The ritual looked simple enough: Lick the back of your hand, sprinkle salt on it, lick the salt, knock back a jigger of distilled cactus juice, and suck a lime wedge. Trouble is, those things tended to get mixed up: lime preceded salt, tequila followed, everything dribbling from my chin as the ritual was repeated. Nobody gave a damn, though—until the next morning.
That was a long time ago, of course, in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Since then my tequila drinking has gotten a bit more sophisticated and my tastes more expensive. But even behind the best tequila lurks the physical heat and spiritual intensity of the country of its origin, whether you’re drinking it by the shot (caballito) or in the heavenly embrace of lime juice con orange liqueur and shaved ice.
The gleam in the eyes of the men drinking in San Miguel back then was rooted not in demon worship but in that unique, slightly strange botanic wonder known as agave tequilana, that sprawling blue-gray plant suggesting a muscular, upended octopus with spines on the tentacles. It’s actually not a cactus but a cousin of the lily, the only reassuring thing about agave, which is grown in the states of Tamaulipas and, more notably, in Jalisco, where the town of Tequila is located.
Mescal is more or less the same stuff, but made from the maguey, or americana, varietymaguey, or americana, varietymaguey, or americana, varietymaguey, or americana, variety of the agave down toward Oaxaca, and not entitled to the name tequila (and not because a worm sometimes ends up in the bottle). The novelist, Malcolm Lowry, whose fine novel, Under the Volcano, is set in Mexico, described mescal as “ten yards of barbed wire.” Lowry wasn’t known for connoisseurship but for writing exquisite prose, under the auspices of serious hooch.
Jose Antonio de Cuervo was given land that included a small mescal factory sometime in the late 17th century, but it’s tequila that eventually took over the market. To make it, the agave leaves are lopped off by experienced mescaleros and—for the good stuff—the hearts (piñas) extracted, tossed into a pit of smoldering charcoal, and shipped off to the distiller, where they’re cooked and crushed. The fermented juice that’s produced is then distilled to about 150 percent alcohol and eventually cut with good water to about 80 percent.
For blanco, the tequila goes straight into the bottle, but for reposado it is aged first in wood casks, which gives it greater complexity and a warm, golden hue. Tequila may be the national drink of Mexico, but most of it goes down the gullets of Americans. It has progressed in the popular imagination from firewater for peasants to cozy fuel for the upwardly (and downwardly) mobile.
The good stuff should be drunk by itself, so go easy on that salt and lime wedge, which get in the way of the appreciation a well-made tequila deserves. There are many of those, including Patrón, which is good but overpriced. One of the best so-called “single field” tequilas I have had is Ocho, which with its small-batch production and high standards is worth seeking out.
You won’t get a hangover from good tequila, unless you go rogue (that, admittedly, is a problem). For one thing, the alcohol level is generally lower in tequila than in vodka, gin, and so on, and tequila’s made not from grain but from fruit, a whole different category in the glorious tradition of Calvados, Cognac, eau de vie, etc.
Middling level good tequila—Espolón, say, or Hornitos—makes what I consider to be the very best warm-weather drink, one with character and complexity and, yes, charm, plus your daily requirement of citrus. It’s known as the margarita. Best to make a small batch in a pitcher, with a quarter of a jigger max of Cointreau per drink, not the watery Triple Sec, and a couple of squeezed limes tossed into the mix. The essence of oil the fruits impart is crucial to the drink’s frisson.
Use good (un-iodized) sea salt for the rims of the glasses, which should be put in the freezer for a few minutes before the main event. The margarita is a noble drink, despite the fact that it was made famous by a plebeian. Jimmy Buffett sang of “that frozen concoction that helps me hang on.”
Let go is more like it.
James Conaway is a featured contributor for Intelligent Travel and writes for other publications devoted to travel, history, and culture. Read more from James on his wine blog and check out his latest book, Nose.
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