Go Ahead, Bend the Rules

By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, April 1, 2009; Page F05

I'll be the first to admit it: Too much cocktail talk centers on correctness. I understand the impulse. Life is a mess, and some of us cling hopelessly to the quixotic notion that the physical world might somehow, if only for a 4 1/2 -ounce moment, be perfected. This pursuit often leads us back to the golden age of pre-Prohibition cocktails. It also leads us, unfortunately, to heated debates over What One Must Do. Perhaps a certain scolding narrative of the Classic, the Old School, the Right Way has taken over.

I was thinking about that the other night when I cracked open the slim new "Tequila," by Joanne Weir (Ten Speed, $16.95). At first, I found the book to be pretty basic: short chapters on the history and making of tequila, a glossary covering blanco, reposado, añejo and extra añejo, the idea that tequila is moving beyond its image as a "fraternity rite of passage." No surprises there.

But then I moved on to Weir's recipes, and suddenly it was all surprises. The first recipe that jumped out at me was the Nouveau Carre, mixing añejo tequila with the herbal-honey liqueur Benedictine, the bright white-wine-and-citrus Lillet Blanc and a few dashes of spicy, red Peychaud's bitters. The standard advice on añejo is never to use it for mixing, only sipping -- advice I've doled out myself at times. But this drink challenged common wisdom, and the "incorrect" usage of añejo worked perfectly to create one of the most complex drinks I've had in long time. [Recipe: Nouveau Carre]

That wasn't the only cocktail to think about. How about a frothy riff on a margarita that involves an egg white and does away with the Cointreau in favor of the sour-cherry maraschino liqueur? Called the Prado, it was worthy of the allusion to the famed Madrid art museum. Most margarita variations are lame, ridiculed by the cocktail cognoscenti. This one was so inspired that it seemed to take cocktails down an entirely different path. [Recipe: Prado]

The Prado and Nouveau Carre were created by Kacy Fitch at the famed Zig Zag Cafe in Seattle. The San Francisco-based Weir, in fact, leans heavily on West Coast bartenders such as Duggan McDonnell of Cantina Bebidas and Joel Baker of Bourbon & Branch, and the recipes seem more inventive, pairing tequila with Amaro Averna, Sauternes, ruby port and Heering cherry liqueur.

Food & Wine magazine last year put forth the idea of a "philosophical split" between East and West Coast schools of bartending. West Coast cocktails were deemed "more improvised," and Jim Meehan of PDT in New York said of West Coast bartenders, "You probably won't find them reading old cocktail books at home and pondering the difference between a flip and a sling."

There's a tendency to overthink this as well. One of my favorite cocktails in Weir's book, the Aperol Sunset, with blanco tequila, Aperol, lemon juice and grapefruit syrup, seemed a quintessentially bright West Coast cocktail. Yet who created it? Audrey Saunders, owner of the Pegu Club in New York. So much for generalizations. [Recipe: Aperol Sunset]

After spending time with Weir's book, I decided to give cocktail correctness a rest for a few days, loosen up and channel a California free-spiritedness. That turns out to have been fortuitous for the new product from Gran Centenario that I tried last week: Rosangel, "the world's first-ever tequila infused with hibiscus." Rosangel is a pink reposado tequila that sells for about $36 a bottle. Several of the recipes the company is touting are tequila versions of the Cosmopolitan and involve cranberry juice. The flavor is not bad, but I detect very little hibiscus. Normally, I would dismiss it as a shameless ploy to draw women to premium tequila.

But not this week. If you think you might like a hibiscus-infused tequila, by all means, knock yourself out. Go forth in peace, love and happiness. You'll get no scolding from me.

Jason Wilson can be reached at jason@tablematters.com or food@washpost.com.

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