrus and herbaceous notes become veiled with too much agave syrup, bitters, flavorings and injudicious amounts of foreign liqueurs. Some of these drinks taste like dessert before dinner instead of an invigorating cocktail. Where’s the essence of the agave?
One of my favorite drinks found throughout Jalisco sings of fresh fruits and citrus and celebrates tequila. It has a fun presentation and is meant for sharing, too. Known as a cazuela, it’s served out of a wide, glazed earthenware bowl and is brimming with natural fruit juices as well as wedges of oranges and pink grapefruit that are meant to be picked up and eaten or squeezed into the drink.
Partakers also pop chunks of watermelon and fresh pineapple into their mouths and sip the tequila-laced libation through straws for two. It’s called a cantarito or jarrito when imbibed from clay mugs for one. I often serve it, instead, in jumbo, long-stemmed margarita glasses with plenty of spiked fruit. I also serve a slightly different version of the cazuela in large glass jars for fiestas—borrowing from the way Mexican street vendors present their colorful fruit punches. They ladle their colorful concoctions into cups from large, five-gallon glass agua fresca jarros (glass jars with lids, resembling old-fashioned pickle barrels). You can find agua fresca jars at Mexican specialty markets, import stores or online, or you can use another large, clear glass vessel to reflect from within the jewel-like splendor of the punch and its tropical fruits, citrus and fragrant herbs.
Tequila ponches (punches) make perfect party libations because guests serve themselves, allowing the host to mingle and have a good time. They serve as spectacular centerpieces—transforming parties into memorable celebrations. Wreathe the base of the punch jar (or bowl) with clusters of whole fruits—lemons, oranges, limes and strawberries with green hulls; fill in gaps with sprays of greenery and fresh flowers; embellish with seasonal ornaments, folk art, colorful garlands or strings of lights; and surround the jar with long-stemmed margarita glasses piled high with sliced lemons, oranges, limes and strawberries. Guests can choose their own garnishes!
Choosing Tequilas for Punches and more
As when making any tequila drink, opt for a 100 percent agave tequila (check the label)—one made exclusively from fermented sugars of the blue agave. “Mixto” tequilas are blended with 49 percent added sugars and flavorings and colorings, giving them a “gold” color that’s often mistaken as a result of aging, though usually they are not aged. 100 percent agave tequilas are more expensive than mixtos, but moderately priced 100 percent agave tequilas are available and perfect for party punches.
There are five types of tequila: blanco, joven, reposado, añejo and extra añejo. Use tequila blanco (aka “white” or plata “silver”) or tequila reposado (gently reposed for a minimum of two months, but less than one year in oak) in punches to complement, not overwhelm, the flavors of fresh fruit and citrus. Reserve tequila añejo (aged for a minimum of one year, but less than three years in government-sealed oak barrels) or extra añejo (aged for three years or longer), for snifters or cocktails that call for aged brown spirits.
100 percent agave blanco tequilas are as versatile as vodka or white rum, yet much more flavorful, in my opinion, than those other white spirits. Tequila blanco stands as a substitute for gin in refreshing coolers, too. Use it in punches, classic Mexican margaritas, fruit drinks and refreshing spritzers. Premium silvers stand alone for sipping; I keep a bottle in the fridge or freezer for hot Texas nights.
Reposado tequilas temper the harshness of unaged tequila by adding hints of oak and subtle spice, without overwhelming with oak, as in some añejos. Reposados range in hue from very pale straw to amber and are excellent for slow sipping in shots, as well as for mixing in punches, margaritas, mixed drinks and spritzers. ¡Salud!
CAZUELA GUADALAJARA (GUADALAJARA PUNCH)
Serves approximately 20
A guest once called this drink “the quintessential finger bowl.” I call it the ultimate fruit cocktail!
1 fresh pineapple, cut into bite-size chunks
1 L. tequila blanco
2 c. tequila reposado (try some Wahaka Mezcal, based in Austin)
½ c. freshly squeezed lime juice
6 c. freshly squeezed orange juice
46 oz. unsweetened pineapple juice
4 oranges, cut into bite-size wedges
½ medium watermelon, cut into bite-size chunks or triangles with rind
3 lemons, sliced
6 limes, quartered
3 small ruby-red grapefruit, cut into bite-size wedges
2 star fruit, sliced (will make star shapes)
4 cans (12 oz. each) Squirt, Fresca or other grapefruit soda
Fresh mint sprigs, optional
Place the pineapple chunks in a large wide-mouth glass jar. Add the tequilas, fruit juices and sliced oranges and chill overnight. Add the watermelon, lemons, limes and grapefruit, and chill several more hours—stirring occasionally. Add the star fruit slices, soda and mint just before serving.
Note: The flavor of this punch improves with age. It keeps for several days in the refrigerator, but the watermelon will lose its texture and should be stored separately (if there’s any punch left!). Also, lemons, limes and grapefruit become bitter when left in the punch too long.
VERANO TROPICAL (TROPICAL SUMMER PUNCH)
Serves approximately 20
Thai one on! Serve this exotic and exceptionally refreshing cooler on a sultry summer evening.
4–6 fresh stalks of lemongrass
3-in. piece of peeled ginger, cut into matchsticks
2 large ripe pineapples, cut into chunks
1½ L. of tequila reposado
92 oz. unsweetened pineapple juice (or part other tropical juice)
2–4 large bunches fresh mint, lemon verbena, lemon balm or a mix
½ c. freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ c. freshly squeezed lime juice
Diluted agave syrup, to taste
2 lemons, sliced
6 limes, sliced
2 12 oz. bottles Reed’s Extra Ginger Brew or your favorite local soda
Fresh mint sprigs and peeled sugarcane stalks, to garnish
Long, unpeeled sugar cane stalk for stirring punch
Remove and discard the outer leaves of the lemongrass and cut the stalks in half lengthwise, then cut into 2-inch segments and lightly bruise to release their flavor. Lightly bruise the ginger to release its flavor. Place the pineapple chunks in a 2-gallon glass jar and cover with the tequila. Add the lemongrass, ginger, pineapple juice, fresh herbs and lemon and lime juices, and chill overnight. Sweeten to taste with agave syrup. A few hours prior to serving, remove the herbs and wring them to release their flavor (replace with fresh ones, if possible). Add the lemon and lime slices. Before serving, splash with the soda. Ladle the punch into tall glasses with plenty of fruit and ice. Garnish and serve.