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The unexpected thrill

Damiana, almendrado, jamaica -- how did these rich Mexican liqueur flavors stay hidden for so long?

June 20, 2007|Charles Perry | Times Staff Writer

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 yet 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 summer's a wonderful time to enjoy them. They're delicious simply for sipping on the patio as the evening cools, 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 for a little unexpected thrill.

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


Almonds and honey

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.

D'Aristi Xtabentun (pronounced shtah-ben-toon) and Kalani are rum-based liqueurs from Maya country, made by Grupo AAMSA in Merida, Yucatan, which also produces Caribe rum. They're packaged in quaint bottles -- the first roughly crusted with electric-blue paint, the latter adorned with jute twine and seashells.

Xtabentun is a honey-anisette liqueur, named for the flowering vine found in the Yucatan from which the honeybees draw nectar, and produced by a number of makers. The D'Aristi version prettily balances the two components with its licoricey anise-seed aromas followed up by delicate honey flavors. Kalani is a coconut liqueur.

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