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