Sipping tequila always seems contrary to the liquor's very existence. Lick, shoot, suck -- that's the prescribed regimen, a process designed to keep you from actually tasting Mexico's signature hooch.
But a trip to Nico's Tacos might change all that.
The first time I had tequila, I was an 18-year-old college idiot, and I was sucking the spout end of a $9 handle of Conquistador while the captain of my hockey team grinned with schadenfreude. I puked blood that night, embarrassing my way to a fractured relationship and a soggy mattress. Afterward, I swore off the spirit for good, and to this day, the word "tequila" on a cocktail menu is enough to make me grimace, gag, and move on.
These are the kinds of histories that Nico's Tacos and Tequila Bar owner Tim Ross is trying to combat.
"We don't encourage doing shots or anything stupid like that, we don't serve with salt and lime," he says, "To me, tequila should be enjoyed like any other spirit. Dump it in a glass, maybe over an ice cube, a little water to open up the nose. You smell it, just like you do with wine. You sip it and enjoy it."
It's unclear which (liquor or beer) was the chicken or the egg in the craft drinking renaissance, but one thing is for sure, tequila is the last alcohol to receive an artisanal rebirth. This is partly due to the fact that distillers can't grow agave or make tequila in the U.S. -- real tequila can only be distilled in Mexico -- but Ross is doing the next best thing by barrel aging the import right on the shelves of his bar.
Ross and bar manager Johnny Holder have cultivated something of a craft brewery atmosphere in their two-tiered taco joint. "My best regulars always come in and try the new tequilas, they ask for their favorites, they try the tasting flights," Ross says. "It's a great way to educate guests."
The kind of tequila that typically sullies your palate for a generation (and even "classier" brands like Jose Cuervo) are what's known as "mixtos" -- chimeras of 51% agave supplemented with caramel additives to disguise the fact that what you're swilling is impure. "We don't carry any mixtos," Ross says. "Everything we carry here is 100% blue agave tequila."
But the program is more akin to rehabilitation than education. And we can't tell if it will help or hurt the cause that Nico's is launching this campaign from within a 110-year-old duplex that could front as a frat house.
Tequila isn't known as a brusque drinker's drink like whiskey, nor is it considered a casual refresher like vodka, rum, or gin. To further separate their fare from shot-glass culture, Ross and Holder aren't just aging the liquor, they're throwing the whole mixed drink in the barrel and pouring it right from the cask once it's matured.
Though unique in the Twin Cities, Nico's aged cocktails are a borrowed idea from Ross's days in Las Vegas. "We always had a couple barrels," he says, "and it's something the bartenders always just had fun with. When I got my chance to do it here, I went for it."
Their flagship recipe is a barrel-aged Manhattan made with a blanco tequila, sweet vermouth, maraschino liqueur, and orange bitters, aged eight weeks and garnished with a flame-kissed zest of orange. The result is a slightly smoky drink that bears none of the grimace-inducing chemical burn of bottom-shelf tequila. It goes down with much less bite than the traditional concoction, even finishing with a touch of smoothness.
Holder has also concocted a negroni-style beverage built off mezcal (which is distinguished from tequila by being fermented underground) titled the Grateful Dead. The Dead has a much higher smoke profile cut by grapefruit bitters and pine liqueur. It's a nearly perfect drink for weaning your reaction from gag to gasp.
These elixirs rotate quickly and are subject to demand (a fruity margarita made with strawberry/pineapple-infused Milagro Silver is quickly running dry, and another made with grapefruit and smoked rosemary is on the docket) and rarely even make the menu, with the exception being the Medicine Man -- a burned-sage-infused margarita made with Liquor 43 that is nothing short of alchemy.
"We take fresh sage and we burn it over an open flame so you get some of that fresh smoke and char, and we put it out right in the tequila," Ross says, "Every week we're doing stuff like that."
It's difficult to not describe the quality of the drinks in terms of how little they actually taste like tequila, but for a guy who left his first sips of tequila sprayed on a bush in Baltimore and will turn down a free four-ouncer from a barroom benefactor, regaining the courage to voluntarily swallow the spirit is a big step.
Ross assures me that the good stuff still has the same ambushing effect of the mixtos I once funneled down as a freshman, which is an unsettling thought. But for the first time since that fateful night, I'm more focused on the liquid getting me there.
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