The Truth About Tequila

By staff April 1, 2003

Most of us view tequila as the drink of desperadoes, something raw and powerful that Clint Eastwood would knock back in a sordid saloon. But tequila is actually one of the great liquors of the world, with enough subtle nuances and sophistication to hold its own with today's sophisticated drinkers. Connoisseurs are beginning to recognize the merits of this traditional Mexican beverage, and it's emerging from Western flicks and frat parties and showing up at urbane gatherings as an amiable companion to appetizers before dinner and a cigar after.

We decided it was time to learn more about this misunderstood spirit, so we asked Tommy Klauber, executive chef and owner of Pattigeorge's Restaurant on Longboat Key, to help organize an informal tasting. He invited Jim Gitter of Sazerac distributors to assemble several different tequilas for us to sample. Then we invited a group of-well, not exactly experts, but good-humored and adventurous bon vivants. (See "Meet the Panel," page xx).

"Tequila is perfect with fun food," Klauber began by explaining to the group. "It gets the party started, especially when you make a batch of margaritas, which is the most popular mixed drink in America. I wouldn't serve tequila with a sit-down meal; but it works with snacks and the really fine ones can surprise you as an after-dinner sipping beverage."

For our tasting, Klauber prepared a knock-out assortment of tapas-little bites-that would balance tequila's sharp flavors. The buffet included his special chicken and beef hot tamales, cumin-seared ahi medallions, pickled kumquat and Key lime salsa, bite-size fish tacos (made with crispy fried wonton wrappers), citrus-glazed lobster chunks with black beans and chorizo sausage and chicken livers. The idea, he explained, is to offer sweet, savory, salty and sour dishes to coax all the nuances of the various tequilas. Then he plunked down a pitcher of margaritas (to clear our palates, of course), cranked up the Latin music and the tasting began.

We sampled bottles ranging in price from $15 to nearly $300, starting with the least expensive-those sharpest in flavor, explained Gitter. Two things not on our tasting table: salt and sliced limes. The custom of licking both when shooting tequila is a mostly a Hollywood invention that started in the 1940s. In fact, Gitter says, both salt and lime dull and confuse the palate, and should never be used when drinking tequila straight. Straight tequila, he and Klauber agree, should be drunk neat, not on the rocks. Margaritas, of course, are another story.

More quick facts from our experts: Tequila is produced in five regions in Mexico, all within 100 miles of Guadalajara, and is made from the heart of the blue agave, an aloe-like plant. The agave has been cultivated for some 9,000 years in Mexico, and the Conquistadors made a kind of wine with it starting in the 1520s. To produce tequila, the core or piña of a mature agave is removed, roasted, smashed and fermented. To be classified as genuine tequila, the double-distilled beverage must contain at least 51 percent pure blue agave. Some brands contain 100 percent. Aging the tequila from two months to two years transforms it from something sharp, citrusy and clear to a topaz-hued beverage that is mellow, silky and rounded-like brandy or cognac. Tequila rests in either old oak or barrels that originally held bourbon. There are about 500 brands of tequila on the market and Americans are the largest consumers of the liquor, with the Mexicans close behind.

Because Gitter is a distributor of Herradura (the name means "horseshoe") tequilas, those were most of the bottles we sampled. Herradura is the second-oldest distillery in Mexico, dating back to 1851. The oldest is Cuervo, which was founded in 1758. Today, Jose Cuervo Gold is the top-selling tequila in the world. It's 100 percent blue agave but does contain a color additive.

Tequila No. 1 was a Herradura Silver (about $30). As the least expensive bottle on our list, this was strong enough that taster Hilary Carver protested she couldn't drink it straight. We all agreed with Larry Krams, who defined it as fine for mixed drinks or to "just get drunk."

Tequila No. 2, the Herradura Reposado, (about $38), by contrast, had enjoyed several months of aging and was silkier and a bit floral. It has a pleasant pale, buttery color and offers spicy, peppery undertones. Lynn Elstein still found it too strong for sipping straight, but Larry believed Reposado would work with sweet canapés. But Bob Plunket, for example, while admiring the smoothness of the aged Reposado, said he "missed the kick" of the younger, meaner tequilas

Tequila No. 3, Herradura Añejo (about $44) is aged for two years. It won a double gold medal at the 2000 and 2001 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, and we instantly acknowledged its "elegant" flavor. "It's a good sippin' whiskey," said one of our number; and Billy Gamble was intrigued by the smooth caramel flavors that come through.

Tequila No. 4 was the Herradura Selection Suprema (about $280). Even novices can get the knack of this, we discovered as we sipped this tequila. Clearly, it had merits-subtle cognac characteristics, almost-that made it suitable for more than mixed drinks. "Combustible!" exclaimed Heather Dunhill. Billy and Hilary agreed on its "sweet fragrance" and undertones of a caramel flavor. Ramses envisioned sipping the Añejo after dinner with a cigar and Lynn liked the idea of serving it to friends by the fireplace.

. Ramses Serrano pronounced it "divino-great for after dinner."

Tequila No. 5, El Jimador, is the most popular tequila brand in Mexico and available at only $15 a bottle. It contains additives that make it sweet, and Gitter says it's especially appealing to the American palate. Ramsed defines El Jimador as an all-purpose tequila, one to stock your bar with, and Larry said it might be "do-able with dessert."

And for our grand finale, we passed around a bottle of Cusano Rojo Mezcal-that's right, the clear stuff with the worm (called a gusano) in the bottom of the bottle. This odd libation is related to tequila geographically and botanically. It's made from an agave plant, but not the blue one. The flavor is harsh (panel members called it "brutish" and "stinging") and potent like a young tequila. No sipping this liquor. Just knock it back like Clint would. We all declined the honor of swallowing the gusano, although Jaymie Klauber shocked the group by disclosing that in her wild youth, she once did indeed eat the mezcal worm.

* * *

Meet the Panel

Hilary Carver: Catering sales manager at the Colony, knows lots about what looks and tastes great. Not sure about tequila, although she admires some of the bottles and is open-minded.

Heather Dunhill: Comcast sales rep, fashionable, good sport, critical thinker, eats out a lot with pals. Needs to be convinced that tequila is good for anything but margaritas.

Lynn Elstein: Accomplished gourmet cook and party giver. Husband Bill put himself through medical school (he's a dermatologist) as a professional bartender, so her palate for spirits is educated and refined.

Marsha Fottler: Food and style editor, SARASOTA and Gulfshore Life magazines.

Billy Gamble: Executive vice president of Wesco-Turf, bon vivant and connoisseur. Vacations in Mexico. A former SARASOTA Magazine "Man of Style." Boyfriend of Hilary Carver.

Jaymie Barrie Klauber: Helps promote her husband Tommy's restaurant Pettigeorge's along with lots of local civic and not-for-profit causes. Admits most tequilas cause her to "make a face."

Larry Krams: Master sommelier, certified culinary judge, executive chef and board member of the Sarasota Chapter of La Confrerie de La Chaine des Rotisseurs, the world's oldest gastronomic society.

Bob Plunket: Also known as "Mr. Chatterbox" for SARASOTA Magazine; novelist (Love Junkie) and authority-by-osmosis on tequila and Mexican food from years of living (and living it up) in that country. His dictum: "Judge a premium brand tequila the way you would a fine Scotch."

Ramses Serrano: Native of Venezuela and co-owner of Sarasota's Sonnet Gallery. Appreciates quality Latin cuisine (and art) and knows the good, the bad and the ugly of torrid-climate food and drink.

Pattigeorge's Crostini with Chorizo and Chicken Livers

(Chef Tommy Klauber. Yields 8 servings)

2 ounces butter

1/4 pound Chorizo sausage

1/2 yellow onion, minced

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon peel

4 anchovy fillets

1/3 cup dry white wine

1 cup canned low-salt chicken broth

1 pound chicken livers, cleaned, trimmed and chopped

1/2 cup Herradura Selection Suprema Tequila

1 bunch cilantro leaves, minced

1 1/2 tablespoons capers, drained

1 teaspoon sea salt

Fresh ground black pepper

In a large skillet melt the butter over medium high heat. Add onion and sauté until soft, about 3 minutes. Add chorizo chicken livers, garlic and cilantro to the pan and sauté until the livers are browned on all sides but still slightly pink in the center. Stir in the capers and lemon zest and season to taste with salt and pepper. Deglaze with tequila and white wine.

Transfer the chicken liver mixture to a food processor and purée on high speed. Allow to cool before spreading on the crostini.

Preheat the oven to 350-degrees F. Cut a baguette into 1/4 or 1/2-inch diagonal slices. Set the slices on a baking sheet and lightly brush with olive oil. Bake until light brown on both sides, turning once, about 4 minutes.

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