- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 2, 2006

The margarita is the best-selling cocktail in the United States, so it should be no surprise that tequila is one of the fastest growing distilled spirits in the country. Since it comes from Mexico, tequila is the perfect drink for celebrating Cinco de Mayo.

For a decidedly au courant drink, tequila’s origins are surprisingly humble. The native Indians of Mexico were probably cooking up an alcoholic drink from the indigenous agave plant long before the Spanish arrived in the 1520s.

It was New World technology — distilling — that kick-started tequila production during the 16th century in the town of Tequila, 7,500 feet above sea level in the western Mexican state of Jalisco. Oddly enough, tequila didn’t find legs as a superpopular drink, even in Mexico, until the 1990s.

In the United States, tequila experienced a brief heyday during Prohibition and then again during World War II. It wasn’t until the 1970s, however, that tequila makers Herradura and Sauza started a tequila craze north of the border. That craze is now in full bloom.

All tequila is Mexican by international agreement; if it’s not made in Mexico, it’s not tequila.

Authentic tequila is a liquor distilled from fermented juices extracted from the hearts of blue agave plants grown in Mexico’s tequila region, in western Mexico around Guadalajara.

There are about 500 varieties of agave, 260 of which are grown in Mexico, but only Agave tequilana, or blue agave, is cultivated to make tequila. The plant matures at eight to 10 years and has long, bluish green spiny leaves with sharp points and a large heart called a pina. The juices are extracted from the sugary heart to be fermented and distilled.

Tequila production is tightly controlled by the Mexican government and through the Tequila Regulatory Council (CRT). This body, a private nonprofit organization based in Guadalajara, oversees every aspect of tequila production and certifies quality. So the initials CRT on a label ensure good quality.

There are two main classifications of tequila and five categories. If it’s labeled simply “tequila,” it can be a mix of 51 percent agave sugars and 49 percent sugars from other sources. This classification of tequila can be exported in bulk and bottled in other countries.

The classification labeled “100 percent blue agave tequila” means just that, and it must be bottled at the distillery.’

The categories are blanco (silver or white), joven or oro (gold), reposado (rested), anejo (aged) and extra anejo (extra aged).

• Tequila blanco is the original. It’s clear in color and bottled immediately after distillation, maintaining much of the aroma and flavor of the blue agave.

• Joven or oro is tequila blanco that has not been aged and to which color and flavorings have been added. Caramel is the most common of these, but oak tree extracts, glycerin and sugar syrup are also common.

• Reposado is tequila blanco that has been aged in white oak casks for two months to one year. Reposado tequila is pale, mellow and maintains the blue agave character.

• Anejo is tequila blanco that has been aged for more than a year in oak barrels to impart a golden amber color and more complex flavors. This tequila, among the most expensive, is smooth-tasting and soft on the palate, with woody and oxidized flavors.

• Extra anejo is the newest category of tequila. It is a tequila blanco that has been aged for at least three years. This tequila is the richest in flavor and aroma. Some distillers age tequila for up to eight years and label it, although the name hasn’t yet become an official category.

There are many styles of tequila with aromas and flavors derived from the different soils in which the agave is grown. In this sense, the soil in which the plant is grown plays just as important a part in tequila as it does in wine.

“The range of flavors from region to region are much like single-malt scotches from different areas of Scotland,” said Dale DeGroff, president and founder of the Museum of the American Cocktail and a cocktail and spirits expert from Long Island, N.Y. “I think the best tequilas are equal to scotches in their finesse, character, diversity, aromas and flavors.”

The best tequilas should be enjoyed slowly, sipped at room temperature or perhaps slightly chilled. The standard glass is a 2-ounce caballito, although a snifter is often used when serving an anejo or extra anejo, to fully appreciate the aromas. Blanco and reposado tequilas are often mixed into a sangrita, which is a drink made of tomato and orange juice with salt and chili.

There are more than 600 brands of tequila on the market and about 100 distilleries. The market leader is Cuervo. Sauza, Herradura and Tezon are also big sellers in the United States. Other brands to look for are El Tesoro, Los Abeulos, Cabo Wabo, Milagro, Don Julio, Don Juan, Don Eduardo, Patron and Frida Kahlo.

Angelita

Bar salt

2 ounces Gran Centenario Plata tequila

1 ounce Grand Marnier

3/4 ounce fresh lime juice

1 teaspoon simple syrup (see note)

Lime slice

Dip glass in water and then again in salt to rim with salt. Combine tequila, Grand Marnier, lime juice and simple syrup in a mixing glass. Shake vigorously. Pour into short glass and garnish with a lime slice. Makes 1 serving.

Note: Simple syrup is made by combining two parts sugar with one part water and simmering, over low heat, until sugar is dissolved. Chill before using.

Sweet Charity

1½ ounce Gran Centenario Plata tequila

3/4 ounce fresh grapefruit juice

3/4 ounce fresh orange juice

½ ounce creme de cassis

Lemon wedge

Ice

Frozen honeydew or cantaloupe melon ball

Chill a martini glass. In a cocktail shaker, combine tequila, grapefruit juice, orange juice and creme de cassis. Squeeze lemon juice in and drop wedge into shaker. Add ice and shake all ingredients well. Strain into chilled martini glass. Garnish with a frozen melon ball. Makes 1 serving.

Livin’ la vida Rita

½ ounce Jose Cuervo Especial tequila

½ ounce vodka

½ light rum

2 ounces pineapple juice

1 ounce orange juice

½ ounce cream of coconut

Crushed ice

Pineapple wedges and leaf for garnish

Combine tequila, vodka, rum, pineapple juice, orange juice and cream of coconut in a shaker. Pour over crushed ice. Garnish with pineapple wedges and a leaf. Makes 1 serving.

Fresh strawberry margarita

Sugar

1½ ounces Jose Cuervo especial tequila

3 ounces Margarita or sour mix

Handful of fresh strawberries, cleaned and stemmed

½ cup crushed ice, or more

Lime wedge

Wet rim of margarita glass and dip in sugar to sugar rim. In blender combine tequila, margarita or sour mix, strawberries and enough crushed ice to make desired consistency. Pour into margarita glass and garnish with a fresh lime wedge.

Makes 1 serving.

Gregg Glaser is editor of “Yankee Brew News.”

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