An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Patron’s tequila has changed over the years. According to a spokesman for the company, Patron changed distilleries in 2002, but the company has not changed production methods since it launched in 1989, and the tequila has not changed. This version has been updated.
No one bawls “PAAAAARRRTY!” when they see a bottle of Glenlivet.
Is it some dormant memory of Cancun, Mexico vacations past? Did we all come of age in a Texas honky-tonk, where swallowing the worm at the bottom of a bottle was a means to prove we had hair on our chests?
Me, I don’t want hair on my chest. I want to have a good cocktail. I want to sip good spirits. And if you’re offering me a drink that requires me to first salt my palate, knock back a shot with my eyes closed, then suck on a lime to get rid of the taste . . . well, partner, sign me up for a hard pass.
I’ll go drink tequila somewhere they know better.
Tequila, opined a travel writer for the New York Times, “has come a long way in the last 20 years. It is now old hat to drink it ‘neat’ in the old manner – touching the tongue to a pinch of salt and then sucking in the juice from a sliced lemon as you grimace and gulp down the tequila.” He wrote that in 1968. I guess some “old hats” get stuck on heads forever.
I’d long assumed spring-break culture had helped perpetuate the shot-slamming approach to tequila and the lingering bias against it. Many a terrible cheap tequila is consumed in Cancun – or as I call it, Fort Lauderdale South – and consumed in great, sick-making quantities.
But some of the attitude is homegrown, says David Suro, an importer, restaurateur and president of Siembra Azul tequila. During Mexico’s golden age of cinema, he says, movies regularly depicted stars shooting tequila, wincing and reaching for lime and salt. In fact, Suro says, for years Mexican elites didn’t even drink tequila; they looked to European spirits and French wines, dismissing their native spirits as the stuff of peasants. It took the investment and approval of wealthy foreigners to make many Mexicans give agave spirits a deeper look; these days, interest is surging and drinking mezcal is a point of national pride.
Adequately explaining the difference between tequila and mezcal is tricky. Tequila is a kind of mezcal, one that can be made only in the Mexican state of Jalisco and a few other places; it must use only agave tequilana, not other agave species. Mezcal can be made across a wider geographical range of Mexico, from a range of agave species. The differences in ingredients, terroir and production processes result in a bit of a head-scratcher: The mezcal sold as “tequila” doesn’t usually taste like the mezcal sold as “mezcal,” and “mezcals” can taste very different from one another.
Agave spirits break drinkers into camps. There are the haters, who once drank too much tequila and decided the experience was representative and that all tequila sucks.
There are drinkers who have discovered “premium” tequilas. “Premium” is a confusing term, used by the industry to reference more expensive bottles, but often understood by drinkers to mean “better.” Many premium tequilas are beautifully bottled, celebrity-endorsed and brag of their multiple distillations and resulting smoothness.
And then there are agave nerds. These days they, too, may express contempt for tequila – but for different reasons. As the tequila business boomed over the past decades, many producers moved away from their rustic roots, getting swallowed up by multinationals and shifting to more industrialized processes to meet volume demands. These shifts have gradually changed tequila. While some great, traditionally made brands still exist, many of the bestsellers have had their flavors smoothed by industrial processes, emerging as what some now scornfully refer to as “aga-vodkas.”
Such “premium” tequilas alienate many in this camp, who gravitate instead to mezcals. Made by small producers working much as they would have 100 years ago, most mezcals are still hyperlocal, beloved by people who value spirits as expressions of the places they came from. While the use of roasted agave makes a smoky taste a common note in the spirit, there are mezcals with flavors as varied as pine, cheese, flowers and leather. That variety and complexity is what enthusiasts enjoy.
In Mexico, beyond limes and salt and margaritas, tequila is often served with sangrita (“little blood”), a nonalcoholic chaser of citrus and chile that’s sometimes part of a “bandera” – shots of lime, blanco tequila and sangrita, three colors echoing the Mexican flag. There are many recipes and commercial mixes – some have Worcestershire sauce, many have tomato juice; more traditional versions lean toward citrus and pomegranate. Another occasional partner is verdita (“little green”), a mix of cilantro, pineapple, jalapeño and mint, which sometimes stands in for the lime juice shot in the bandera.
In most mezcal bars, the spirit is served neat, says Megan Barnes, beverage director at Espita, the mezcaleria in Washington. In the States, she says, it’s most often served in veladoras, small glass votives with a distinctive cross on the base, or in clay bowls called copitas. In Mexico, typically it will be poured into a jicara, a hollowed shell of the fruit from a calabash tree, served sitting on a little woven circlet of grass that keeps the vessel from tipping. Pours are often served with slices of orange and sal de gusano, a powdered blend of salt, chile peppers and dried agave worms (you may decide to call this “nope” powder, but it just tastes like spicy, savory salt).