Steve Olson calisthenically blew in and out of New Orleans yesterday amid Vesuvial thunderheads and torrential rains to present a talk on "The Magical Elixirs of Mexico." His 90-minute talk was packed —both house-wise, with scarcely a seat available at the Museum of the American Cocktail, and with detailed information about some of the 280 species of agave known, and the varied, arcane processes of making these distinctive distilled spirits.
The short version: the spirits industry in Mexico is incredibly old — very likely predating any known distillation in India or China. But it's also incredibly vibrant and new: some 42 different species of agave are used today in tequila and mezcal production, up from about 28 just a few years ago. And that's resulting in a whole new range of flavors as terroir — or the geography of taste, once the province of wine — continues its steady encroachment into the spirits world.
Olson — a noted spirits expert and one of the brains behind Viktor & Spoils, a new tequila bar in New York — ran us through a marathon of varied tastes. We sampled some 10 different types of Mexican spirits, plus two cocktails showcasing how these might be deployed. (The biggest cup at every seat last night? The spit cup.)
The two most memorable samples of the night: The rough-edged, complexly smoky Del Maguey Single Village Santa Caterina Minas (from Oaxaca, and made in a crude ceramic and bamboo still), and the Don Julio 1942, a representative of a new class of tequila — the extra anjeo, aged for three or more years. Sipping one then the other was like bouncing down a rutted, rocky road whooping and hollering, then suddenly finding yourself quietly barrelling down a newly paved highway with the windows up. Both different. Both full of charm.
Olson also offered up a engagingly discursive history of the margarita/tequila daisy, which we enjoyed while sipping a drink called a Smoky Daisy, essentially a margarita with mezcal to add smoke. I'm sorry you couldn't be there. But here: make one up and pretend.
1-1/2 oz Siete Leguas Blanco Tequila
1/4 oz Del Maguey Vida Mezcal
1/2 oz Grand Marnier
1 oz fresh lime juice
1/2 oz agave nectar
Add all ingredients to a shaker with ice, and shake vigorously. Strain into coupe (or serve over ice in rocks glass) and garnish with a lime wheel.