Starting Over With Tequila

Your post-college primer.

Tequila shouldn't have to suffer for your teenage antics. In my experience, even when a customer orders top-shelf tequila, it's treated to a quick gulp or drowned in a Margarita—a result of college conditioning, for sure. But tequila is good for more than just shots, and the good stuff belongs in a snifter or large rocks glass just as fine Scotch and brandy do. All the ridiculous conversations I've suffered with bar patrons over the finer points of overpriced vodka...I wish I could have had those conversations about tequila—which unlike vodka is interesting, has flavor, and adds something to a drink. Getting comfortable with tequila starts with deciphering the main terms you see on a bottle: white, gold, reposado, and anejo. White tequila, sometimes referred to as "silver" to make it seem fancier, ergo more expensive, may spend up to two months in oak, but generally goes straight into bottle after distillation. The flavors are smooth, clean, and slightly herbal. In theory, "gold" tequila results from blending white tequila with those that have aged in oak barrels for a time. But like the word "reserve" on a bottle of wine, the term "gold" has absolutely no accompanying guarantee of quality, age, or constitution. Mass-market golds distributed in this country likely contain additives such as coloring or oak extract; those $10 bottles of California "reserve" wine see the same treatment. Gold tequila can taste anywhere from weedy to earthy to something eerily similar to brassy Scotch. You get into the more remarkable realm of tequila when you hit the reposados and anejos. Reposado tequila, by Mexican law, must spend at least two months in barrel and may remain there for up to a year. Reposados will have a mellow bass note from the wood, but retain the distinctive sharp, grassy aroma of tequila. If you're shopping blind and want more of a guarantee of flavor and quality, pick reposado over gold. Anejo tequilas spend one to three years in oak; all the notes you start to taste in a reposado become magnified, and the tequila even more mellow. Tequila is the main ingredient in the world's perfect drink, the Margarita, but it also will change your mind about many other old standards, like the Bloody Mary (Maria?). Why add an odorless, flavorless thing like vodka to such a powerhouse of a mix? The earthy tones of tequila were meant for tomato juice and celery salt. Don't stop there; alter your Screwdriver and Greyhound. To me, vodka makes orange juice taste spoiled and thin, and the last inch of a Screwdriver is always watery, sugary sorrow. Tart, pithy grapefruit juice goes best with tequila, and you can turn your Greyhound into something special by rimming the glass in kosher salt (a Salty Dog). In a renewed effort to shed some of my snobbery toward girlie drinks, I've been ordering them with slight alterations that make them taste less like candy and more like booze; tequila comes in handy for this experiment. During a happy-hour visit to the Metropolitan Grill (820 Second Ave.), I test-drove a Grape Nehi with Sauza Conmemorativo (an anejo, $23 retail). A clone of a Cosmo, this drink usually requires vodka, lime and lemon juice, a splash of soda, and enough Chambord to turn it purple. Swap aged tequila for the vodka, and the drink balances—no surprise, since it basically becomes a Margarita. I don't believe in ordering expensive spirits and combining them with fruit juice and liqueur, so don't go too nuts when you're choosing a tequila to mix. Besides, high-end tequilas are so smooth, you won't taste them at all in a mixed drink, so you might as well have stuck with cheap vodka. The most memorable tequila-based drink I've sipped of late has got to be the Adios Mi Vida at Barrio (1420 12th Ave. E.), a blend of aged tequila, brown sugar, and cream sherry. The buttered toffee notes of the sherry give just the right amount of depth to the savory tequila, and the sherry's surprising acidity gives the drink a real lift. The refinement of this simple drink made with this most-misunderstood spirit will stun you.

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