Begging your pardon for a rare diversion from our usual focus on the fruit of the vine, let's take a Friday break to talk briefly about cactus squeezin's.
Tequila, that is, the clear Mexican liquor that too many of us remember only from appalling youthful experiences in overindulgence; or Herb Alpert and his Tijuana Brass, or, at best, forgettable, birdbath-size margaritas at not-so-authentic Mexican eateries.
We may jokingly call it cactus squeezings, but tequila is actually made from the blue agave, a Mexican desert succulent that looks more like a palmetto with its spiky, sword-shaped (and purportedly sword-sharp) leaves that conceal a central fruit, the piña, that looks a bit like an oversize pineapple.
The piña is harvested, split and either pressure-cooked or baked in special commercial ovens to extract the fermentable sugars, which are distilled into a clear liquor. Tequila may be bottled immediately after distilling (labeled "Blanco" or "Plata" - "white" or "silver"), or aged in wood - most often, used Bourbon casks shipped down from Kentucky after the single use that the law permits for the Bluegrass's trademark liquor - which imparts a bronze to golden color and more mellow flavor. Wood-aged tequilas may be labeled "Reposado" ("rested") after two months to a year in oak vats or barrels, and "Añejo" ("aged") after a year or more in oak barrels. Aged for a full three years, it wins the right to a "Tres Años" designation.
Today's article, and my brief burst of interest in the subject, came about almost by happenstance, a drive-by encounter with a free tasting at a new favorite local wine shop (Gemelli, in Louisville), where a group of sales guys from Jim Beam Brands were showing off a new holding in the Kentucky distiller's growing international drinks portfolio.
The brand, El Tesoro de Don Felipe ("Don Felipe's Treasure"), is made in Mexico by Tequila Tapatio and was long sold South of the Border as Tapatio, a brand that tequila connoisseurs prize for its estate-grown blue agave and tradition of hand-made, old-fashioned artisanal production. Jim Beam and its multinational parent, Fortune Brands, appear to be beating that drum for all it's worth, declaring El Tesoro "the best tasting tequila," although cynics are watching closely and wondering whether mass-marketing, slick new packaging and, one assumes, ramped-up production will eventually alter the product.
In another odd claim that I'm still looking into, Beam's sales pitch promotes El Tesoro as being distilled directly to its 80 proof (40 percent) alcohol level rather than being aged at a stronger "barrel proof" then cut with water for bottling. The obvious implication is that all other tequilas are "diluted," but the fact is that virtually all distillates are traditionally made this way for good reasons, and no one until now has ever hinted that it might be a bad idea. When I hear that Jim Beam has begun making its fine Bourbons to bottle proof, too, I might be more easily persuaded.
In any event, once I got past evil memories of a youthful experience with the lime, salt, lick your hand and shoot-a-shot thing, I gave the El Tesoro lineup a quick but thoughtful tasting from the small plastic cups provided, and herewith present these brief, wine-tasting-style impressions. Prices are the sales reps' estimates of typical retail:
El Tesoro Platinum ($35)
El Tesoro Reposado ($40)
El Tesoro Añejo ($45)
El Tesoro Paradiso ($90)
WEB LINK: El Tesoro's Website, a slick production number that cards you for age at the entrance and requires Flash (and preferably a high-speed connection) to view, is here:
"This" turned out to be Tequila Lapis Añejo, another artisanal brand that's apparently sought-after but hard to find; a sample bottle, price unknown but certainly Not Cheap. I took a sniff, then a taste. Ohmigawd! Now, this is tequila. Not to take anything away from El Tesoro, which is certainly an admirable tequila and worth seeking out. But Lapis Añejo takes tequila to a new level: Golden, rich and subtle, complex green-chile and spice aromas and flavors in delicate balance, with a warm, mouth-filling texture that evokes velvet, or maybe a great aged Burgundy. Or maybe it was just the tequila talking, but I don't think so.
Then Dan presented a big glass of something that looked like tomato juice but was actually sangrita, a sweet-tart blend of tomato and orange juices in equal portions plus a shot of lime, a shot of Grenadine, salt and pepper and Tabasco to taste. Taste a little Lapis Añejo, then follow it with a swallow of sangrita, and the effect is like the Mexico City Philharmonic playing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in your mouth, with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing the choral movement. Or something like that. "Want some more," Dan asked, and just as I started to say, "Hell yes!" I suddenly saw horns appearing on his head and a pitchfork in his hand and I remembered that this was just the way that last tequila experience started, way back when. So, no thanks, Dan, but thanks for asking.
I'm definitely re-calibrated on tequila, though, and next time someone offers me a small taste of a good Añejo I probably won't say no.
Thanks for indulging this break from wine. Monday we'll be back to the grape.
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Friday, July 8, 2005