Mexico’s contributions to the world of intoxicating liquors are well known and widely celebrated. Tequila, of course, needs no introduction. Nor does mezcal, really; once viewed as some poor relative of tequila with a worm in the bottle, the smoky spirit has enjoyed a surge in popularity and respectability as small-batch versions have found their way into craft cocktails.
Ancho Reyes, on the other hand, probably doesn’t ring a bell. There’s no reason it should – until recently, you’d be unlikely to find this spicy liqueur anywhere outside of Mexico. But distiller William Grant & Sons is easing Ancho Reyes into the U.S. market, giving us a chance to try a unique spirit based on a staple of Mexican cuisine – poblano peppers.
Specifically, Ancho Reyes is distilled with ancho chiles, a crop native to the state of Puebla. Ancho chiles are poblano peppers that have been sun-dried. The wrinkled peppers have a deep reddish-brown color, a sweet, earthy flavor, and typically range from mild to medium in terms of heat. They’re commonly used in Mexican cooking and are central to Ancho Reyes, which calls itself “the original ancho chile liqueur.”
That’s a bold claim, but there does seem to be some truth to it. While the spirit is new to the U.S. market, it’s based on a 1927 recipe owned by the Reyes family that was supposedly lost for decades and recently rediscovered. The distillation process follows strict guidelines for raising the peppers, which are handpicked, carefully assessed for quality, and then soaked in a neutral spirit for six months.
The result is a copper-colored liquor with a rich, natural pepper flavor, balanced with notes of cinnamon, cocoa, almond, and other herbs and spices. There’s heat, too, of course; and that’s where the liqueur really stands out.
Spice can be a difficult element to manage in spirits. Some end up being too hot, others taste artificial. But in Ancho Reyes, the level of heat is moderate – up front, but not muy caliente. You can drink it straight without scorching your throat, and it presents intriguing possibilities for use in cocktails.
Speaking of which, William Grant has been slowly unveiling Ancho Reyes on a city-by-city basis, giving bar managers an opportunity to experiment with the spirit and the rest of us a chance to see how it fares in a drink.
Ancho Reyes finally arrived in Boston this past Monday, and it would be difficult to fathom a more talented greeting party – bartenders from Drink, Backbar, Brick & Mortar, Tavern Road, the Hawthorne, and the Baldwin gathered at Fenway-area bar Audubon and dazzled a packed house with original cocktails that played off the peppery heat of this Mexican spirit.
Now if you’re a regular visitor to this space, you know I like to be thorough in my cocktail reporting – names of bartenders and their drinks, the ingredients they use, etc. Here, some of the details may be a little fuzzy; the folks behind the bar were pretty busy, and there was a lot of crowd noise. Plus, there are always challenges inherent in starting a conversation with someone who’s wearing a Mexican wrestling mask.
Then again, I’ll admit my grasp on the details loosened somewhat after a visit to the Ancho Reyes ice luge.
Anyway, onto the drinks.
Joe Cammarata, principal bartender at Union Square’s Backbar, combined Ancho Reyes with white rum, lemon juice, cucumber water, and sugar. The cucumber worked to tone down the spirit’s heat, allowing the pepper flavor to permeate this cool, refreshing cocktail. A perfect summertime cocktail.
With his Three-Day Stubble (that’s the name of the drink, not an editorial comment), Brick & Mortar bar manager Matt Schrage added smoke to the chile spirit’s fire. A blend of scotches brought a smoky essence to the Ancho Reyes, along with a little sourness from lemon juice.
A cocktail called Chris’s Old Fashioned was a like an homage to the Mexican liquor industry – mezcal, tequila, Ancho Reyes, and agave bitters. The mezcal’s distinctive smokiness was prominent but didn’t overwhelm the drink, instead complementing the chile spice in a manner similar to the scotch in the Three-Day Stubble. And as this drink showed, the Ancho Reyes has a natural drinking partner in tequila.
One of the more popular offerings was a variation of a classic drink called the Golden Cadillac. Appropriately enough for the evening’s proceedings, the cocktail has its roots in a small, western-style tavern in El Dorado, California. It’s traditionally an after-dinner drink made with crème de cacao, Galliano, and light or heavy cream. This version added Ancho Reyes and lime zest, making for a rich, creamy cocktail with mild heat and notes of citrus up front.
The Crook Patrol also played on that time-honored, sensual interaction of chocolate and spice by combining Ancho Reyes, crème de cacao, lime juice, and sweet vermouth. This bold, reddish-hued cocktail had a more pronounced chocolate component than the Golden Cadillac, and the interplay between the heat and sweetness was exquisite.
When he isn’t pouring shots of Ancho Reyes down an ice sculpture, Ran Duan heads up the cocktail program at the Baldwin Bar at Sichuan Garden (an exceptional cocktail bar in Woburn, of all places).
Ran brought a tiki dimension to the proceedings with his striking drink, which blended Ancho Reyes, pineapple, lime, and what was easily the most unexpected ingredient of the evening – caramelized miso. A refreshing balance of sweetness and spice, this tasted as good as it looked.
Hawthorne bar manager Katie Emmerson closed things out with a cocktail that demonstrated Ancho Reyes’s impressive versatility. Mixing the featured spirit with Hendrick’s gin, cinnamon, and lime, there was a lot going on in this one. The botanicals in the gin worked surprisingly well with the peppery heat in the Ancho Reyes, and the spice brought out the spirit’s more subtle cinnamon notes. Complex and vibrant, but smooth and highly drinkable, this was a full-flavored, well-rounded cocktail.
While William Grant & Sons may be better known for its line of whiskeys and scotches, Ancho Reyes isn’t the distiller’s first dalliance with Mexican spirits. They also produce Milagro tequila and import Montelobos mezcal.
But tequila and, to a lesser degree, mezcal, are known quantities. An ancho chile liqueur is more of a niche product, and potentially a tough sell. In that sense, this limited-release tactic is a clever one. The Ancho Reyes folks sure know how to throw a fiesta, and hosting small, coordinated events in major cities tends to create a fair amount of buzz (in more ways than one).
Getting an accomplished lineup of local mixologists to work with your product doesn’t hurt, either.
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