As it happens, when we talk about the hot menu growth trend of Latin American flavors in the restaurant industry today, we’re not just talking about food flavors –the trend also includes the distinctive taste of Latin American cocktails. (We did have an article about Latin American food flavors some weeks back where we emphasized the need for chefs to explore Latin dishes for authenticity and innovation.)
Part of the discussion that noted chefs had in the Culinary Institute of America’s “Latin Flavors, American Kitchen” conference last month is the way Latin flavors have slowly poured its way into American beverages—on cocktails, to be more specific.
“We are now living in a wonderful age of enthusiasm and emphasis about the culture of restaurant cocktails, as it was given an astounding rebirth,” said Rick Bayless, owner and chef of Frontera Grill in Chicago. “When before I used to look for the wine list when I go to bars and restaurants, now I find the cocktail list more exciting.”
Jeret Peña, “tavern keeper” of San Antonio, TX.-based The Esquire Tavern, said that he regards tequila, mezcal, chilies, peppers and herbs from Latin America as the best Latin flavors that are now the rage in contemporary cocktails.
Tequila is made from the sugar extracted from the core of the blue agave, a plant that is native to Mexico. “Tequila, unlike wines that are aged in bottles, is at its best when the aging is done in the field,” said Bayless. “It’s the gradual aging process that makes the agave’s flavor remarkably delicious.”
“There are five states in Mexico which have been designated to produce the agave plant and make tequila—the state of Jalisco (where the city of Tequila is) and the nearby regions of Michoacán, Guanajuato, Tamaulipas and Nayarit,” he added. “In the highlands, the tequilas possess herbaceous, floral and mineral characteristics. In the lowland areas, the spirit has earthy, wet clay and rustic qualities that sometimes have a similar taste to cinnamon oil.”
Mescal or mescal, also made from the agave plant, is closely behind tequila’s popularity.
“Popular mescals are those that come from Oaxaca, Mexico,” said Bayless. “This region produces mescal in a special way, a lot different than how others do it—they are done in wood-fired pit down in the ground, unlike others who just roast the agave in big ovens. That’s why great mescals from Oaxaca have a distinguished smoky flavor,” he added.
Peña claims that mescal is his most preferred cocktail spirit. It is also slowly becoming the favorite choice of progressive bartenders in smart-looking apron in the country today.
Chiles, Peppers and Herbs
Bayless said that in Mexico, many regions and cities have their very own traditional flavors for alcoholic beverages. They add ground peanuts, fruits, spices and herbs to their drinks to liven it up.
The trend for spicy cocktails have been in the air for quite a while now, where a little pep and a dash of zing is added to mint juleps and martinis, among others. The general interest in hot and zesty cocktails was said to be related to the surge of local and fresh herbs as ingredients, and more importantly, on the diverse markets’ (remembering our diverse Millennial market) general interest in Latin flavors and tangs.
As Bayless emphasized in coming up with innovative menus and flavors, “it’s just something we all have to do as we put on our apron and start coming up with great creations—wobble the bushes and discover what more can we find out there.”