Aside from gin, and probably more so, tequila is a love-it-or-leave-it spirit. Unfortunately, the reason for this is probably a one-too-many margaritas experience, which is far from the best evocation of tequila's subtleties. So, with National Tequila Day before us, let's seek out some more intriguing cocktails that highlight the spirit's malleable and complex nature.
Tequila is made from the agave (or maguey) plant, whose center, or piña, matures for seven to ten years before being oven-roasted, then juiced, fermented and distilled. The Aztecs knew about the magic of the agave plant long before modern tequila came along; they were making a fermented agave spirit called octli (and later called pulque) and offering it to their gods as a sacred beverage.
Like wine, truly great tequila has a terroir that defines its flavor profile. Highland tequilas, which are grown 6,000 or more feet above sea level, are fruity and almost sweet; lowland varieties tend to be more dry and mineral-like, tasting of the earth in which the agave plant grows. If you're still a tequila naysayer, pop into one of L.A.'s cocktail havens and ask for a brief education. Sipping various, artisanal tequilas straight -- and slowly like a fine whiskey -- will quickly yield an "I think I've got it" realization of their sophistication. And drinking them in a cocktail -- something other than a margarita please -- will open your eyes to the versatility of this once maligned spirit. Here are three watering holes (and there are oh so many more) to get your agave fix.
Beverage Director Pablo Kovacs clearly saw the similarities in ingredients (chili, lime, fruit) between the cuisines of Thailand and Mexico in making his South East Asian-influenced Tuk-Tuk. Here, lime and a coconut milk infusion balance the heat of the serrano chili-infused tequila. According to Kovacs, the drink was "inspired by a fondness for green curry by both our lead bartender Andy Hoff and myself. We ended up making our own infusion using coconut milk, galanga root, basil, lemongrass and kafir lime leaf - the essentials of a green curry but without the garlic." 3500 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Manhattan Beach; 310-546-6180.
At Cinco, tequila takes on a decidedly classical cocktail angle with the Tequila Gimlet. The concept is logical, given tequila's natural affinity with lime. "While gimlets are a popular drink order, they are rarely thought of as craft cocktail", says co-owner/bartender Ben Molina regarding the genesis of the drink. "We aim to change that perception by using a house made lime cordial that really sets this drink apart." By swapping out the traditional gin for the agave spirit, the gimlet gets a thoroughly modern restyling, but stays true to its roots. 7241 W Manchester Ave., Los Angeles; 310-910-0895.
That Girl Is Dangerous (a pretty nifty name for a drink) lets tequila share the spotlight with the slightly medicinal Aperol, a digestif made from bitter orange, as well as gentian and cinchona. Says head bartender Beau du Bois, "That Girl is Dangerous was created this past fall when I was looking to do a Corralejo Reposado cocktail with a little vanilla. The vanilla Orgeat (an almond-based syrup) brings such great texture to the drink, while the Aperol balances with citrusy and herbal bitter notes. When one of my bartenders, Maren Domzalski, tried it, her reaction was, 'Well, that's dangerous'." And so a drink was born. 12477 W. Washington Blvd., Culver City; 310-313-5810.
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Lesley blogs at 12 Bottle Bar, tweets at @12BottleBar and is the author of the book "Gin: A Global History." Email her at email@example.com. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.