This Ain't No Party

The tequila you knew and loved as a social drunk has caught a serious case of respectability

It used to be that the best margaritas in Tucson were at a bar called Nevada Smith's, a rundown place on Miracle Mile, across from the graveyard and before the I-10 on-ramp. For a while, the man in my life and I had drinks there almost every week. Two dollars would get you a frosty tumbler filled to the salty rim with a tangy yellow-green margarita—not too sweet, not too sour, not too weak, not too mean.

We were exasperated when they raised the price to $2.50.

In the desert, I fell in love with margaritas—good ones—and I still like them, even though they're now considered sort of a lowlife drink, like something you'd have with your processed cheez food. The big thing these days is good tequila—expensive tequila—sipped, sometimes from a snifter, at room temperature. And these two things are, to a large extent, mutually exclusive: You don't use excellent tequila in a margarita, just like you wouldn't put excellent rum in a rum and Coke. Then again, when my margarita romance was young, there weren't really any good tequilas available—at least not in the places I was drinking. Cuervo Gold was the best, and I'd bet my paycheck that's not what they used in the margaritas at Nevada Smith's. For that, you had to pay extra. It was so at any place I ever drank or worked. Back then, Cuervo was top-shelf.

Lime? Salt? How uncouth! Bar Abilene's Nicki Wood pours the real deal.
Jana Freiband
Lime? Salt? How uncouth! Bar Abilene's Nicki Wood pours the real deal.

That was more than a decade ago. We moved on, and so did tequila. In Minneapolis, at Bar Abilene in Uptown, Cuervo Especial (the proper name for what everyone calls Cuervo Gold) is one of the cheapest tequilas you can get, and the waiters will practically arm-wrestle you to prevent you from ordering it. Instead they beg you to try one of several dozen tequilas made from 100 percent blue agave, which are now, and have been for several years, the gold standard.

The puzzles are many: What's wrong with Cuervo that it got bumped from top-shelf to bottom of the barrel? Isn't all tequila made from agave? Is there more to know about tequila than how many shots you can drink and still legally drive?

Nicki Wood, assistant manager at Bar Abilene, was willing to help dispel some of the mystery. As she guided my drinking companion and me through the bar's tequila selection, she taught us a little about the liquor, how it's made, and what happens when you start drinking distilled agave juice.

Mexico's magic
"When a customer first comes in, I always suggest they do a full flight of Level 3, like Don Julio," Wood said.

Bar Abilene groups their approximately 100 different kinds of tequila by price, and there are five categories: flight levels 1, 2 and 3, and premium and super premium flights. Cuervo, like the rest of the tequilas in flight level 1, is $5 a shot or three for $10. A shot of Herradura Selección Suprema (which Bar Abilene calls Herradura Tequila Suprema), the lone tequila in the super premium category, sells for $20 (or three for $40).

There are three kinds of Don Julio tequila in flight level 3: silver, reposado, and añejo. The difference between the three, Wood explained while we tasted, is age.

Silver (also called white, or blanco) tequila typically isn't aged—it's bottled directly after distilling. Reposado, or rested, tequila has been aged at least 60 days and not more than a year. Añejo tequila must be aged for at least one year in barrels no bigger than 600 liters. Although "aged" means better quality in many spirits, it's not necessarily so with tequila, which may even begin to deteriorate after more than four years in a wooden barrel. That's why two or three age variations of the same tequila can be found in the same price category on Bar Abilene's menu.

Silver tequila is supposedly the purest expression of blue agave, the plant from which tequila is made, because it isn't altered by aging or additives. Of the three Don Julios we sipped, the silver was the harshest, but also the most interesting—peppery and with a bit of a mean streak.

My companion—who is a Scotch drinker—liked the reposado the best. She pronounced it the least sweet of the three and the one with the most sinus-opening impact. The silver, she said, tasted like Kleenex. The añejo, we agreed, was without flaw—slightly smoky with just a hint of caramel—but also without a lot of character.

So what is it, we asked Wood, that makes good tequila good and Cuervo Gold and its flight level 1 companions less desirable? Agave content. Tequila is made from blue agave (technically agave tequilana weber, blue variety; one of nearly 400 species of agave) and, by Mexican law, must be made in Jalisco, Mexico, or specified regions in four other Mexican states: Nayarit, Michoacan, Guanajuato, and Tamaulipas. The highest-quality tequilas are made from 100 percent blue agave and must be bottled in Mexico; these account for a small percentage of U.S. imports. Most of the tequila sold in the States is mixto, or blended tequila, which is required to contain only 51 percent agave (though some has more) and can be bottled elsewhere.

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