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Mexican Liqueurs Have Many Uses

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Mexican Liqueurs Have Many Uses

By Charles Perry | Los Angeles Times

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 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 now is a wonderful time to enjoy them. They're delicious simply for sipping on the patio, 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.

Try this
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 also is flavored with damiana, but much more subtly, emphasizing instead the smooth flavor of tequila. Its on-again, off-again availability in the United States 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.

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.

Citrus liqueurs
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 some parts of 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 company 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.

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. In Baja California, you might hear that damiana liqueur actually was the original ingredient, but that claim should be taken with a grain of salt. In The Joy of Mixology, mixologist Gary Regan dates the oldest margarita recipe to 1937; 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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