Thursday, July 4, 2013

A sip of sangrita

Our first night at our hotel in Mexico City, [The Man I Love] and I went to the cocktail lounge for drinks. Most of our group had beer, but one man ordered a shot of tequila. It arrived with a small glass of what looked like tomato juice, and a little dish of lime wedges.

Very unlike the famous frat-boy ritual of lime-salt-tequila in a single knocked-back gulp, he carefully sipped the tequila, sipped the juice, bit on a lime wedge, and repeated the process.

"What are you having, Steve?" someone asked.

"This is a shot of tequila and sangrita."

I have never been much of a tequila drinker - the occasional margarita at a Mexican restaurant is fine, but I've never really thought much about it. It always seemed like the thing people drank to get really drunk and crazy.

Later that weekend, we went to restaurant famed for its bar - so I asked our friend Steve to help me choose a shot of tequila I could try with sangrita. It was a nice combination. The sangrita was a thin, fruity, tart mouthful of juice with a hint of chile - refreshing and tingly! Intrigued, I decided to sample some more of this tasty combination.

Back home in Los Angeles, I joined an after-work Happy Hour at a local Mexican restaurant. I ordered a shot of tequila with sangrita. Here, what I got was like a Bloody Mary mix spiced up with too much Tabasco. Not what I had in mind.

So I decided to find out more about sangrita. "Sangrita" means "little blood," and in Jalisco, Mexico, where tequila is produced, it's been a traditional accompaniment since the early 20th century - but its color wasn't originally from tomato juice; it was a mix of fruit juices that included pomegranate juice. To purists, an authentic sangrita is a mix of fresh orange juice, lime juice and pomegranate juice with a dash of chile.

One story says that sangrita originated from the juice leftover from a morning mixed fruit salad, saved and strained for an evening drink. Mexican tastes celebrate a mixture of sweet, salty and sour, including the startling flavor of chamoy, which is a kind of brined fruit syrup. Perhaps the addition of tomato juice in sangrita came along when pomegranates were out of season. In Mexico City, tomato-based sangrita is more common, while in Guadelajara, the orange/lime/chile mixture is said to be preferred.

You can buy pre-mixed sangrita in Mexico, but I wanted to make my own fresh. The more I looked into it, I found there were as many recipes as there were tequila drinkers. So I conducted a little taste test of my own.

I like the tomato juice taste, so I concentrated on that version. I chose three variations on tomato juice - the classic Campbell's, V-8 vegetable juice, and a fancier fresh vegetable juice sold in the produce section, Naked Juice's "Power Garden tomato kick."

I had some good bottled orange juice - I should have had fresh oranges - and some limes. Our bar cabinet yielded a bottle of grenadine, or pomegranate-flavored syrup. I also had Tabasco, which is vinegary, and plain cayenne powder.

Right off the bat, the three tomato juices were quite different. The Campbell's was thick, and bubbled out of the can, with little bubbles forming on the surface. It was textured in the mouth, coated the glass. It tasted very much like tomato, and it was salty.  V-8 is made with tomatoes, parsley, beets, celery and lettuce. It had a definite taste of celery, in addition to the tomato. It was smoother than the Campbell's. The Power Garden is made with red bell peppers, beets, orange juice and celery. It was complex, with a little bite of tartness. There was an almost smoky taste that, at a second try, tasted slightly unpleasant, like cardboard.

I combined a half cup of these juices with a quarter cup of orange juice, and a tablespoon each of fresh-squeezed lime juice.

At the next tasting, each juice was enhanced. The Campbell's was much more pleasing, and had lost the tongue-coating thickness. It's flavor had much more depth than before. The V-8 tasted similar, though not as sweet. My notes say "Good!" The Power Garden juice was intensified - the tartness increased, and the complex smoky taste was still there but this time without the unpleasant cardboard-y hint. Mmm!

I added a teaspoon of grenadine and a little dash of Tabasco to each glass, and then it was time for the booze!

We brought home the bottle on the left from our trip. It is from Los Danzantes, a mescal producer that also owns the restaurant of the same name in Coyoacan. Mescal and tequila are both made from the agave plant - tequila from a particular kind of agave. Mescal is often considered a rougher, less refined product, but these days artisans are revolutionizing its reputation.

The tequila I chose from the supermarket was 100% agave white tequila, or blanco. This is unaged, and lacks the amber tone of aged tequila that sometimes comes from oak barrel aging, and sometimes from caramel color.

Here a shot of mescal and a shot of blanco tequila, to sip along with three different sangrita combos, with a glass of lime juice to cleanse the palate between sips.

The findings? My notes on the tequila say "honeyed", "grassy". The mescal was "herbal, smoky" and "peppery." The mescal burned more going down the throat, while the tequila was much more smooth.

With the sangrita, the Campbell's stood up surprisingly well; its deep tomato flavor worked well with the strong mescal. The smoky-tart flavor of the Power Garden was better with tequila - I liked the contrast instead of matching it to the smoke of the mescal. Surprisingly, all three were good in both combinations. Tequila and mescal seem to be complex enough to stand up with an equally complex accompaniment.

I preferred the natural Power Garden over the canned taste of Campbell's and V-8, but mixed with the other ingredients, the difference was less pronounced. Price-wise, the canned juices are a great bargain, costing $0.69 each against $2.50 for the fresh juice.

Was this the definitive exploration of sangrita? Certainly not! The variation of recipes guarantees I'll be working on this project for many cocktail hours to come!

Want to explore something different? Give sangrita a try yourself!


Susan B said...

Ooh, this sounds like something fun to try for our next gathering. We have a bottle of good tequila from Mexico that's been gathering dust...this might just be the excuse we need to open it.

Glennis said...

If you mix the sangrita and tequila like a cocktail, it's call a "Vampiro" - which is a marvelous thing, and may be more convenient for a gathering. Enjoy!

smalltownme said...

Such extensive and delightful research!

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Excellent project!

cactus petunia said...

What a great idea!

Unknown said...

I love that you experimented!