Tequila: Romancing the Stoned

Judging from recent media barrages, hired guns from the spirit world are revving up another campaign to raise tequila’s stature to that of malt scotch and XO cognac.

Buena suerte, compadres.

A textbook dapper bec fin

Isn’t cognac about dapper bec fins puffing Cohibas over snifters the size of bowling balls?  And malt scotch, isn’t that your tea time constitutional while poaching grouse on a bonnie highland brae?  Much as I love the artisan versions, I still free-associate tequila with skanky things crawling up your flesh when you wake up in some alley with a beard, no wallet and a police revolver pointed at your face.

I’m wrong?  Correct me, then.  José Cuervo, You Are A Friend of Mine…  Wasting Away in Margaritaville… Another Tequila Sunrise…  These are not the fond ditties of aristocracy, fraternity, jolly good cheer.  These are the swan songs of the terminally out-of-control.

First, some eugenic recapitulation.  Tequila is a distillate of blue agave, a thorny, drought-resistant scion of the lily—unrelated, despite common misconception, to the cactus family.  Growth is carefully restricted by governmental edict, soil, altitude, and climactic conditions to specific acreage in west central Mexico.  This is hot, unromantic terrain that sports little beside migrant shacks, agave plantations and road kill… which is everywhere, bloated dogs, stiff chickens, gas-bellied armadillos, all ripening together in the chigger-bitten desert sun.  Financially, times are rough and everything, including the distilleries, smells faintly corrupt.

If you’ve ever been to Ciudad Tequila, you know.  This is real life, not the slumbering Old Mexico of travel posters.  In Tequila city, you’re hard-pressed to find day-glo piñatas, mournful breaking trumpets, lashy, mango-lipped nubiles in dare-you-to mantillas; nothing beyond the Eden-blue sky is particularly picturesque.  The whole town is rigid, hushed and constipated: there are lots of cops with gun belts and lots of putrid energy from a burgeoning drug trade.  Here, the only thing even vaguely reminiscent of Zorro is the inevitable third-world food chain.  At the bottom, there are blank-faced day laborers raising families on like, twelve cents a decade.  At the peak, tachycardic Falcon Crest-like family feuds rage on endlessly.  Cuervo and Sauza are the two tequila biggies (Herradura is a distant third), and they slug it out across the generations.  Though the days of Hatfield/McCoy style shoot-outs are memories, everybody here accuses everybody of everything, from product tampering to genealogical impurity (i.e.: they call each other bastards).

Whether we’re talking about high-end, 100% agave tequila or cheaper blends (which can, by Mexican law, contain up to 49% neutral spirits) the distillation process begins with the harvest of the pulpy agave centers (called ‘pina’ for its resemblance to pineapples) and a slow cooking process through which starch is transformed into fermentable sugar.  The distillation itself is essentially the same for tequila as it is for any liquor, moonshine to Martel.  What’s unique is the reposado, a brief period of rest during which the raw spirit mellows, either in tanks or in barrels, to refine the mysterious agave flavor.  At this point, the stuff is sold as a reposado or further aged in wood to be released in a year or more as an anejo.

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A Shooter-Glass of Tasting Notes:

  • CHINACO REPOSADO:  A light lemon-cream nose is complimented by marmalade flavors, a smooth, earthy and ultimately sharp conclusion.  A beautiful balance between oak and spice.
  • EL TESORO PLATA:  For purists especially; explosive, citrus-scented, ultimately pungent.  The freshest tasting of all the silver tequilas.
  • CHINACO BLANCO:  A fierce, peppery, full-bore tequila with cooling mint and lemon flavors, and ultimately, a lip-blistering finish.
  • SAUZA HORNITOS:  Keenly balanced, clean and highly perfumed.  The essential bite is left intact and the aftertaste is aggressive and spicy.
  • HERRADURA ANEJO:  Very aromatic, lots of oak-derived vanilla and caramel flavors blending well with a core of sharp, stalky fruit.
  • SAUZA TRES GENERATIONS:  Mature, robust with a nice blend of earthy artichoke flavors, caramel and delicately spiced oak.
  • SAUZA COMMEMORATIVE:  Vague bourbon overtones somewhat confuse the agave guts.  Long on the throttle with a big-bang finish; a great blending tequila.

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TEQUILA GLOSSARY

ANEJO:  Tequila aged one year or more.

BLANCO:  Unaged Tequila

BORRACHO:  Drunk

GOLD TEQUILA:  Unaged tequila artificially colored to appear old.

MAREADO:  A polite euphemism for ‘drunk’.

MEZCAL:  Generic term for  spirits distilled from agave.

NOM NUMBER:  All tequilas bottled in Mexico bear an identification number called the NOM.

REPOSADO:  Tequila aged two months to one year.

TEQUILA:  A twice-distilled blue agave spirit from specific areas in five Mexican states.

TENER UNA MERLUZA:  A verbal phrase meaning ‘drunk’.

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THE ULTIMATE MARGARITA 

(Naturally, purists consider the lowly margarita to be the most unpardonable of tequila blasphemies.  They are encouraged to skip this part.)

  • Bowl-shaped glass
  • Coarse salt for the glass rim
  • Cracked ice
  • Juice of one lime
  • ½ ounce Cointreau
  • ½ ounce Grand Marnier
  • 1 ½ ounce Sauza Conmemorotivo Tequila

(For an ultra-ultra margarita, add a splash of Damiana; a strange liqueur made from Mexican shrubs which you probably won’t be able to find anyway.)

Rub rim of glass with lime, dip in salt.  Add ingredients to a cocktail shaker, shake until frothy.

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