What is it about tequila? More songs have been penned in the name of this booze than any other. The Ventures' tune, obviously. But then there's Sammy Hagar's Mas Tequila, Buffett's Margaritaville, Kenny Chesney's Tequila Loves Me, and the list goes on.
Everybody has a story that starts with tequila shots and ends, well, badly (go to blogs.tampabay.com/dining to read people's tequila stories or to add your own). Some tales are so shameful, people won't even share them but smile wryly at the memory.
There's a reason for that. According to Joanne Weir, author of Tequila (Ten Speed Press, $16.95), early tequila distilleries were out in the Mexican countryside where drinking glasses were in short supply. The hollowed-out tip of a bull's horn (called a cuernito or caballito) was used as a glass. Because the curved horn could not be set down, and because it was passed from person to person, the down-the-hatch strategy was employed.
Fine, but why is it the next morning we all wish we'd followed Chevy Chase's method in Caddyshack (snort salt, suck lime, throw tequila shot over shoulder)? It's because we were drinking the wrong stuff.
There are two general categories of tequila: those made 100 percent from the blue agave plant, and mixto tequilas, which by law have to be 51 percent blue agave. It's the other 49 percent that's the trouble. Cuervo Gold and the other shudder-inducing tequilas of our youth are mixtos, much of them made of cane sugar liquor and caramel color. It's the cane sugar breaking down that leads to those nasty hangovers.
Tequila is undergoing a renaissance. Justin Timberlake, Sammy Hagar and Vince Neil (frontman for Motley Crue) have their own tequila brands, and Dan Aykroyd has become a tequila tycoon, importing Patrón to Canada. Bars across the country are stocking more high-end tequilas — Tommy's in San Francisco has a 6,000-member tequila appreciation club. There are tequila sommeliers, boutique distilleries and fancy packaging (one of the new ultra-premium tequilas, TKO, is packaged in a bottle shaped like a boxing glove).
Weir takes a stab at what all this hubbub is about: "After wine, I really think it's one of the most complex drinks. It's something that's been overlooked, and with four main varieties, there's a tequila for everyone."
How it's made
With some 900 brands produced in five Mexican states, the bulk in Jalisco, near the central Pacific Coast, they are made in four general styles. A blanco is tequila that hasn't been aged and that has been bottled after the second distillation. It's clear, often fruity and spicy. Reposado, on the other hand, is stored in small oak barrels or vats for just up to a year. Pale gold, it will have a smoother taste and a balance between fruit and oak. Anejo is aged longer still, just up to three years, with sophistication much like a fine cognac. And extra anejo, a new category added in 2006, is deep brown and super expensive, aged in oak for more than three years.
Still, all four styles start with a big, cactuslike plant called the blue agave. Through a laborious process, the heart of the plant, called the pina, is cooked, mashed, squeezed and fermented. According to Weir, about 15 pounds of pinas are used to make 1 liter of tequila. And unlike many alcohols that age in the bottle, says Weir, "one thing that's so cool about tequila is that you can have a glass today or in 10 years and there's nothing different about it," it's still the pure expression of the distiller's art.
Premium tequilas are expensive, ranging from $40 to more than $200 per bottle (but as Weir says, a bottle will last a long time). Whether you're planning a tequila tasting (see accompanying story) or using a tequila in cocktails, "It's like cooking with chocolate," she says. "The better the tequila, the better the cocktail."
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at www.blogs. tampabay.com/dining.