Making Cocktails Pepita Cantina-Style
Try this drink recipe from the master mixologist at Pepita Cantina.
It’s an early spring afternoon and Taha Ismail is behind the bar, rolling up his sleeves. He’s surrounded by glasses of fresh mint, thyme, rosemary and cilantro; bottles of agave, honey and orgeat (almond) syrup; citrus fruits, cucumbers, fresh chilies. And, of course, liquor.
As the beverage director for Mike Isabella Concepts, Ismail is the prolific mixologist behind the 50-plus quaffs on the cocktail list at Ballston’s Pepita Cantina—to say nothing of the celebrity chef’s 10 other restaurants. He’s looking to add another new drink or two to Pepita’s menu before the 80-seat patio opens. I’m taking notes.
As in any creative endeavor, every cocktail starts with an idea. At Pepita, many of the offerings are inspired by Mexican cuisine (in keeping with the cantina theme), or at least riff on south-of-the-border ingredients, like Mexican cinnamon. And the drinks skew seasonal. Right now there’s a citrus focus, which will give way to more berries and melon as summer sets in.
Ismail’s concoctions also tend to incorporate spices and herbs—a reflection, in part, of his Moroccan heritage. For inspiration, he often consults two culinary textbooks: The Spice Companion and The Flavor Bible. “I like to geek out in this area,” he says. “For me, it’s ingredients first.”
True to form, he’s recently been toying with the idea of tequila infused with tea, which explains why this day finds him contemplating two shots of Altos Reposado. In one swims a spoonful of loose-leaf Earl Grey; in the other, a similar amount of Star of Africa (rooibos) herbal tea. With luck, one of them will become the base for a new drink, which Ismail will spend the next two hours developing and tweaking.
After about five minutes and a round of tastes, the Star of Africa gets the preliminary nod. He begins to build a drink around it, adding muddled cucumber, lime juice, grapefruit juice, agave syrup, a green-chile tincture (“I’m a big heat fan,” he says) and fresh thyme. Then he makes another version, substituting fresh cilantro for the thyme.
The difference is stark. The drink with thyme is dark and earthy, whereas the cilantro rendition comes across as light, dry and quaffable—just what he’s looking for.
But the experiment isn’t over. Next, he tries a different method, muddling all the ingredients together with the tequila before shaking and straining it. “When you muddle with alcohol, it releases flavor a lot faster,” he explains. He then adds a liberal pinch of sea salt and reaches for his carbonation machine, which turns the whole concoction into something of a boozy soda. (Given the volume of drink orders on Pepita’s patio, he’s partial to those that can be pre-carbonated and bottled.)
Fizz thus infused, we taste again. He’s still not happy. The sea salt is too prominent while the sweetness of the agave is muted. So it’s back to the drawing board—this time trying it without the chile tincture, substituting honey syrup for the agave, and backing off on the salt.
“I like the direction this is going,” he says finally, after making subtle adjustments to balance sweetness and acid. “You have the brightness from the cilantro and the cucumber, the grapefruit gives you that body, the tequila and tea gives the backbone of the whole thing.”
A week later, he emails the final recipe for the cocktail (now dubbed the “Pancho”). Wouldn’t you know it, the cucumber has disappeared and there’s thyme back in the mix where the cilantro had been.
Why the switch? The thyme ultimately brought in some floral notes, he says, whereas “the cilantro flavor became bitter” after mingling with the cucumber and the tea-infused tequila.
The tinkering, it seems, is never quite over. But here’s the recipe if you want to try making it at home:
2 sprigs thyme
1.5 oz. rooibos-tea-infused Reposado tequila (steep for 24 hours at room temperature)
1 oz. grapefruit juice
1/2 oz. lime juice
1 pinch sea salt
1/2 oz. honey syrup (add two parts honey to one part hot water, stir and allow to cool)
Muddle the thyme springs in the bottom of a cocktail shaker. Add the next five ingredients, plus ice. Shake well, strain into coupe glass and top with a splash of club soda. Drop in an ice cube (Ismail prefers ice spheres, as their roundness complements the shape of the coup glass) and garnish with a slice of grapefruit peel.
Do your tastes lean more toward whiskey than tequila? If so, try Ismail’s recipe for the Irish Fizz.