When I think of Mexican cocktails, my mind inevitably zeroes in on tequila and mezcal in standard combinations. It'd be nice to see more variety out there, but that's not always easy to find. Downtown Austin's La Condesa breaks the mold, though, with modern Mexican food paired with a truly inventive cocktail program. "We use fresh ingredients and techniques from the kitchen to develop layered flavors in the glass," explained bar manager Nate Wales. He works closely with chef and owner Rene Ortiz and pastry chef Laura Sawicki (one of Food & Wine's best new pastry chefs) to create concoctions that complement their vibrant dishes.
Freshness is the key here. "It looks like a big juice bar in here before service," described Wales as he pointed to their baskets full of fruit. The team makes infusions, bitters, and salts in house to "create the flavors we're looking for rather than buying commercially produced versions." The tequila program is 100% blue agave only and their mezcal collection showcases rare single village spirits.
Drawing inspiration from his travels and La Condesa's food menu, Wales incorporates lesser known ingredients into the drinks. For an added no sé qué in the Perrito de Sal, he replaces tequila with sotol, a subtly floral, grassy-smelling spirit made from wild agavacea.
While backpacking through Spain, Wales learned to mix red wine and cola for a quick, sweet buzz. Back at home, he reduced this makeshift sangria into a syrup to make the Calimocho Manhattan.
The most impressive (and labor intensive ingredient) is his housemade tepache, an ancient Mayan concoction made by fermenting fresh pineapple juice and ginger, with a perky and slightly funky flavor not unlike kombucha. He first tried it in gelée form on La Condesa's ceviche, but now incorporates it into a spicy margarita.
Check out the slideshow for five of Condesa's signature drinks, along with tips and recipes for mixing them up at home. While Wales simplified the recipes slightly for your home bar, expect to put a little work into creating some housemade ingredients. After all, that's part of the fun.