Bride of Tequila

A Conversation with author Lucinda Hutson, by Shannon Oelrich
Photography by woodywelchphotography.com

A visit to Lucinda Hutson’s iconic amethyst-purple casita in the Rosedale neighborhood isn’t complete without a tour of her verdant gardens and a nip of tequila. Not a shot, mind you, just a little taste in a glass, much like a serving of fine liqueur, to be enjoyed slowly while strolling among the rooms of her extensive outdoor growing space; each room a tiny vignette with mosaic works, unique furnishings and carefully chosen plants.

Today’s offering is a blanco tequila, clear and cold, with a strong hit of lime off the top and an earthy, sweet flavor on the finish that Hutson says is agave. She should know, having tasted agave both raw (so caustic that it raised blisters on her lip) and roasted.

As Hutson waxes poetic about the flavor profile of the blanco, the agave plant that created it and its homeland of Mexico, it quickly becomes clear just how intertwined and enamored she is with the family of tequila and the many different ways it represents a lifeblood in Mexico. Although stateside the spirit is often unfairly maligned as the affordable go-to for college students hoping to get a buzz as quickly as possible, Hutson hopes to change American minds with her new book, ¡Viva Tequila!—a celebration of the complexity and variety of tequila, its production and its rich heritage.

Edible Austin: In 1995, you published a book called ¡Tequila! Cooking with the Spirit of Mexico, mostly a cookbook with some history and facts about the potent liquor. Why revisit tequila when you’ve already written a book on it?

Lucinda Hutson: ¡Viva Tequila! is my love letter to Mexico. In fact, the dedication in my book reads: “Para Mexico: Lindo y Querido” [“For Mexico: Beautiful and Beloved”]. I’ve been traveling there for thirty years. I love the culture, the traditions, the land, the food. I wanted to tell the story of tequila while preserving the traditions that surround it. Tequila has changed so much over the years. Production is being modernized, even at some of the family-run distilleries, and demand for it in the U.S. and worldwide is increasing exponentially. I wanted to tell how tequila used to be crafted, as well as how it can be finely made today while changing with the times.

EA: What are some ways tequila is enjoyed in Mexico that might be new to us?

LH: In Mexico, there’s a tradition of long dinners, especially on Sundays and during fiestas, with extended family and friends—everyone sitting around the table. Adults sip tequila or enjoy different drinks throughout the seasons. A margarita with its cool, tart, limy flavor tastes good throughout a meal, especially with grilled meats, Mexican food, barbecue, et cetera, but a shot of tequila—often with sangrita—is served as an aperitif and often between courses, but may also be sipped and savored slowly throughout the meal. A lovely añejo often follows in a snifter with dessert, or you might have a warm fruit punch after dinner, which is family friendly, to which the adults would add tequila. Many Mexicans prefer their tequila neat—straight up. They like the pure flavor.

EA: We know about sangria, but what is sangrita?.

LH: Not to be confused with sangria, Spain’s popular red wine, brandy and fruit spritzer, traditional Mexican sangrita is more like a spicy Bloody Mary, although without the tomato. The red comes from the chiles, which are added to citrus juices to create a tangy, piquant drink that pairs perfectly with a one-hundred-percent blanco or reposada tequila, which is sipped alongside it.

EA: You grew up in El Paso speaking fluent Spanish and traveling back and forth to Juárez, and thirty years ago, you traveled to Mexico alone. How have things changed since those times?

LH: When I went thirty years ago, I was mostly ignorant of any danger. There were only one or two times that I thought, “Nobody knows where I am. Anything could happen.” And nothing ever did. People were warm and welcoming, helpful and open. I traveled to Mexico two years ago, and while people are still welcoming, many places were heavily guarded. I didn’t encounter any violence, but I wouldn’t travel alone anymore. I hope that, until people feel safe about traveling there again, my book will help transport them there in mind and spirit. Much of the premise of my book is to encourage folks to create their own home cantinas and to entertain as graciously here as they do in Mexico, and to preserve the traditions of how tequila and mezcal [another agave-derived alcoholic beverage] are imbibed in Mexico. That way, [they] can experience Mexico in their own backyards or homes without crossing the border.

EA: Your book follows the history of agave-born beverages—from their possible origins in the caves near the modern-day town of Tequila to today. What sent you in search of all this in the first place?

LH: I dated a matador who did some advertising for a tequila company, and he set up an interview in a distillery. Although things didn’t work out with the matador, I soon fell in love with tequila and the magical transformation from agave to distillate. The agave plant is a fascination in and of itself.

EA: While learning about the process of making tequila, what most surprised or fascinated you?

LH: The magical transformation of the starchy, white heart, or piña, of the agave into fermentable sugar, obtained by baking the piña. What comes out of the oven resembles and tastes like a sweet potato drenched in honey. Once crushed and fermented, it is distilled into tequila. Whoever thought—like in the production of chocolate and vanilla—that bitter beginnings would yield sumptuous treats?

EA: Throughout your book, you mention some dichos, or traditional Spanish sayings, and how they’re used as toasts when drinking tequila. What are some of your favorites?

LH: ¡Salud, dinero y amor, y bastante tiempo para gozarlo! (“Health, wealth and romance, and enough time to enjoy them all!”) Con barriga llena, el corazón contento. La tequila buena, las penas ya no siento. (“With a full belly, a happy heart. A good tequila makes my troubles depart.”) Para todo mal, mezcal. Para todo bien, también. (“For all that ails you, mezcal. For all that’s good, as well.”)


Viva-Tequila

SANGRITA

TEQUILA'S SPICY CHASER


Excerpt from ¡Viva Tequila!: Cocktails, Cooking, and Other Agave Adventures, by Lucinda Hutson (Copyright © 1995 and 2013 by Lucinda Hutson) used by permission of the University of Texas Press. For more information visit utexaspress.com.

In Jalisco, shot glasses filled with sangrita, a spicy and refreshing non-alcoholic chaser, arrive without request at the table when you order a shot of tequila. A sip of this blood-red chaser simultaneously piques all taste buds in an explosion of sweet, tart, sour, salty, and piquant flavors, making it a natural compadre for tequila. Most mexicanos prefer it with a shot of reposado, but blanco also complements sangrita’s fresh flavor.

It’s called sangrita (the Spanish diminutive for “blood”) because of its rich sanguine color. Americans often assume it’s made with a Bloody Mary mix. However, authentic sangrita gets its color and flavor from fiery red chiles, not from tomatoes. Just as the margarita was first made to please gringo palates, the sangrita often served now in Mexico unfortunately reflects North American influences—most notably, the addition of tomato juice. Today even many Mexicans think it is a traditional ingredient.

In authentic sangrita, fresh citrus and pomegranate juices offer brightness and balance. (Often, grenadine syrup is used instead.) Since fresh pomegranates (or their bottled juice) now are readily available, there’s no excuse not to make it in the traditional manner. Bottled Jaliscan red chile salsa, made from fiery puya chiles, gives sangrita kick and color.

Commercially bottled brands of sangrita exist in Mexico and can now be found in some markets in the United States. They usually don’t keep well once opened, are artificially flavored and sweetened, and lack the sassy bite of the puya. Although others boast of being the creator of sangrita, Guadalupe Sanchez purportedly created the well-known Mexican brand, Vuida de Sanchez, in the 1930s at Lake Chapala, near Guadalajara. American-made brands of sangrita are hitting the market, too, though the ones I’ve seen are made with tomato juice.

My advice? You simply cannot bottle freshness, so make your own!

The best sangrita is made from scratch in cantinas and cocinas, and the recipes are usually well-guarded secrets. I first created my version in 1990, before sangrita became widely known on this side of the border. Because of tequila’s popularity today, sangrita contests (like hot sauce contests) are the rage. Contestants often add nontraditional ingredients—charred tomatoes, pomegranate molasses, and even garlicky Thai sriracha sauce or horseradish—to their recipes, which, in my opinion, counteract the purpose of this tequila chaser: to highlight, not overwhelm, tequila’s flavor.  [Recipes below.]


Sangritas

SANGRITA

RECIPES FROM ¡VIVA TEQUILA!

Excerpts from ¡Viva Tequila! Cocktails, Cooking, and Other Agave Adventures, by Lucinda Hutson (Copyright © 1995 and 2013 by Lucinda Hutson) used by permission of the University of Texas Press. For more information visit utexaspress.com.

 

SALSA PUYA

Makes 1 cup

Salsa Puya is as ubiquitous in Jalisco as Tabasco is in Louisiana. This fiery brick-red hot sauce, bottled in Jalisco, gives this region’s sangrita its unique flavor. It’s also sprinkled on meats and tostadas and all sorts of botanitas (snacks). The puya chile, related to the guajillo, is a dried, blood-red chile about four inches long, tapering to a curved tip. Its flavor is decidedly tart, almost limey, with a piquancy that assaults the back of the tongue.

Look for puya chiles in specialty Mexican markets or substitute combinations of other dried red chiles such as chile de árbol, guajillo, New Mexico, or cayenne. When you can’t make your own, use commercially bottled table sauces such as Valentina or Tamazula, imported from Mexico, and readily found in Latin American markets.

2 oz. puya chiles (approximately 30)
1½ c. very hot water, to cover
¼ c. mild fruity cider vinegar or part rice wine vinegar
2 T. chopped red onion
½ t. dried Mexican oregano, optional
½ t. salt

Briefly toast chiles on a hot comal, or griddle, turning continually; take caution not to burn them! Remove stems, seeds, and veins. Place chiles in a small bowl, cover with water, and let soak about 30 minutes. After soaking, place chiles in a blender with just enough soaking water (about ½ cup) to make a thick sauce. Add vinegar, onion, oregano, and salt, and puree. Strain through a sieve and keep refrigerated. (It will keep, tightly covered, in the refrigerator for more than a week and can be thinned with a few tablespoons of water, as necessary.)

 

SANGRITA LA LUCINDA

Makes approximately 7 cups (24 shots)

...I store homemade sangritas in the fridge in bottles that once held tequila. I must admit, my sangrita is always the hit of a party, leaving guests begging for the recipe and attempting to discern the ingredients. It’s simple to make!

4 c. freshly squeezed orange juice
1½ c. 100% natural pomegranate juice
½ c. freshly squeezed lime juice, preferably from Mexican limes
8 oz. commercially bottled Salsa Valentina or Salsa Tamazula
  or homemade Salsa Puya
Salt or Cantina Classic Sal de Sangrita*, to taste

Mix ingredients together and chill overnight or longer (it just gets better). Adjust flavorings al gusto (to taste) for the perfect balance. Serve chilled in shot glasses to accompany shots of tequila blanco or reposado. Sangrita keeps for more than a week refrigerated.

Notes: I love a glass of this non-alcoholic wake-me-up for breakfast or a midday pick-me-up. Use less salsa for less incendiary sangrita. For a fiesta presentation, chill bottles of red Sangrita La Lucinda, yellow Sangrita Amarilla, and a green version, Sangrita Verdecita, in an ice bucket, along with a bottle of tequila blanco or reposado. Let guests choose their favorite sangrita to sip with a shot of tequila.

Find recipe for Cantina Classic Sal de Sangrita in our recipes section.

 

MARIA SANGRITA (MEXICAN BLOODY MARY)

Makes 1 drink

This is much more revitalizing than a Bloody Mary, morning, noon, or night. It’s a feisty drink to imbibe at Guadalajara’s El Patio Tapatío, while listening to mariachis bellow lusty rancheras (ranch songs). Patrons enthusiastically sing along, after spending a day bargaining for pottery, silver jewelry, curios, and crafts in Tlaquepaque. Or serve it at your next Sunday brunch…and wish you were in Jalisco.

5 oz. Sangrita La Lucinda
1¾ oz. silver or reposado tequila
Juice of ½ lime
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
½ t. grated onion
Garnishes: fluted scallion or chile pepper flower, orange slice
  dusted with chile powder, lime wedge

Fill a tall glass with ice and mix in the ingredients. Use a fluted scallion as a swizzle stick, or hook an orange slice dusted with chile powder, a chile pepper flower, or a lime wedge on the rim of the glass.

 

SANGRITA AMARILLA

Makes approximately 5 cups

...This fruity amarilla (“yellow”) version sings of mango, citrus, ginger and pineapple, with a blast of fiery habanero to ignite taste buds…and make a sip of tequila taste especially good!

1 heaping T. fresh, peeled ginger, loosely chopped
1 fresh habanero chile, seeded and stemmed, or a few shakes of
  bottled habanero salsa
2 mangos (¾ pound each), not overly ripe, peeled, and
  loosely chopped
1/3 c. loosely chopped red onion
1 t. coriander seeds, freshly ground
1½ t. spicy Mexican Seasoning Salt
1 c. pineapple juice
2 c. orange juice with pulp
½ c. freshly squeezed lime juice
Agave syrup to taste, if needed

Grind ginger and habanero in a blender. Add mango, red onion, ground coriander, and spicy salt; coarsely puree. Blend in juices; adjust flavors and chill overnight. Thin with more citrus juices as needed. Serve ice cold to accompany shots of tequila.

SANGRITA VERDECITO

Makes 5 cups

Here’s another spicy tequila chaser. Felipe Camarena, founder of Tequila Ocho, a stand-out, single-estate tequila from the Arandas area, described to me a refreshing chaser that he had tasted in London, where tequila has become very popular. I made up my own recipe and call it “Sangrita Verdecito,” or “something spicy and green.”

1 lb. tomatillos, husked and quartered (10–12)
3 or more serranos, seeded, chopped
4 green onions, chopped with some of their green tops
¾ c. cilantro, chopped
4 T. fresh mint, chopped
½ c. freshly squeezed lime juice
3 c. pineapple juice
1 t. Cantina Classic Sal de Sangrita*
½ t. crushed, dried chile de árbol to taste, optional
Agave syrup to sweeten, optional

With slow pulses, grind together tomatillos, serranos, onions, cilantro, and mint in a blender. Add lime and pineapple juices and salt and blend lightly; do not over-blend. Chill several hours or overnight. Adjust flavors, adding more lime juice, chile de árbol, or agave syrup, if needed. Keep refrigerated for several days.

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