Mezcal, the more inclusive kin to tequila, is having a moment — a moment that San Antonio is only too happy to share before it fizzles out. And along with our all-things-agave awareness, comes an appreciation of other Mexican spirits. Damiana, an herbal liqueur from Baja California (the damiana leaf is said to have aphrodisiacal qualities), has yet to hit it here, but Ancho Reyes (no libidinous effects claimed) is coming on strong.
It might come as no surprise that one of the creators of this Pueblan aperitivo, Ivan Saldaña, first made his mark with mezcal, Montelobos Mezcal Joven, to be precise. Saldaña was in town for the recent San Antonio Cocktail Conference, and we sat down after a seminar he conducted at Mezcalería Mixtli to discuss his newer creation.
Ancho chiles, the dried form of the chile poblano, are at the heart of Ancho Reyes — and so is the city of Puebla in its artistic and intellectual golden era.
"We wanted to make chile a flavor as popular in the spirits world as it is in the culinary [arena]," said Saldaña.
While researching historic spirits, he and his partners came across reference to a seminal liqueur, especially popular in Puebla's freethinking Barrio del Artista in the '20s.
"We thought it was probably sweet and savory, but there was no recipe, no [bottled] remnants, so we had to reinvent it," he said.
The reinvention also meant searching for a reliable source of traditionally grown anchos and eventually finding a farmer whose fields are irrigated with water from the volcanic slopes of Popocatépetl.
Saldaña's poblanos hang on the plant more than a month longer than normal in order to deepen flavor, and they're sun-dried and turned by hand for 10-20 days.
"We use some other chiles as well, but they are minor ingredients," he said.
The now-anchos are scissor-sliced by hand and all chiles are separately macerated in cane syrup so that they may be combined as required to maintain a consistent product, given that heat level and other qualities tend to vary from year to year.
"We also figured that the original must have been [an edgy] digestivo, so we involved 'some food guys from California' in helping us round out the formula for cocktail use," Saldaña said.
A cane spirit "that doesn't have much character" from Veracruz makes up the rest of the recipe, of which lack of character would never be claimed. Think sweet/savory/hot (and maybe even a little chocolate and hazelnut) all at once in shot form — a form that's encouraged, by the way, either chilled or at room temperature.
Cocktails are where Ancho Reyes really comes into its own. Saldaña's personal favorite is a daiquiri consisting of one part Ancho Reyes, one part fresh lime juice and half part rich simple syrup (two parts sugar to one part water) shaken with ice, double-strained into a chilled coupe and garnished with a lime wheel. While there's still a little chill in the air, the Coco Caliente, two parts Ancho Reyes to five parts hot chocolate, garnished with grated cinnamon, sounds like a good idea.
And especially in summer (read: April), consider the Smoke & Fire Paloma with half-part Ancho Reyes, half part Montelobos Mezcal, three-parts grapefruit soda and a squeeze of lime over ice in a tall glass — with a salted rim, if desired. Ancho Reyes also makes for a welcome variation on the classic margarita, subbing it for Cointreau.
Mezcalería Mixtli uses Ancho Reyes in its Humo Empiñado, a drink composed of joven mezcal, aforementioned liqueur, grilled pineapple and piloncillo syrup and grilled lime juice, all calculated to punch up both the hot and the smoky; it's probably easiest just to have that one there.
Given that you will have to purchase a bottle of Ancho Rreyes for any of the others, here's a parting-shot drink you might at least have everything else for already, the Ancho Old Fashioned: one part Ancho, one part reposado tequila, one fourth-part rich simple syrup, and three shakes each Angostura and orange bitters. Stir with ice, strain into chilled Old Fashioned glass with the biggest ice cube you can muster, garnish with rolled orange and lemon peels, and think thoughts of bohemian barrios in post-revolutionary Mexico.