I’m old enough to remember when the only tequilas you could find in SoCal were so harsh that the only way to enjoy them was in a margarita. The only alternative was to shoot them, after which you quickly understood why the protocol involving the salt on your wrist and the lime in the mouth existed… it was the only way to get the nasty taste out of your mouth. This activity really only served as a quick way to get you bombed because you certainly couldn’t, and didn’t want to, taste anything.
You have to realize that at the time, Cuervo Gold (the gold color coming from a dose of caramel color not spent resting in an oak barrel.) was the “premium tequila” standard as memorialized in Steely Dan’s “Hey Nineteen”.
After one or two shot episodes with friends left me in a semi-comatose state, I decided margaritas were the best approach for me.
I mean, there are airlines today that still don’t serve tequila. Whenever I ask a flight attendant why they don’t, the common reply is “Because it makes people too crazy”… too funny obviously based upon some level of history and experience.
I feel for them though… it’s tough enough keeping some of the new breed of flying whack jobs in their seats sober, let alone fueled by the evil agave bug juice.
So Maggies became my go to drink for 10 years or so until lime juice started to wreak havoc on my stomach so I had to improvise. About this time the quality of tequilas started to improve but I wasn’t ready to start drinking it straight so I tried drinking it with just a splash of sweet and sour mix. For another 10 years this became my drink. I recall seeing an old cowboy movie where an old grizzled cowpoke bellied up to the bar and asked the bartender for a Sarsaparilla* (non-alcoholic root-based fizzy drink) so that became the name of my contrarily strong drink. In fact, later at my southwestern themed Chimayo Grill in Newport Beach it became a signature libation on my “In Agave We Trust” drink menu.
Sarsaparilla drinks feature widely in American popular culture, particularly in works related to the American West. In Hollywood westerns from the 1930s to the 1950s, ordering sarsaparilla in a saloon (instead of whiskey) is often met with mockery by the manly cowboys nearby. In the 1957–1961 ABC western television series, Sugarfoot, the title character, Tom Brewster, played by Will Hutchins, is a teetotaler who orders sarsaparilla “with a dash of cherry” whenever he enters a saloon.
All throughout this time there were increasing number of Americans who had traveled to Mexico and discovered lots of wonderful, complex, silver and aged tequilas that turned them into agave lovers and realized that most of the mediocre tequilas were the ones being sent to America. It wasn’t until some clever people started to realize that Americans would, in fact, enjoy better tequilas but it was going to take a different approach in how to market them.
One of the first to do this was John Paul Dejoria, the brain child behind the John Paul Mitchell beauty product line. I met him and his soon to be wife a shortly before he launched his line of ‘Patron’ tequilas. They were beautifully packaged in a non-traditional shaped, hand blown bottle with a label showing each bottle as being individually numbered. Patron was an immediate hit and proved to a lot of the older tequila houses in Mexico that America was ready for the good stuff. Since then there has been a steady stream of producers who couldn’t get their agave juice to market fast enough, including new celebrity-owned labels.
To me, the beauty of tequila is that, unlike vodka and most other spirits, this spirit takes on multiple levels of smoky and vegetable flavors and aromas that only add to their complexity and enjoyment and at different times and for different occasions. For after-dinner sipping my longtime favorite has been Don Julio’s 9142. It’s a smooth and elegant Anejo that is just plain elegant and rivals any of the world’s finest cognacs. But I’ve always enjoyed Blanco’s as well because the distinct flavors of each brand isn’t overwhelmed by the oak flavors that come from their barrel aging.
I was recently introduced to what became my new favorite… ArteNon 1549 Blanco Organico. Producer Jake Lustig. ArteNon is one of the few distilleries using certified organic agave and it comes shining through this spirit. The nose has an explosive bouquet of pepper, citrus, and a slight green olive note to it. The palate is clean and crisp with white pepper, mint, citrus, fresh green herbs, cacao and an ever so slight spicy smokiness… like I said, my new favorite although not readily available in liquor stores just yet but it’s worth going online to find a local source… you’ll be glad you did.
Three finger pour over a large single cube
By the way, the best way to enjoy it is with a three finger pour over a large single cube. The cube cools it just enough to bring out the subtleties and is slow to melt so it doesn’t dilute all the agave goodness. Salud!