Liquor Nerd: No longer a one-stop party starter, tequila comes into its own as a surprisingly versatile spirit

    1 of 3 2 of 3

      Hola, liquor nerds—it’s that time when we do our best to turn you into a 21st-century version of Francisco “Pancho” Morales. Actually, scrap that, because after reportedly inventing the Margarita at Tommy’s Place Bar in Juárez, Chihuahua, in 1942, Morales somehow became convinced it would be more fun to be an American milkman than a mixologist. Some people have it all, and then pitch it away.

      Today, we’re talking tequila, once disparaged as nothing more than an instant just-add-salt-and-lime-wedges party starter. Admit it: there have been countless times you’ve hit the town for drinks with friends and kicked things off with seven or eight shots of Jose Cuervo. One minute you’re in Yaletown on a patio, the next you’re waking up in a field outside of Tijuana wearing nothing but a tattered Señor Frog’s sombrero and a “One Tequila, Two Tequila, Three Tequila, Floor” muscle shirt.

      For decades, tequila was something to be shotgunned. Thankfully, these are more civilized times, and the Mexican spirit is viewed with a reverence typically reserved for whiskies. Aficionados praise complex flavours (often from aging the spirit in oak casks) and knockout bouquets (typically an almost earthy sweetness). Smooth and mellow are buzzwords—radically different from when tequila burned like holy water during the exorcism of Regan MacNeil.

      By Mexican law, all tequilas have to come from Weber Blue agave plants grown and harvested in designated Mexican states. The agave heart—known as the piña and typically weighing 80 pounds and up—is removed eight to 12 years into the plant’s life. It's then cut up, after which the process begins to turn starches into sugar—that done in a number of ways including roasting the piña in an oven or earthen stone pit, cooking it in an autoclave, or running it through a diffuser. 

      B.C. liquor stores for years mostly carried mixtos, meaning a tequila that’s just 51 percent from the agave plant, with the remainder pulled from other sugar sources­—usually sugar cane.

      Discerning consumers now look for a product that’s 100 percent agave. Reposado tequilas contain extracted agave juice that has rested for between two months and a year in oak barrels, añejos between one and three years, and extra añejos three years and up.

      As man wearing many hats—mixologist, corporate liaison for the Canadian Professional Bartenders Association, and principal of Sovereign Wine and Spirits—Jon Smolensky knows his liquor. In an interview with the Straight, he suggests that, for the longest time, most of us didn’t know what good tequila was.

      “Fifteen years ago, there were not a lot of tequilas in the marketplace, and part of the reason was because there wasn’t the insatiable demand that there is now,” he says. “And the reason there wasn’t an insatiable demand for tequila was because of the kinds of tequila that were in the marketplace. So it was sort of a cyclical problem—like the chicken-and-the-egg thing.”

      Jon Smolensky.

      So how did we get to where we are today?

      “What changed, really for the entire liquor industry, was that—tongue in cheek­—Al Gore invented the Internet,” Smolensky says with a laugh. “The Internet gave us liquor nerds more access and more information and more education about the different ways that tequila can be perceived and drunk. That created a demand.”

      The rise of mixology and knowledgeable bartenders has also raised our understanding of what tequila has to offer. The more demand grew, thanks to consumers educating themselves, the more Mexico and its producers mobilized to fill that demand, leading to more options at liquor stores.

      For those working on their home mixology skills, the beauty of tequila is its versatility. If something calls for gin or whisky, your can probably experiment by swapping in tequila.

      “You can play a bit of Mr. Potato Head with tequila when it comes to classic cocktails,” Smolensky says. “You can put tequila into a Martinez cocktail, which is traditionally gin and sweet vermouth and maraschino and bitters. Replace the gin with tequila and you get this kind of grassy, earthy, dry characteristic that’s really appealing. And tequila sodas make great highballs. Now that tequila tastes good, there’s more and more things that we can do with it.”

      Smolensky suggests Olmeca Altos Plata or Papalote Blanco as good-value starter tequilas, and Tequila Ocho Reposado or Aha Yeto Diva as smart options for those willing to go a little higher on the price point.

      There is, of course, no need to shotgun any of the above while shrieking “Tequila might not be the answer, but it’s worth a shot.” In fact, if you’re feeling extra flush and willing to spring for a premium bottle like an El Tequileño Reposado Rare or Tequila Ocho Extra Añejo Single Barrel, you can take a break from working the bar at home and sip it like a top-drawer scotch.

      “There’s a certain prestige that’s developed for drinking premium tequilas,” Smolensky says. “The development of the añejo and extra-añejo categories helped draw away scotch drinkers and whisky drinkers and cognac drinkers, because it was something brown and aged in barrels that was familiar to them.”

      Feel like firing up the shaker? Here’s Smolensky’s favourite riff on a classic.

      “Let’s go with the Tommy’s Margarita,” he says, “founded by Julio Bermejo of Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant in San Francisco, home of possibly the best tequila selection in the world. Tommy’s just celebrated their 55th anniversary, and Julio is a good friend of mine. This is easy as heck to make, and is probably the most famous Margarita riff in the world.”

      Tommy’s Margarita

      60 ml of your favourite 100 percent agave tequila (I like Papalote Reposado or Tequila Ocho Blanco)
      30 ml fresh-pressed lime juice
      15 ml high-quality agave nectar

      Rim a rocks glass with salt. Place all ingredients in a shaker with a pinch of salt, shake, pour over fresh ice. Garnish with a lime wheel. Enjoy!

      Mike Usinger is not a professional bartender. He does, however, spend most of his waking hours sitting on barstools.

      Papalote Reposado is one of the great building blocks of a Tommy’s Margarita.