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Trying Tequila

By BitterD | April 28, 2007

Chico, California USA — I got a little long winded here. If you just want the tasting notes skip to the end, but you’ll miss out on all my incredible story telling and use of Spanish swear words.

My old neighbor in Sacramento used to stand in front of his house on Cinco de Mayo and repeat over and over again, as only a thoroughly hammered individual can, “Yo no tomo”. Being that he was Hispanic and was holding his twentieth cervesa of the day, he found a certain ironic humor in saying, “I don’t drink” in Spanish. It was kind of funny…the first ten or fifteen times, after that we were laughing AT him, not with him. One good thing came of this though; he would break out the Tequila. While John himself, was from that center of Mexican culture and food that is Kansas City, he had many well to do relatives in Guadalajara. As a result, any visit include stocking up on south of the boarder firewater. And most of it was just that, harsh, mean and nasty. However on occasion he would have something nice, something you would sip and appreciate, something that was just fine without lime and salt, something that as worth searching out again.

Thankfully high end Tequilas are become more common, though you’re going to have to dig out the old check book if you want to try them. Tres Hombres Restaurant in Chico has a fun little program centered on some of these tastier examples. Zingirl’s old high school friend, Sensi, invited us along to try it out. Upon request you will receive a little card with sixty something Tequilas listed on it. Fill it out and they keep it behind the bar for you. On it you’ll find a very small area for tasting notes and a rating by each selection as well as an “official” sign off box that’s for official use only. When ever you order one of the selections the waitress or waiter (lets face it, if you’ve ever been in Tres Hombres there are no waiters, its all little twenty something hottie waitresses, they have a formula that works and they’re sticking to it) initials that “yes you have actually paid for and tasted that particular Tequila”. Why all the bureaucracy? Well there’s free shit involved, so they have to keep you honest. Turns out that if you actually try every Tequila on the list, and by “try” they mean pay for, no sipping out of your friends glass, you get a T-shirt! You also get a certificate for dinner! It also says something about getting to try the Friday Tequila of the day free for the next year, but as I believe there are rules about giving away free alcohol for promotional purposes I’d wait and see on this one. Besides that, when you see the prices on some of these items (mios Dios!) coupled with the fact that you have to try ALL of them, you can bet that you’ve pretty well paid for that Friday shot and the dinner several times over. Maybe they’re eating it on the T-shirt.

Despite the profusion of afore mentioned young hotties our waitress was a little older and more subdued. She was no less attractive, but she didn’t giggle and talk in a high-pitched Barbie voice. The problem was convincing her that we were there to try out some high end Tequila. She just kept giving us this look like “it’s Friday, you want shooters, right?”. I don’t think I look like a college kid. She relented a little and suggested we try the one listed on the special board and our friend and guide on this little endeavor agreed. Sure enough the “shot” showed up in a salted jigger with a lime on it. Fortunately, Sense knew the bar tender and quickly had the “shot” transferred to a snifter, sans salt and lime. After asking for our own cards, and yes you have to ask, they don’t just give them to you, our waitress’s slightly reserved demeanor began to pay dividends. She was attentive and patient without hovering, and she understood that we were there to taste, not to get shit-faced.
The card groups the Tequilas as Anejos, Reposados and Silvers or Blancos. Be careful though about picking straight off the card as there are no prices listed. For that you have to go to bar top menu were they are arranged by price. There’s lost of $5.00 to $8.00 options but you could have chosen Don Julio 1942 off the card only to learn that it is $20.00 for a two ounce taste ( Como Chinga!). Before going straight into the selections I should try and make some sense out of the confusing nomenclature that is Tequila. If you’re already well versed you may want to skip the next paragraph.

As I understand it, the Aztecs and other native people learned that if you take the Blue Agave plant, chop it up, boil it over a wood fire and let the resulting gruel ferment you get pulque, a beer like drink (assuming you like your beer flat and made out of a big cactus looking bush that takes twelve years to reach maturity). Along came the Spanish and their Catholic priests who brought distillation. God bless them hard drinking Catholics. Indecently the Europeans learned the art of distilling from the Muslims, Allah be praised. If you distill pulque, you get Mezcal. Like many alcoholic artiest of the past, people learned to make higher-grade versions and found that like bourbon and cognac a little time in oak barrels add complexity and smoothness. If you let the mezcal sit in a barrel for at least 2 months but not more than one year it can be called Reposado, or rested. Leave it in the barrel for more than one year and you can call it Anejo, or yearly. Now if you happen to grow your blue agave and make your Mezcal in one of the official appellations in and around the town of Tequila in Jalisco state, you get to call your Mezcal…Tequila. Ideally, Tequila is superior Mezcal from this region were the Blue Agave grows well. Think Bordeaux wines from that area of France. But wait, there’s more. Bad Mezcals have a reputation for being…well bad, as a result people (think yanquis or norte americanos) demanded Tequilas. But it takes 12 years to grow a good Blue Agave and the same people that demand Tequila instead of Mezcal had a habit of dumping said Tequila into a slurpee machine with sweet fake lime syrup and calling it a Margarita. Or they simple pour the Tequila right past their taste buds and down their gullets. They tend to get more Tequila flavor as they re-deposit it into the toilet hours later. In response to the demand and the long growing season the rules were fudged a bit. Simply put, for a bottle to have the word Tequila on it, at least 51% of the Mezcal inside must be from the approved appellations of Tequila. You math whizzes have already figured out that that means 49% of what’s in the bottle can be bad Mezcal, or better yet any grain alcohol that could be sold at Home Depot as paint stripper. Add a little fake caramel coloring to it and you’ve got yourself”Gold” Tequila. Confused? I was, but here are some simple rules to follow.

1. Always read the label. Look for something saying 100% Blue Agave. That means there’s no filler alcohol. In the world of celebrity Tequila Sammy Hagar’s Cabo Wabo is 100% Blue Agave while Jimmy Buffets Gold Margaretville brand is…a…. well it doesn’t say 100%. Even if you liked David Lee Roth better, Sammy at least puts 100% Tequila in his bottles of Tequila.
2. Always read the label. Most Reposados and Anejos are at a price point that dictates 100% Blue Agave, BUT some smart marketers have realized that you can put Reposado on the bottle and charge a higher price, even though 49% of what’s in the bottle is shit.
3. In general, a 100% Blue Agave Silver or blanco Tequila is better than any “Gold” Tequila, and a 100% Blue Agave Repesado is, if not better, smoother and more complex than a silver and an Anjo is often better and more complex still. In general.
4. Don’t get caught up with the word Tequila. There are many small specialty distillers in places like Oaxaca state that make some incredible, aged Mezcals with lots of smoke and vanilla flavors. Some even throw cooked chickens into the pot as the Agave steeps (Ay Carumba!) You might miss out on these expensive ($100+) small batch products if are only looking for Tequila.
First up I had a Don Julio Anjo, which I believe was in the $10.00 range. It had a nice clean nose with a little smoke and a hint of vanilla and brown sugar. Next to that was a Tonala Anejo for around $8.00. It had a much more vegetate or herbaceous nose to it at first like a lot of Tequilas do. It’s like you smelling the raw Agave plant. I should note too that, compared to wine, I find trying to identify some of the more subtle aromas on the nose in things like Cognac and Tequila difficult due to the higher alcohol content. You have to learn to smell around the heat, something I’m still working on. After a few minutes the Tonala started to open up and the vegetate note began to blow off. Its absence revealed a nice caramel and brown sugar aroma that seemed to go with its dark color.

Visually the Tonala looked richer and even smelled sugary, but the paler Don Julio was the defiant winner in the taste department. It had a thick viscous mouth feel, very creamy and was smooth enough that you almost forgot it was 40% alcohol. It had a classic Tequila taste, but in a soft smooth style. The finish hinted at vanilla and a touch of smoke. Some Tequilas and Mezcals can have a lot of smoke, but I didn’t get that on this one. The Tonala was much thinner, with a more pronounced bite and a hint of citrus. It wasn’t bad; it just didn’t stand up to the Don Julio as well. However, I think that you could actually drink more of the Tonala if you were so inclined. The Don Julio is so rich and creamy that one small snifter is enough. I also tried a Milagro Reposado that was nice, but by that point my pallet wasn’t just shot it was numb.

It seems that 1, 2 or maybe 3 is a reasonable limit for tasting, after that your just drinking to drink even though you’re paying to taste. I also found that having a Pacifico on hand helped. The water alone didn’t seem to be enough to cleanse that palate between tastes, but a sip of beer and then water worked well for me.

If you do the math, I figure that it’ll run you between $500 to $600 dollars to actually complete your tasting card and collect that T-shirt (chinga tu madre!). Could you by a lot of Tequila for that amount of money? Yes and no. Many of the ones on the list I’ve seen retailing for $30 to $40, but some of them are well over $100. Who wants to drop $100 on a bottle of hooch, only to find that you liked the $30 bottle better? Besides when is going out drinking with friends too expensive?

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