We've long lauded the Adelitas house margarita; it was our best margarita in the Best of Denver issue for three years running, and this year, after a winter tweak that introduced a new tequila to its blend, it was one of our ten best house margaritas in Denver. But now agave spirits maven and Adelitas and Palenque owner Brian Rossi has changed his formula again, and this time much more dramatically: Rossi decided to ditch processed sugar and agave syrup behind his bar, which means that the house margarita and all of the other margaritas and cocktails on the Adelitas and Palenque menus are getting fundamentally reimagined.
Long an advocate for transparency in agave spirit production, Rossi seeks out and supports small spirits producers who don't cut corners. He decided to apply the same scrutiny to agave syrup, and realized he couldn't find a product that met his expectations. "Since the agave world has so many problems, like shortages, lack of sustainability, farmers not being paid fair wages, etc., we have decided to move away from agave nectar until we can see more transparency from the agave nectar producers," he explains. "We as bartenders, managers and owners need to stop using agave nectar and force the conversation with the agave nectar producers. We need them to start answering the questions like, Where are you getting your agave? Where are your farms? Where are you purchasing the agave? How many brands are you producing? What are the names of the brands? What species of agave are you using? Is it blue? Is it espadin? (Espadin being brought up from Oaxaca to produce tequila and nectar is more common than people think.) Are you practicing sustainable farming? Are you waiting for your agave to mature fully? How are you producing the nectar? I have yet to find an agave nectar that is NOT produced by a difusor."
A difusor (or diffuser), he explains, is machinery that breaks down starches in agave via hot water (and occasionally, it's rumored, sulfuric acid), allowing producers to significantly shorten extraction time and suck out every last molecule of juice. This is contrary to the more traditional method of putting agave through multiple presses and using only the best agave obtained from those presses to create a product. Moreover, producers that use a difusor have to add agave flavor to their product; the extraction method and subsequent fast fermentation rids the juice of most of its flavor.
"More and more people are concerned about what they are putting in their bodies," says Rossi. "We as consumers of any products are asking the manufacturers for more information. We want them to label everything so we know exactly what it is we are consuming. As a pet owner, I do the same for my dog, as do many others. Why should our spirits and bar products be any different?" To that end, Adelitas and Palenque have ditched all agave syrups behind the bar, until, says the owner, he can find a producer that is transparent about its process.
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In the same vein, in an effort to part ways with all processed sugar, the bars have jettisoned their use of triple sec, "a cheap, crappy orange liquor," says Rossi.
That means major changes for the drinks, starting with the house margarita. After experimenting with a number of natural sugars — "We really liked the coconut sugar, but it made the margarita look like mud," bar manager Chris Wingate says — the bar landed on beet sugar, cooking it down with oranges to achieve the same sweet-citrus flavor profile inherent in a margarita. The new formula also allowed the bar to add another half-ounce of Arette blanco tequila. "Arette is one of Tequila Town's original tequila-producing families," says Rossi. "Master distillers Jaime, Eduardo and Eduardo Jr. produce an amazing tequila while practicing sustainable, natural methods of production. So not only have we been able to give you a 'healthier' margarita, we were able to give you more tequila!" The best news is that the resultant margarita is still very much a margarita — and an excellent one at that, with a sweet-tart balance that highlights the delicate Arette. And, Wingate points out, this should please skinny margarita drinkers: "It's very popular for people to ask for skinny margaritas, which means leaving out triple sec. All of our margaritas are now skinny, and they're not too sweet. This is better for the environment, the industry and your body. The biggest thing that gives you a hangover is all those nasty sugars."
The Palenque margarita, made with Tequila Fortaleza, is also made with the new house simple syrup. Look for changes like these in all of the cocktails at these two bars — that house orange simple syrup, for instance, has replaced agave throughout. In addition, both bars have rolled out new cocktails for spring. Our eye is on the Dulce Muerte at Palenque (Nuestra Soledad San Luis mezcal, an absinthe rinse, grapefruit, orange simple syrup and a Champagne float), and the Condesa at Adelitas (Nuestra Soledad Santiago Matatlán mezcal, Sierra Norte white-corn whiskey, sweet vermouth, Angostura bitters and Aztec chocolate bitters).