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.

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.

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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