(WASHINGTON POST) - There’s something about tequila that activates the revelry gland, whatever part of the American brain it is that responds to a bottle of Cuervo by bawling “PAAAAARRRTY!” No one bawls “PAAAAARRRTY!” when they see a bottle of Glenlivet.
Is it some dormant memory of Cancun, Mexico vacations past? Did we all come of age in a Texas honky-tonk, where swallowing the worm at the bottom of a bottle was a means to prove we had hair on our chests?
Me, I don’t want hair on my chest. I want to have a good cocktail. I want to sip good spirits. And if you’re offering me a drink that requires me to first salt my palate, knock back a shot with my eyes closed, then suck on a lime to get rid of the taste... well, partner, sign me up for a hard pass. I’ll go drink tequila somewhere they know better.
Tequila, opined a travel writer for the New York Times, “has come a long way in the last 20 years. It is now old hat to drink it ‘neat’ in the old manner – touching the tongue to a pinch of salt and then sucking in the juice from a sliced lemon as you grimace and gulp down the tequila.” He wrote that in 1968. I guess some “old hats” get stuck on heads forever.
I’d long assumed spring-break culture had helped perpetuate the shot-slamming approach to tequila and the lingering bias against it. Many a terrible cheap tequila is consumed in Cancun – or, as I call it, Fort Lauderdale South – and in great, sick-making quantities.
But some of the attitude is home-grown, says Mr David Suro, an importer, restaurateur and president of Siembra Azul tequila. During Mexico’s golden age of cinema, he says, movies regularly depicted stars shooting tequila, wincing and reaching for lime and salt.
In fact, Mr Suro says, for years, Mexican elites didn’t even drink tequila; they looked to European spirits and French wines, dismissing their native spirits as the stuff of peasants. It took the investment and approval of wealthy foreigners to make many Mexicans give agave spirits a deeper look; these days, interest is surging and drinking mezcal is a point of national pride.
Adequately explaining the difference between tequila and mezcal is tricky. Tequila is a kind of mezcal, one that can be made only in the Mexican state of Jalisco and a few other places; it must use only agave tequilana, not other agave species.
Mezcal can be made across a wider geographical range of Mexico, from a range of agave species. The differences in ingredients, terroir and production processes result in a bit of a head-scratcher: The mezcal sold as “tequila” doesn’t usually taste like the mezcal sold as “mezcal,” and “mezcals” can taste very different from one another.
Agave spirits break drinkers into camps. There are the haters, who once drank too much tequila and decided the experience was representative and that all tequila sucks. There are drinkers, who have discovered “premium” tequilas. “Premium” is a confusing term, used by the industry to reference more expensive bottles, but often understood by drinkers to mean “better.” Many premium tequilas are beautifully bottled, celebrity-endorsed and brag of their multiple distillations and resulting smoothness.
And then there are agave nerds. These days, they, too, may express contempt for tequila – but for different reasons. As the tequila business boomed over the past decades, many producers moved away from their rustic roots, getting swallowed up by multinationals and shifting to more industrialised processes to meet volume demands. These shifts have gradually changed tequila.
While some great, traditionally made brands still exist, many of the bestsellers have had their flavours smoothed by industrial processes, emerging as what some now scornfully refer to as “aga-vodkas.” Such “premium” tequilas alienate many in this camp, who gravitate instead to mezcals. Made by small producers working much as they would have 100 years ago, most mezcals are still hyperlocal, beloved by people who value spirits as expressions of the places they came from. While the use of roasted agave makes a smoky taste a common note in the spirit, there are mezcals with flavours as varied as pine, cheese, flowers and leather. That variety and complexity are what enthusiasts enjoy.
In Mexico, beyond limes and salt and margaritas, tequila is often served with sangrita (“little blood”), a non-alcoholic chaser of citrus and chilli that’s sometimes part of a “bandera” - shots of lime, blanco tequila and sangrita, three colors echoing the Mexican flag.
There are many recipes and commercial mixes – some have Worcestershire sauce, many have tomato juice; more traditional versions lean towards citrus and pomegranate. Another occasional partner is verdita (“little green”), a mix of cilantro, pineapple, jalapeno and mint, which sometimes stands in for the lime-juice shot in the bandera.
In most mezcal bars, the spirit is served neat, says Ms Megan Barnes, beverage director at Espita, a mezcaleria in Washington. In the States, she says, it’s most often served in veladoras, small glass votives with a distinctive cross on the base, or in clay bowls called copitas.
In Mexico, typically it will be poured into a jicara, a hollowed shell of the fruit from a calabash tree, served sitting on a little woven circlet of grass that keeps the vessel from tipping. Pours are often served with slices of orange and sal de gusano, a powdered blend of salt, chilli peppers and dried agave worms (you may decide to call this “nope” powder, but it just tastes like spicy, savoury salt).
How should you drink these spirits? It really depends what you want to get from them. Hopefully, the answer isn’t “drunk”.
If you’re aiming to taste the spirit, neat is the way to go, says Mr Suro, the restaurateur and tequila executive. “Friends of mine in Mexico, they argue that the traditional way to drink tequila is in a caballito” – a taller, slender shot glass – “with a lime and with salt. And I say, but why? What’s the reason to put it in a glass where it has absolutely no room to breathe? You pretty much eliminate all the potential that a good tequila has to offer, not just for taste, but also the aromatic characteristics.” (The jicara and copita used to serve mezcal, by comparison, have wider mouths that allow more aromas to circulate.)
And the orange slices and sal de gusano that accompany mezcal? He likes them as a delicious snack, but for him, they have nothing to do with tasting the spirit. “When I have a mezcal that came from an agave that took nearly 20 years to develop, and it has hundreds of... elements for me to discover, I really don’t need the distraction of lime or orange or gusano salt,” he says.
Nibbled between sips, those worm-salt orange slices may highlight particular flavours in a mezcal, says Emma Janzen, author of Mezcal: The History, Craft & Cocktails Of The World’s Ultimate Artisanal Spirit. But they’re also shaping what you’ll taste. “You’re kind of restricting yourself to that very bright, citrusy contrast to the mezcal, where if you have pineapple that might bring out some sweetness, jicama would bring out something else. If you try the same mezcal with different kinds of fruit, you’re going to have a totally different experience.”
With lime and salt, with sangrita, with anything you pair with a good spirit, there’s a fine line between illuminating the spirit’s flavours and changing them. Some people argue that lime and salt are flavour enhancers; others think they’re there specifically to drown out the burn of bad tequila. Sal de gusano tastes good with many mezcals, but it can also have a palate-punching heat.
Happily, you don’t have to commit to one way of drinking these spirits. Have a bright, summery Paloma. Try a margarita made with mezcal (Espita’s is delicious). Try one of those ultra-premium tequilas next to a small-batch mezcal, served neat so you pick up their subtleties. Try a modern cocktail such as the Oaxaca Old-Fashioned, which unites tequila and mezcal in a truly beautiful drink.
Heck, you can even do the salt-shot-lime thing if you must. Just not with my good bottles.
Sangrita de Fruta
This spicy variation of the non-alcoholic chaser called sangrita (meaning “little blood”) omits often-used tomato juice so the other fruit flavours can shine.
Sangrita is typically served with tequila; you’ll want to choose one here that is especially good for sipping. Or skip the tequila, double the sangrita recipe, shake it with ice and strain it into rocks glasses for a refreshing non-alcoholic summer sipper.
180ml pomegranate juice
60ml fresh lime juice (from 2 or 3 limes)
120ml fresh orange juice
60ml agave nectar
30ml Cholula hot sauce
Tequila or mezcal, for serving (see headnote)
- Combine the pomegranate, lime and orange juices, the agave nectar and hot sauce in a cocktail shaker. Seal and shake until well blended. Refrigerate until well chilled.
- Serve separately with tequila or mezcal, alternating sips of liquor and the juice blend.
This variation on a verdita serves the same purpose as the original: complementing the flavours of a good sipping tequila with a spicy, fruity sip.
We found Tajin Clasico lime-chilli salt at several international markets, and it can also be ordered online.
Serve it chilled.
285g fresh ripe pineapple, or more as needed
285g cucumber (seeded or seedless), peeled and coarsely chopped
20 fresh mint leaves
10 to 20 fresh cilantro leaves
2 tsp lime-chilli salt, such as Tajin Clasico brand (see headnote)
1 Tbs agave nectar
1/4 cup fresh lime juice, or more as needed (from 2 or 3 limes)
15g to 85g serrano pepper, stemmed, seeded and chopped
- Combine the pineapple, cucumber, mint, cilantro (to taste), lime-chilli salt, agave nectar and lime juice in a blender; puree until smooth.
- Add the chopped serrano pepper by the teaspoon, blending and tasting after each addition to assess the spice level. Once its heat is to your liking, adjust the salt, lime and sweetness. Puree again briefly, then strain through a fine-mesh strainer, discarding the solids. The yield is about 2 1/2 cups. Chill until serving.
- Pair the verdita with shots of good tequila or serve it with sangrita and tequila in a bandera (the three sips reflect the colors of the Mexican flag).
Want to taste agave spirits in a range of ways? Here are some ingredients and tools that will help you hit the sweet spot. You and your guests can go back and forth between tasting the spirits and using them in cocktails, and discover how you most enjoy them. Ask everyone to bring a bottle they want to explore and share; all the more interesting if you get a real range, which should help convey where agave spirits are these days – all over the place.
These bottles represent a range what’s available, but they barely scratch the surface – especially in the tremendously diverse mezcal category.
El Tesoro de don Felipe’s Reposado: Agave connoisseurs tend to look to silver/blanco iterations as the purest and best expressions of the spirits; the time the booze spends in barrel is not cherished as it is in the world of whiskey. But if you’re sampling, you should throw at least one aged tequila into the bunch. This one lets the agave come through, while adding some of the vanilla notes you expect from barrelling. It might win over the bourbon drinkers.
Patron: Largely abandoned by agave snobs these days (what’s in the bottle has changed since the brand began making its mark), Patron was the gateway premium tequila for many people whose previous experiences with the spirit had scared them off. Sippable and smooth.
Siembra Azul: A beautiful, more traditional blanco tequila that highlights agave, citrus and bell peppery notes. It’s hard to go wrong with any of the Siembra offerings; for a particularly interesting one, try Siembra Valles Ancestral, which is made using older production processes that industrialised tequilas have abandoned.
Banhez Joven: Mezcal writer Emma Janzen’s go-to, entry-level bottle. It has a nice complexity, surprisingly great price point and the flexibility to work well in most cocktail recipes.
Del Maguey’s Vida de San Luis del Rio: The mezcal you’ll see most often behind the bar, even in bars that don’t specialise in agave spirits. It’s great for cocktails – try it in a margarita – and delicious on its own. Founder Ron Cooper specialises in “single village” mezcals named for their place of origin; try the Chichicapa for a mezcal with citrus, smoke and a hint of mint.
Mezcal Vago Elote: Made more delicious and strange with an infusion of roasted corn. Imagine the fragrance of a fresh corn tortilla infused into a mezcal with notes of smoke and honey. “That was the bottle that roped me into the mezcal world,” says Janzen. “When it came along, my head just exploded.”
Barware and tools
A cocktail shaker: to shake up margaritas
Jicaras and/or copitas: tasting cups for mezcal, available online
Cocktail coupes or margarita glasses
Limes: Whether you want to suck on slices of them or squeeze their juice for margaritas, sangrita or something else, they’re a must.
Salt: To taste with neat spirits and lime, or to rim margarita glasses
Oranges and other fresh fruits: To slice up as accompaniments with sal de gusano, or express the peel over an Oaxaca Old-Fashioned
Ting or other grapefruit soda: A key ingredient in the refreshing Paloma
Cointreau: For margaritas, if you’re making them
Agave nectar: A sweetener made of the same genus of plants as the spirits you’re tasting
Sangrita and/or verdita: See recipes
Sal de gusano: A mix of salt, chilli and ground agave worms; tastes like a savoury, spicy salt.