This Ain't No Party

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

Treasure or trash
Cuervo Especial, like other "gold" tequilas, is a blended tequila; it's also known as joven abocado, or "blended while young" tequila; that means it's a blanco to which flavors and coloring have been added to turn it gold and mask the harshness. Jose Cuervo also produces 100 percent blue agave tequilas, two of which Bar Abilene carries: Cuervo Tradicional and Jose Cuervo Reserva de la Familia.

We decided to try three shots from flight level 1. Our waiter tried his best to dissuade us: He shook his head and wrinkled his nose as if smelling rotten beans. He couldn't believe it. He didn't want to. He said, personally, he can do flight level 2 but stays away from flight level 1. He only gave in when we reminded him we were researchers and would stop at nothing to find the truth.

But actually, when the evil brew came to the table, it wasn't all that bad. The Cuervo was rough, especially compared to the Don Julio, but smoother than you might expect. Sauza Blanco was white-hot and kicked like a mule. Only Teporocho Gold, which is evidently the gasoline of tequilas, was truly hard to drink. On the other hand, the Teporocho bottle is a surreal souvenir, a glimpse of which was well worth the fumes: Think Ren and Stimpy meet Dr. Seuss, and add a large sombrero, heavy eyebrows, saucer eyes, and a very long, very black, very droopy mustache.

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.

The roots of tradition
We asked Wood if she knew how this beloved tequila-drinking tradition got started: lick salt off hand, do shot of tequila, suck on wedge of lime or lemon. She suspected it might have something to do with masking the flavor of the cheap stuff. In any case, it's not a habit she encourages. "If I'm serving you a good tequila, I'm not going to serve you lime and salt," she sniffed.

Wood herself only became a tequila connoisseur after she started working as a server at Bar Abilene three years ago. "For the first four months after I started I wouldn't touch it," she said. "Then I had a margarita. Now I won't even look at a margarita—I like my tequila straight."

Her favorite, she said, is Don Julio 1942. So we tried that and two other premium flight tequilas: Casa Noble Añejo and Jose Cuervo Reserva de la Familia. Casa Noble had a butterscotch smell but was sharp to the taste; the Reserva was confusingly dark (even aged tequilas tend to be very pale yellow) and veered toward scotch or rum. We had to agree with Wood that 1942 was exceptional: very smooth, with almost no bite and a faint vanilla aroma.

Despite variations in flavor, the premiums as a group had more depth and less bite than the tequilas from neighboring category flight level 3. Many people are skeptical, as I'd been, that they'll be able to taste a difference between the levels of tequilas, Wood said. "I've had guys come up to me at the bar and say, 'You don't know what you're talking about,'" she said. She tells them, "If you spend $4 more, you're going to have a whole different experience. Your hangover is going to be nonexistent." (Flight level 3 tequilas are $7 a shot or three for $14; premium tequilas are $9 a shot or three for $18.)

While we pondered tequila's complexities, Wood brought a small terra cotta pot to the table. "This is our little agave plant," she said with pride. The curved, green leaves looked like a cross between a lily and an aloe vera. Beside the paper-covered base of the main plant were a couple of babies. The small green sprouts didn't look much like the blue agaves in Mexico, which are several feet tall by the time they're 8 to 12 years old and ready to harvest. Trimmed of spiny leaves and roots, the heart, which is the part that's cooked down and distilled, can weigh 100 pounds or more.

This one is destined to remain puny, especially since Bar Abilene's patrons express their appreciation by pouring leftovers into its pot. "It doesn't like alcohol, so it doesn't do very well on the bar," said Wood with a grimace.

After a few hours of very hard work tasting tequila and eating Bar Abilene's famous mushed-at-your-table guacamole, we decided to reward ourselves with a shot of the best of the best, the pinnacle of tequilas: Herradura Selección Suprema. (According to Wood, there will soon be a second tequila in this super premium category.)

We sipped. We sipped again. We could've sipped for an eternity, but it's doubtful that the difference between this $20 shot and the $9 shot would've become obvious. The Herradura was smooth, yes, and just a little sweet and just a little racy—my companion called it "a very civilized tequila"—but in a blind taste test, we weren't confident we could pick it out from a lineup of lesser but otherwise excellent tequilas.

And with that pricey but otherwise unremarkable sip, the night was over. Nobody was dancing. Nobody was yelling or making out in the corner. It's true, we didn't close the bar; maybe the conga line started up after midnight. Or maybe sophisticated, all-agave tequila encourages people to actually drink for the taste, rather than the buzz; to pace themselves so they can still drive home after a night at the bar; to educate themselves about the many varieties of tequila instead of doing shots till they're too dizzy to sit up straight, much less read the menu.

And that's the moment when I got thirsty for a margarita.

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