Mexican cuisine is winning new respect in the U.S. The Michelin guide has even awarded Casa Enrique in Queens, New York a star, a rare honor for an unpretentious restaurant in an unfashionable place. To boot, heralded Mexico City chef Enrique Olvera opened Cosme in Manhattan's Flatiron district to rave reviews.
That success builds in part on the growing number of excellent Tequilas and Mezcals that have appeared in recent years. Empellon Cocina, a Mexican restaurant in New York's East Village, offers a wide selection of both beverages. Below, Noah Small, the beverage director at Empellon, discusses some of his favorites.
Tequila is a form of Mezcal. The former gets its name from a city in the Mexican state of Jalisco. Tequila is made only from the Blue Weber agave, the hearts or piñas of which are roasted and then mashed to produce the juice from which Tequila is made. Mezcal may be made in seven states from any of about 30 species of agave, though in practice about 70% is made in Oaxaca and about 90% from the Espadín agave, whose piñas can weight between 100 and 120 pounds. Critically, the piñas for Mezcal are smoked, which gives the drink its distinctive flavor.
Tequila is a category dominated by big brands, especially Jose Cuervo, which accounts for about a third of all tequila sold worldwide. Cuervo, Patrón, Sauza, 1800 and Juarez combine for about two-thirds of the global market. Tequila has historically been unaged, or blanco, which is the style Small prefers. There is also reposado, aged for two months to a year in oak barrels; añejo, which sees one to three years in oak, and extra añejo, which sees more than three years. The aging is in part a response to Mexicans' fondness for whiskey and other aged spirits; it also allows Tequila producers to create premium products with premium prices.
Jose Cuervo Gold: $22
The big brands' dominance still leaves a lot of room for smaller producers. As a basic tequila, Small likes the Pueblo Viejo, which he uses in Empellon's classic margarita. The Pueblo Viejo also tastes good neat, with a soft, gently rounded, flavor.
Pueblo Viejo Blanco Tequila: $20
For cocktails, Small suggests Cimarrón, whose dry taste on the palate leaves room for sweeter flavoring agents. Cosme makes a cocktail called the Paloma with Cimarrón Reposado, grapefruit syrup, lime and soda.
Cimarrón Blanco Tequila: $21
Espolón's Dia de los Muertos packaging is an homage to the Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday that predates Spanish colonization. The image on the bottle shouldn't obscure the quality of the contents within, which like the Cimarrón work well in cocktails.
Espolón Silver Tequila: $22
Fortaleza Blanco Tequila is something of a bridge between Tequila and Mezcal. The agave piñas are roasted in an old oven with thick brick walls for 36 hours then milled with a stone like the one depicted on the label. A good sipping tequila, the Fortaleza has pine notes and a nice salinity. Guillermo Erickson Sauza launched the brand a decade ago; his grandfather sold the Sauza brand of Tequila to Pedro Domecq in 1988; Beam Suntory now owns it.
Fortaleza Blanco Tequila: $45
Mezcal is far less commercialized than Tequila, though the U.S. is the largest market for craft Mezcals, Small says. The regulations that govern the beverage give producers significant leeway in how they make it. Small says the Fidencio Clásico offers a good introduction to Mezcal. Made from the Espadín agave, it tastes of dried sweet corn and has a light smokiness. Though the smoke is the first element a novice Mezcal drinker notices, Small says that over time it becomes a secondary note.
Fidencio Clásico Mezcal: $40
Espadín is a semi-cultivated agave; mezcals made from wild agave are more expensive because the piñas are smaller. Del Maguey offers several Mezcals derived from a single species of agave. The Tepextate tastes of banana, curry and red pepper. Del Maguey also offers Arroqueño and Papalome; their site shows how different the leaves of those agave plants are.
Del Maguey Tepextate: $125
The smoke elements in Mezcal can be appealing to Scotch drinkers, which is the case with the Vago Coyote, made from a blend of three agave species. The Coyote has a lean, spicy smoke on the finish that somehow manages to be delicate. Like barbecue or Scotch aficionados, Mezcal veterans can make fine distinctions among various kinds of smokiness, differences apparent in Vago's several offerings. The Anatomy of Mezcal, a Web site, offers an excellent explanation of the choices that Mezcal producers make, decisions that result in these different flavors.
Vago Coyote Mezcal: $90
Editors' pick: Originally published May 5.