Saturday, May 30, 2009

Tequila Tasting

Guadalajara, Mexico

The mere mention of tequila elicits a rather strong reaction from most people. It is not the gagging green-faced look that mentioning, say, peppermint schnapps or cognac will get as the word quickly becomes a body retching memory of the first time you broke into your parent’s liquor cabinet and downed the closest thing to candy Kool-aid with the next door neighbor. No, the pained look is usually one of guilt and regret brought on by a fuzzy recollection of a parade of astringent shots compliments of a friend with a name like Jose Cuervo. Your new and fleeting amigo most likely fueled you with liquid courage and led you prancing in and out of debauchery, and landed you bowing to the porcelain goddess for a good part of the next day.

Ahhh, tequila, or as I like to fondly refer to it: te-kill-ya. I have to say, I love the stuff. For me, it is a kick start, a “boo-ya!” an “aie-yiiii-yiii-yi!” taken like a champ with a lick of salt, a bite of lime and a shake of the head. That, of course, was until I got a hold of the good stuff. Who knew there was a shelf above the frat-party elixir? Top shelf tequila: made for sipping; not to be seen in the same room as a salt shaker and a lime. That was my first revelation in the tequila realm, my second came after moving to Mexico – oh my god! There are thousands of different tequilas made here that are protected and coveted and certainly not released over the border – let the tasting begin!

Last Saturday I was invited to a tequila tasting party. People were instructed to bring a bottle of their favorite tequila. You would think, with fifty people grabbing last minute bottles off the nearest liquor store shelf there would be a few duplicates in the bunch. Nope. Most people paired up to bring a nicer bottle than they could afford on their own; 20 bottles made it to the party. In Mexico, there are 100 distilleries making over 900 brands and over 2,000 different labels.

Good tequila is meant to be savored, like a fine brandy. It is often served in a brandy snifter, but more commonly in a special glass, called a caballito (little horse), which is slightly smaller in diameter than a regular shot glass and over twice the height. Usually, the tequila will be served alongside a similar glass filled with sangrita, which is a sweet, sour, spicy mix made from a combination of water, tomato paste, orange juice, lime juice, Worcestershire sauce, onion, red pepper sauce, salt and spices. So where does the salt and lime come from? Apparently, in 1918, the Spanish Flu pandemic spread to Mexico. This was during the Mexican Revolution and medical supplies were scarce. Making good use of an already well-loved natural resource, doctors began prescribing tequila, lime and salt as both a prevention and a treatment against the flu. Tequila, at that time, was a bit more rough around the edges and Mexican’s had long been using the tried and true method of a little sodium chloride on the tongue to mollify the fiery flavor, chased with the citrusy lime juice to kill the aftertaste.

Regardless of all the possible chasers and sides, for the tequila tasting fiesta we were purists. The bottles were lined up with comment pages below and everyone was given a caballito. It was an informal affair, and everyone had their own style of tasting. Some, seriously trying to hone in on the subtle nuances of the potent agave juice, while others gagged it down, secretly wishing they were at a jello-shot tasting party. Here are a few of my favorite witty remarks from the tequila stained comment sheets:

“tore all the taste buds from my tongue”
“I threw it in the plant”
“This has ‘party whitey’ all over it!”
“burns like a urinary tract infection”
“Spring Break!!! Ft. Lauderdale ‘87”
“excellent engine-degreaser”
“raw, and not in a good way”
“I would use it as nail polish remover”
“good for cleaning wounds”

They weren’t all bad. This group falls into a sort of neutral category. Depending on how you feel about the described dominant flavor, it could be your cup of tea or a poo sandwich:

“smoky with a nutty after-burn”
“fairly smooth with a celery aftertaste”
“radish aftertaste”
“the wasabi of liquors”
“unique flavor, tastes odd in a musty attic sort of way”
“tastes like a saddle”

Reactions ran the gamut; there was definitely no clear winner. But one comment did stand out among the rest, one that was obviously inspired by poetry in a glass. Of the Tequila Corralejo Reposado, one taster wrote, “This is incredibly smooth. There is the taste you love and the bite is like a kiss, not a slap.” Spoken like someone who has been kicked in the ass a few times by the rough and wild, but is not afraid to seek a seductive embrace from an old friend.

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