Not since contaminated bathtub gin claimed lives during Prohibition has a spirit been saddled with as insalubrious a reputation as tequila. On North American shores, it has long been the domain of Spring Break and body shots while, in its native Mexico, tequila is (and always has been) a sipping drink to be enjoyed with food − an Old World practice that was likely inspired by the Spanish conquistadors, who are credited with creating the spirit in the 16th century.
Today, it's slowly creeping from the bar to the kitchens of innovative Mexican chefs in Canada.
"My grandmother used tequila in some of her traditional recipes, and that has been picked up by the culinary industry in recent years," says Ruben Aceves Vidrio, director of international brand development for Casa Herradura tequilas in Guadalajara, Mexico.
"Back then, to include a bit of tequila in cooking was seen as healthy," just as, now, we consider red wine beneficial to heart health.
As the country's national spirit, tequila is as much a defining characteristic of Mexico's cultural identity as wine is to France's and Italy's. Made exclusively from the heart of the Weber blue agave plant (other varieties of agave produce mescal), tequila is the result of mixing the juice that is milled from the plant with the nectar that is extracted from cooking it. The two liquids are then fermented and distilled to produce three main varieties: blanco, which is aged less than 60 days and is characterized by a sharp, slightly bitter taste; and reposado and anejo, which are aged in oak casks for at least two months and one year, respectively, resulting in an amber-hued spirit with a softer, more complex character, in line with scotch or bourbon. And no, you won't find a worm anywhere.
Unlike in Western Europe, however, where wine is almost as ubiquitous in food preparation as olive oil and sea salt, cooking with tequila is not a common practice in private Mexican kitchens.
"It's not necessarily something that's done frequently at home, but I've been using tequila in my recipes for 35 years," says Luis Camarillo, executive chef of Santo Coyote restaurant in Guadalajara. "It can be used to prepare any kind of dish featuring red meat, poultry or fish, but it must be reduced by three times its quantity in order to curb its intrinsic bitterness."
Camarillo flambés his tequila sauces and rounds them out with ingredients such as lemon, onion, butter and heavy cream. To the home chef looking to experiment with tequila, he says to avoid mixing it with dairy, which can end up tasting acrid if the proportions aren't exactly right.
On the home front, Mexican chefs have been experimenting more and more with tequila in the kitchen over the past few years. "Until recently, Mexican cuisine was largely misinterpreted because of the Tex-Mex genre," says Arturo Anhalt, owner and head chef of the Milagro restaurants in Toronto. "But as Mexican food has grown in popularity in North America and Europe, knowledge and appreciation of tequila has been climbing at the same speed."
Indeed, tequila has enjoyed a steady 4-per-cent increase in sales in Canada over the past two years, making it the fastest-growing alcohol category in the country.
Anhalt, a Mexican expat, says that, depending on the type of tequila being used − blanco, reposado or anejo − it has universal appeal in the kitchen. "The flavour profile of tequila works well in Mexican food because the cuisine is based on fresh whole ingredients and the spirit has a sharp edge," he says. "Blanco pairs very well with acidic food like ceviche or salsa, reposado works in creamy guacamole, while anejo is best in spicy or sweet dishes."
His personal preference is cooking with blanco because, he says, it offers the most characteristic tequila flavour − an unsurprising fact, given that blanco was the only variety available for 400 years, until the first reposado was introduced in the 1970s (a feat credited to Casa Herradura).
"Blanco tequila has a very sharp taste, making it ideal for sautéing shrimp or as a marinade for meat or to replace vodka in an Italian rosé sauce," all dishes that can easily be executed at home, Anhalt says. Because of its raw distilled quality, it also works as a substitute for vinegar, though it's not an across-the-board replacement for white wine in cooking: "White-wine grapes and distilled agave have a very different taste; wine is more subtle."
Other Canadian restaurants whose kitchens have jumped on the tequila trend include the Salt & Pepper chain, which has three locations across Calgary that feature chicken breast sautéed in a tequila-spiked sauce, and Montreal's Icehouse, which serves ceviche marinated in tequila. You could say tequila never tasted so good.