Let Los Feliz School You on Today’s Finest Tequila

You think you know tequila? Perhaps you do, but I guarantee you’ll find a few bottles behind the bar at Manhattan’s Los Feliz that you haven’t yet had the pleasure of sampling. I certainly did. I recently spent a pleasurable hour on a barstool there under the guidance of head bartender Ben Carrier, who took me through some of the Lower East Side tequileria’s most interesting and eye-opening offerings. With a tequila menu divided into blanco (unrested), reposado (rested less than one year), and añejo (rested beyond one year) categories, he quickly got me up to speed on the many beautiful expressions of the fruit of the agave plant. I highly recommend that every spirits enthusiast submit to the same rigorous training regimen.

If you swore off tequila years ago, realize that today’s finest bottles are miles from the swill that gave you the worst hangover of your life back in college. When you’re at Los Feliz you can forget about the lick-slam-suck ritual designed the mask the flavor of rotgut. Every one of the 120-plus tequilas you’ll find there are meant to be sipped as you would a fine Scotch. From the Hacienda del Cristero blanco to the Milagro Select Barrel reposado to the Don Pilar añejo, you’ll want to savor every sip, rather than getting it in your belly as quickly as possible before the wet T-shirt contest begins. Unless you’re some kind of jimador, you’ll need some guidance, so tell Carrier (or whoever happens to be behind the bar) a little about your preferences, and you’ll have a mind-blowing tequila in front of you in no time. 
But what if straight spirits aren’t your thing, and you prefer the complexity of well-made cocktails? Again, you’re in the right place. I’ve enjoyed many margaritas in my day, but never thought of them as anything more than a fun and frivolous drink to enjoy in the sunshine, certainly not a sophisticated and nuanced cocktail. With one sip, the Los Feliz Classic changed my mind on the subject. Made with Pueblo Viejo Blanco, fresh lime juice, and organic raw agave, it’s a mildly sweet and an amazingly well-balanced drink sure to please even the most discerning cocktail drinker. It’s a margarita that’s been to finishing school, refreshing and delightful. And if you don’t love it, there are a half-dozen other margarita varieties to choose from, not one of which is extruded from a neon-green slushie machine. 
Once you’ve had a few sips, order some red snapper ceviche from chef Julieta Ballesteros’ dinner menu and explore the funky tri-level space. From the street-level Taqueria, which faces Ludlow Street, find your way to the secret door that leads to the Cobble Room, with muraled walls and a gorgeous marble bar. A few more steps down brings you to the lounge, which boasts a DJ, chandeliers, antique mirrors, and leather banquettes: perfect for a private party with a few dozen of your closest friends. 
Back at the bar, you’ll probably be feeling a bit more adventurous at this point, so go ahead and splurge on a glass of Porfidio añejo ($19) and watch the pedestrians rush down the sidewalk in a stress-fueled hurry that you simply don’t feel anymore.

Industry Insiders: Jonathan Rojewski, Tequila Entrepreneur

Great business ideas are often a matter of timing. For Jonathan Rojewski, the time was 2006, when the Mexican government amended its rigid tequila standard to include a category for flavor-infused spirits. With his business partner, David Campbell, Rojewski began working on Tanteo, the first line of infused tequilas, taking advantage of the rise of premium tequila as well as the growing artisinal cocktail culture. Rojewski and Campbell launched Tanteo in 2009 with three distinct flavors, which quickly become popular in such stylish restaurants and bars as New York’s La Esquina. We asked Rojewski about the genesis of Tanteo, its modern production process, and his never-ending quest for the finest agave in Mexico.

How did you come up with the idea of Tanteo? Were you always a fan of tequila? I had always been a tequila drinker and loved that it was a bit misunderstood and mysterious. In 2006 the governing body of Tequila in Mexico amended the tequila standard by adding two additional categories, flavor-infused tequila and extra añejo. This change in the law provided an opportunity to do something new and different that could take advantage of the growing craft cocktail culture.

Where did the name Tanteo come from? The name came out of a brainstorming brunch held one Sunday afternoon at a Mexican restaurant in the East Village. The table was covered in white craft paper, and everyone received Spanish/English dictionaries and lots of different colored Sharpies. I provided the parameters for the name: it should to start with a strong consonant, be easy to pronounce, sound festive, and be visually appealing. After several hours (and lots of margaritas) we had our name.

How long did it take to develop the various flavors of Tanteo, and how did you decide on Jalapeño, Tropical, and Cocoa? Tanteo took two years to develop. The flavors are inspired by Mexican cuisine. The Jalapeño was first, and was the inspiration for the company. Tropical is inspired by the Mexican fruit cart vendors with freshly cut fruit topped with diced chilies, salt, and a squeeze of lime. And Cocoa is inspired by the traditional Mexican mole sauce.

What is your facility like in Mexico? Where does the agave come from, and where do you source the other ingredients? The distillery is modern and clean. All of the equipment that we use in our production has been custom-designed and purpose built. The agave comes from a family-owned farm 10 minutes from the distillery. All the agave used in the production of Tanteo is individually selected and tested to ensure the highest quality and sugar content. The infusion ingredients are hand selected by me and come from small local/regional farms. I spend about four to six months a year in Mexico.

When was Tanteo introduced, and how have people reacted to it so far? The first bottles were sold in NYC in January 2009. The brand took home many awards for design and for the liquid in its first year, including very positive reviews from various spirits writers. The brand is still small but there are no shortcuts in this business. A long-lasting brand takes years to build.

What’s an average day like for you? I wear many hats, and the job continues to evolve as the company grows. At present, the first half of my day is dedicated to running the business and the second half is dedicated to sales, out visiting with accounts – both prospective and existing.

What do you enjoy about your job, and what are some of the challenges? I like the variability of being an entrepreneur. One must be capable of handling several things all at the same time and keep the whole organization together and growing. The biggest challenge I face on a daily basis is time and there not being enough of it. You are always thinking, Did I accomplish as much as I could have today?

What advice would you give to a young person who wanted to do what you do? Do your homework before starting a business. Know everything there is to know about the industry, its players, competitors, etc. Then put your head down, get cracking and don’t look back.

What do you do to unwind when you’re not working? I like to run. It’s the one thing I can do no matter where my crazy travel schedule takes me. I’m particularly fond of trail running. When I’m running I can actually turn my brain off for a while.

[Photo: Guido Marin]

For Father’s Day, Dad Wants Liquor

Screw the tie clip, the sweater, the lawn-care implements. A card is nice if you actually write something in it, but if all you’re going to do is sign the thing, save your $3.99. Absent absurdly expensive toys, Dad bought himself what he wanted long before you knew he wanted it. In fact, forget all that traditional Father’s Day stuff. You’ve put Pops through a lot over the years, and since you can’t give him back the youth you stole from him, the least you can do is give him a brief respite from the noise of the world: Give your dad a good bottle of booze this Sunday. Here are a few favorites that I’d totally expect my brood to offer up if I didn’t already have them.

Whisky: Perhaps the iconic dad spirit, it’s hard to go wrong with a bourbon, rye, or Scotch. I’d be happy uncorking anything from Jack Daniel’s, Dewar’s, or Johnnie Walker. Give dad a great drink and a Scotch education with a fifth of Glenlivet Nadurra 16 ($60), which is bottled at cask strength and is non-chill filtered. It has the flavor of apricots and oak and a healthy kick. If you’re ready to spend some serious – but not quite insane – cash, Talisker 30 is worth every one of the 350 dollars you’ll pay for it. With notes of vanilla, sandalwood, and caramel, he’ll forget about how you took out the lawn gnomes with his Buick that one time.

Tequila: Perhaps your dad prefers an agave-based spirit. If so, head straight to the tequila section of your local booze-mart, where you’ll find an amazing selection of quality bottles that simply weren’t around when he was coming up. While cheaper tequilas work well in margaritas, I’d definitely spend some extra scratch on the primo stuff if he’s just going to be sipping it. Milagro Select Barrel Reserve Silver ($53) has just a touch of grapefruit in its flavor profile, while Jose Cuervo Platino ($60) has citrus notes and a fun assortment of botanicals that dance on the tongue. I absolutely love Gran Patrón Platinum ($200), and offer it to guests who tell me they’ve never had a really good tequila. It’s butterscotch smooth, with flavors of honey, cream, and pear nectar. It’s so nice, in fact, that my prized bottle of the stuff is almost empty.

Rum: Rum’s having a moment, at least in my liquor cabinet, with so many varieties with wildly different flavor profiles – which means you have to try them all. You definitely can’t go wrong with Mount Gay Extra Old ($50), which has an oaky bouquet and flavors of vanilla and cinnamon. Creeping upscale, there’s Ron Zacapa XO ($100), a delicious drink with hints of birch and ginger, and the mind-blowing Bacardi Reserva Limitada ($110), which is made from rums that have mellowed in charred American white oak casks. Limitada is as smooth as rum gets, with flavors of lemon and orange practically jumping out of the glass. Educate dad on rhum agricole, which is made with fresh sugar cane juice instead of the traditional molasses. I like 10 Cane ($30), with a pleasant vanilla flavor, and Clement Premiere Canne ($32), which boasts a pleasing sandalwood aroma and coconut and citrus flavors.

Vodka: It might be the un-booze, but vodka’s supposed absence of flavor might be the ultimate expression of peace in your old man’s soul. I just wrote about vodka, so I’ll only mention a couple of standouts. At $23, Ketel One punches way above its weight class. It’s as smooth as a whisper and perfect in a martini. 42 Below ($22) is another good bet, traveling all the way from New Zealand to the side table by Dad’s TV chair. It has hints of grain and straw and a great mouthfeel. Square One Organic ($35) is delicious and has a great story. It’s made in Idaho from American rye and has vanilla notes and a hint of spice. Grey Goose ($40) tastes as good as it looks, and you know how sexy those bottles are. And I was impressed with Stoli Elit ($60), the iconic Russian vodka house’s most refined offering. The bottle looks like something from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome, and the liquid tastes like a Siberian winter, with the faintest hint of grain. Chill it, pour it, and let dad sip it.

Of course, the obvious benefit of these bottles is that Dad will be obliged to share them with you, at least for a drink, so be sure to pick something you like as well. You’re a good kid, did I ever tell you that?

Industry Insiders: Bertha González Nieves, Maestra Tequilera

Bertha González Nieves, the co-founder and CEO of Casa Dragones, has Japan to thank for igniting her passion for tequila. As a Mexican ambassador to Japan in her early twenties, she underwent a rigorous program to ensure she was ready to represent her homeland’s art, culture, and national industries. Part of the training involved visiting Mexico’s top tequila distilleries, and that was all it took to capture her interest. “When I first went to an agave field, I was blown away,” she says. “I became enamored with the concept of tequila and how it’s produced.” González Nieves went on to earn a masters at Northwestern, then took a job at Grupo Cuervo, the oldest and largest tequila company in the world, where she “learned the business from the inside out,” both in the Mexican market and internationally.

Years later, a chance meeting with MTV founder Bob Pittman helped her realize a long-held dream. “ He said, ‘I’ve always wanted to produce tequila,’ and I said, I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur, so we set out on a quest to produce a unique style of sipping tequila.” The result was Casa Dragones, a singular small-batch spirit that’s been leading discerning drinkers around the world to give tequila a second look. González Nieves, the first woman to be certified as a Maestra Tequilera by the Mexican Academy of Tequila Tasters, says, “There’s a romantic side to spirits, too, and the beauty and complexity of the handcrafted process really attracted me.”

Industry Insiders: Jaime Salas, Tequila Guru

Every day is Cinco de Mayo for tequila expert and California native Jaime Salas. We asked the Milagro tequila ambassador for tips on how to honor Cinco de Mayo like a pro, just as he was rushing out to pick up rhubarb for later on tonight (it was, of course, tequila related).

Point of Origin: I come from a big tequila family. My mom’s family is from Jalisco, and I started collecting tequila on family trips to Mexico. And then, through a friend of a friend, I got the opportunity to be a brand ambassador for Don Julio and I thought, ‘you mean I get paid to travel around and talk about tequila?’ and that’s how I got into this. I was always a fan of the whole Milagro portfolio, so I was very happy when this opportunity presented itself. This is technically my third tequila ambassadorship.

On his vast tequila collection: I started collecting tequilas years ago, and I have more than three hundred bottles. Most of them are back in California. Here in New York I’ve got about 60 bottles. Tomorrow for Cinco de Mayo I’m not sure what I’m going to open, but I will definitely be having Milagro Silver which is my favorite ‘blanco’ tequila. My sipper tequila is Milagro Select Barrel Reserve Reposado. It’s won a lot of accolades.

On the perfect margarita recipes:

Margarita Evolved 2oz Milagro Silver .75oz Milagro Agave nectar 1 oz Lime juice Served in a Rocks glass Garnished with a lime wheel El Pepino 1.5oz Milagro Reposado .75oz Bols Triple Sec 1oz lime juice .75oz simple syrup 3 slices cucumber 6 cilantro leaves .25oz eggwhites Served in a cocktail glass Garnished with a thin cucumber slice

On his busy Cinco de Mayo plans: I’m doing a pre Cinco event tonight at Los Feliz in the Lower East Side, and tomorrow evening from 6:30 – 8:30 I’m going to be at the Astor Center for the Agave Fest and the Margarita Evolved Seminar. Then I’m heading to Santos Party House for the Mex and the City Cinco de Gallo VIP Session.

On tequila faux pas: There’s no need to numb or coat the palate with quality tequila. Putting ice or water in tequila by chilling it is a don’t. Limes, lemons and salt to coat the palate might be good to take care of the burn of lesser tequilas, but not what you want to do with a flavorful, good tequila.

On the places he digs in New York: I love the Sicilian Margarita at the new NYC hotspot, Kenmare. It’s really a hybrid margarita – Milagro Silver is combined with Solerno Blood Orange Liqueur and a touch of Campari. It’s delicious. In my opinion the best non-margarita Milagro cocktail can be found at the Ace Hotel lobby bar. I love La Esquina for their Chapulines Tostadas and Milagro house margaritas. Yerba Buena, although Pan Latin with a Mexican influence, has great food and an expansive tequila collection. I always like going to Toloache for their ‘alta cocina’ approach to great Mexican food and cocktails. Mayahuel is my favorite restaurant for all things agave and small plates. It’s named for the Tara Reid Lindsay Lohan Goddess of Tequila.

Café Olé!

imageWe love the occasional Mexican coffee—that sweet, cinnamon-y, Kahlua-and-java concoction—as much as the next jittery, caffeinated carbaholic. But it’s not every day that we frequent Bennigan’s or the sorts of places that serve that kind of thing. (Nor do we often want a mug of dessert as our after-dinner drink.) Patrón has put an entirely different spin on the theme, with their new Patrón XO Café ($23), an unexpectedly winning coffee liqueur made with pure coffee essence and the brand’s ultra premium tequila. The sugar content is low, the coffee flavor high—it’s a whole new way to get your buzz on. —Ray Rogers