The unexpected thrill
HONEY from Yucatan bee fields. Coffee so concentrated it’s like chocolate stirred with molasses. Damiana, an herb with a heady, aroma evoking mint, musk and Juicy Fruit gum. The earthy bite of agave familiar to tequila lovers.
These are a few of the flavors you find in Mexican liqueurs.
Quick, name a Mexican liqueur. If the only one that comes to mind is Kahlua, you’re not alone. Not even many bartenders have yet discovered the host of others, some made by large national or international companies, some associated with particular regions -- Jalisco or Baja or southern Mexico.
Several have been around for a long time -- one, the venerable Agavero, since 1857 -- but they’re basically new to us because most of the dozen or so in stores here have been imported only in the last five years, encouraged by the late-'90s premium tequila boom.
These south-of-the-border liqueurs have a fragrant, tropical air, and summer’s a wonderful time to enjoy them. They’re delicious simply for sipping on the patio as the evening cools, but they also bring something to the cocktail party. Ice, soda and lime are their best friends. A dash of any of the more exotic examples could be added to a margarita for a little unexpected thrill.
And there are a lot of other things you could do with them. Xaica (pronounced shy-cah), flavored with jamaica (hibiscus tea), would make an extra-cool Sea Breeze. Reserva del Senor Almendrado has an almond flavor, like an Amaretto with a tequila twist -- throw some in a rum and Coke to add a little profundity. And the richer Mexican liqueurs make sophisticated dessert toppings or ingredients.
The most widely produced liqueurs in Mexico are the coffee- or almond-flavored varieties, but just as the better-known unique European liqueurs draw upon herbs and plants native to the regions of their origins, some Mexican liqueurs impart aromas and flavors found nowhere else.
Consider the damiana (Turnera diffusa), an extravagantly aromatic yellow-flowered shrub native to Baja California as well as Central and South America. Elixirs and teas made from its leaves have been used for centuries as reputed aphrodisiacs and as herbal medicines.
Two of the most delicious Mexican liqueurs, the 150-year-old Agavero and the newer Guaycura Liqueur de Damiana, are made with damiana.
Guaycura Damiana, appropriately, is a bright, sunny yellow liqueur. Made with a neutral spirit base by Damiana de Mexico, it combines resinous and floral flavors to wonderful effect.
Agavero is also flavored with damiana, but much more subtly, emphasizing instead the smooth flavor of tequila. Its on-again, off-again availability in the U.S. has made it an elusive indulgence for aficionados, but recently it’s once again on the market here. Produced by Los Camichines Distillery, also known for Gran Centenario tequila, Agavero is based on a luxurious blend of reposado and anejo tequilas. They’re aged in French oak barrels for around 18 and 24 months, respectively, giving this liqueur a sophisticated smoothness and touch of wood.
As more Mexican distilleries export their liqueurs or develop new ones, the selection of coffee liqueurs widens. They’re first cousins to Kahlua and its like, except for that mysterious, fleshy note of agave because of the tequila base.
The super-premium tequila brand Patron has XO Cafe, a densely brown tequila-based drink that marries dark coffee and dark chocolate flavors. It is in something of a class by itself because the coffee flavor is so highly concentrated.
Almonds and honey
TEQUILAS del Senor distillery in Guadalajara makes the tequila-based Reserva del Senor Licor de Cafe and two almendrados (liqueurs flavored with almonds), as well as straight tequilas such as Sombrero Negro and Rio de Plata. Del Senor’s basic almendrado is made with silver tequila, the premium version with a reposado.
The almendrados, perfumed with almond extract, go particularly well in drinks or desserts with a chocolate or coffee flavor, just as Amaretto does.
D'Aristi Xtabentun (pronounced shtah-ben-toon) and Kalani are rum-based liqueurs from Maya country, made by Grupo AAMSA in Merida, Yucatan, which also produces Caribe rum. They’re packaged in quaint bottles -- the first roughly crusted with electric-blue paint, the latter adorned with jute twine and seashells.
Xtabentun is a honey-anisette liqueur, named for the flowering vine found in the Yucatan from which the honeybees draw nectar, and produced by a number of makers. The D'Aristi version prettily balances the two components with its licoricey anise-seed aromas followed up by delicate honey flavors. Kalani is a coconut liqueur.
There are a number of citrus-infused Mexican liqueurs, and at least one flavored with pomegranate, but the most interesting of the other flavors available here is a jamaica liqueur. Jamaica, or hibiscus flower tea, is almost as common a kid’s soft drink flavor in Southern California as it is in Mexico. As an adult flavor, it’s unusual, and as a not-too-sweet liqueur, it has a pleasantly dry aspect.
Xaica comes from the single-product firm Casa Destiladora SA de CV in San Miguel de Allende and has a neutral-spirit base and relatively low alcohol content for a cordial. With its sweet-sour-bitter flavor, it’s like an exotic cranberry drink and could make intriguing variations on cranberry cocktails.
MOST of these Mexican liqueurs are so highly flavored you can just sip them on the rocks or cut them with a little soda and lime. The ones with a stronger agave aroma, such as Agavero and Reserva del Senor Almendrado, cry out to be combined with citrus flavors the way tequila does. Damiana’s sweet, flowery taste goes well with tropical fruits such as pineapple or passion fruit, so you might splash some on a fruit salad or fruit-based drink.
Some people use jamaica or damiana liqueurs in a margarita in lieu of the triple sec, the latter making a rather florid version of the cocktail. In Baja California, you may hear that damiana liqueur was actually the original ingredient, but that claim needs to be taken with a grain of salt, as it were. In “The Joy of Mixology”, mixologist Gary Regan dates the oldest margarita recipe to 1937. Meanwhile, Damiana wasn’t marketed until the late 1950s.
But don’t let that stop you if you want to make a damianarita. This isn’t a history class. It’s what we call summer.
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Our new favorite tastes
Here are the best lesser- known Mexican liqueurs, in order of preference.
Guaycura Liqueur de Damiana. A bright yellow liqueur with a voluptuous aroma -- an explosion of resin, mint and flowers. The flavors are resinous, candied and flowery with a note of lemon leaf, and the finish is very long. Neutral spirit base; 30% alcohol. At Beverages and More, (877) 77-BEVMO, bevmo.com; Beverage Warehouse in Los Angeles, (310) 306-2822, beveragewarehouse.com; Mission Liquor & Wines in Pasadena, (626) 797-0500, missionliquor.com; Red Carpet Wine Merchants in Glendale, (818) 247-5544, redcarpetwine.com; Wally’s Wine & Spirits in Los Angeles, (310) 475-0606, wallywine.com; Wine and Liquor Depot in Van Nuys, (818) 996-1414, wineandliquordepot.com; $20 to $25.
Patron XO Cafe. This midnight-brown elixir gives you a whiff of espresso extract as you pour. In the mouth, it’s all rich coffee, dark molasses and dark chocolate with just a hint of earthy agave and a long finish. A coffee-flavored bear hug with a tequila pat on the back. Tequila base; 35% alcohol. At Beverages and More; Beverage Warehouse; Mission Liquor & Wines; Red Carpet Wine Merchants; Wally’s; Wine and Liquor Depot. $22 to $27.
Agavero. A refined cordial, the golden-brown color of blond wood, it has a subtle herbal-grassy aroma and an assertive flavor of agave with a touch of wood, like a tequila-based Chartreuse. A tequila that has been to a European finishing school. Reposado and anejo tequila base; 32% alcohol. At Beverages and More; Beverage Warehouse; Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa, (949) 650-8463, hitimewine.net; Mission Liquor & Wines; Wally’s; Wine and Liquor Depot. $28 to $35.
Reserva del Senor Almendrado. This amaretto-like liqueur, light honey tea in color, has aromas of sweet toasted almonds and almond blossoms. Flavors are nutty and buttery with a vegetal bite. Silver tequila base; 30% alcohol. (Note: The more expensive Premium version is mellower, but less aromatic and flavorful.) At Beverages and More; Beverage Warehouse; Hi-Time Wine Cellars; Mission Liquor & Wines; Wine and Liquor Depot. $18 to $20.
Kalani Coconut Liqueur. An uncomplicated but tropically appealing cordial with a plush coconut aroma and a sweet, untoasted coconut flavor. You get a mild burn and a long aftertaste. Coconut, plain and simple. Rum base; 30% alcohol. At Beverage Warehouse; Hi-Time Wine Cellars; Wine and Liquor Depot. $28 to $32.
Xaica Hibiscus Flower Liqueur. A burnished garnet-colored drink with a light, not syrupy texture, this liqueur has the gamy-fruity aroma of jamaica tea, with an under note of leafy greens. It’s herbal, almost spinachy on the palate, with just a bit of red-fruit flavor. Sweet-sour with a bit of astringency, it’s the least sugary liqueur of this tasting. Happy-hour jamaica. Neutral spirit base; 20% alcohol. At Beverage Warehouse. $27.
D'Aristi Xtabentun. The pale, greenish-gold color belies the dark licorice aromas and the rich flavors of anise and luscious honey. Pernod for honey lovers. Rum base; 30% alcohol. At Beverages and More; Beverage Warehouse. $30 to $34.
Reserva del Senor Licor de Cafe. Dark as a cup of strong coffee with aromas of coffee extract and a flavor of coffee candy with just a whisper of herbaceous agave. A basic coffee liqueur with a hint of tequila. Silver tequila base; 30% alcohol. At Beverages and More; Mission Liquor & Wines; Wine and Liquor Depot. $17 to $18.
-- Charles Perry