This year’s lychee, the ingredient popping up on drink menus across the country, is agave nectar. There it is at the Orbit Room in San Francisco, infused with coriander and mixed with gin. And there it is again in a margarita at Manhattan’s Employees Only. And paired with grapefruit vodka at Sonoma County’s Cyrus Restaurant.
Agave nectar, also known as agave syrup, has been a marginal fixture in small health food stores since the mid-1990s (it has a lower glycemic index, making it supposedly better for you). But recently it’s gone mainstream, carried at major chains.
Like fruit juice, it’s a natural sweetener, so it’s used to sweeten cereals, smoothies, and teas. But its appeal is that it’s not as sweet as sugar, says Drew Levinson, beverage manager and master mixologist at Las Vegas’s Bellagio Resort and Casino. Sugar, he says, has a “sweet, cloying flavor” and can be tricky to control. Agave nectar is milder, and unlike honey, it’s soluble in cold drinks.
“It’s got a round mouthfeel and flavor,” says Jay Foster, owner of the San Francisco Southern-food restaurant Farmer Brown, who uses the nectar to sweeten his freshly muddled watermelon margaritas rimmed with spicy cayenne salt.
Heavenly as it sounds, agave nectar is just juice from the Mexican agave plant grown in the volcanic soil around Guadalajara —the same juice that, when fermented, becomes tequila. The nectar is extracted by heating up the plant’s pineapple-shaped core, then pressing it. When the juice drips out, it can be either filtered—to make agave syrup—or fermented to make tequila. Afterward, the plant is ruined and can no longer produce tequila or anything else.
Ultimately, the biggest reason for agave nectar’s popularity may be that it just sounds cool. It has a ring to it that smacks of exotic, earthy adventure. And, of course, tequila.
Get it here.