Monday, April 10, 2006

The best tequila in Mexico - Herradura Añejo

I have been asked about which brand of tequila is considered the best here in Oaxaca. Let me start by saying that Oaxaca is not noted for tequila. Mezcal is the booze of note here in the state of Oaxaca. And the difference between mezcal and tequila? Hardly any difference at all. First of all, both are distilled from the agave cactus (which isn't really a cactus at all). To be called tequila, however, the booze must be distilled from 100% blue agave cactus and be distilled in the state of Jalisco (Guadalahara). If the distillate is a blend of agaves or is distilled anywhere outside the state of Jalisco, it must be called mezcal. Also, if you have a bottle of tequila with a worm lying in the bottom, throw it away (the bottle and the contents, but bury the worm with full military honors). The worm thing is a mezcal thing, NOT a tequila thing.

There was a big deal a couple of years ago as Mexico went through the process of signing agreements with various countries to protect the name "tequila". The Mexicans wanted to require that the alcohol not only be distilled in Jalisco from 100% blue agave, but also be bottled there. The United States refused to go along because there are a number of bottlers, especially in California, who import the tequila from Mexico by the barrel and then bottle it there. US trade reps had to threaten to allow tequila to be distilled as well as bottled in the US, thereby robbing Mexico of its tequila exclusivity, before the Mexicans blinked and went along with the bottling deal.

There are a number of very high quality tequilas available here and my personal favorites are Herradura Añejo or Herradura Reposado. Herradura means "horseshoe" -- there is a big blue horseshoe on the label, "añejo" means "aged for a long time", in this case for two years, and "reposado" means "aged for not so long", or 11 months. While there are a number of tequilas considered higher quality (aged longer), I prefer the taste of Herradura over all others. And as for Jose Cuervo (Joe Crow), I might consider pouring it into my gas tank for my next high speed run to St. Louis, but I don't drink the stuff. Don Julio and Oro Azul (blue gold) are two other high quality tequilas that are very popular. As with any comparison between approximately equal quality brands, the key is the taste and Herradura's taste is the one that I prefer.

Just a quick word about tequila drinking etiquette. This business of licking the webbing between one's thumb and forefinger, salting the wet area, downing a shot of cheap-ass tequila in one gulp and plunging the webbing of the hand into the mouth to suck the salt and then plunging a lime into one's mouth to be noisily sucked is considered, well, uncivilized, uncouth, unsavory, unacceptable and it, er, sucks. A fine tequila like Herradura Añejo is to be savored, like a good sipping whiskey, a fine cognac or a good brandy. Tequila should be served in a special glass, called a Caballito (cah bah YEE toe) -- "Little horse" -- or tequillita (tay key YEE tah) which is slightly smaller in diameter than a shot glass and about two and a half times as tall. It will hold just about two shots of tequila. You don't have to ask for such glasses, that's what you're going to get. Your tasty Herradura should be accompanied, if you are a macho, with a shot of a chaser called "sangrita". I have tried and tried to duplicate sangrita at home using everything from Bloody Mary mix to Clamato to V-8 to tomato juice along with peppers, Tabasco, Worcestershire -- known in Mexico, interestingly, as "salsa inglesa", or "English sauce" -- and what have you but have never been able to even match the most common sangrita that you can buy in the grocery stores here. Here are the official ingredients of an average sangrita -- try your luck: water, tomato paste, orange juice concentrate, lime juice concentrate, Worcestershire sauce, onion, red pepper sauce, salt and spices.

If you are a señora you might, no, should prefer a lime juice chaser, also served in the same sized shot glass. If you are a señorita, drinking tequila would be considered, at best, daring, and at worst, a poor reflection on your character. In any case, whether you are a daring young lass or your character is so bad it no longer has a reflection, you should chase your tequila with the lime juice.

Now to mezcal for which Oaxaca is famous. Mezcal is made just about the same way as tequila and from the same agave cactus, but it probably is an agave blend rather than 100% blue agave. Also, the mezcaleros cook the agave over open wood fires imparting a unique smokey taste not present in most tequilas. Mezcal has an unsavory reputation as rot gut booze, but there are some very fine mezcals available. In addition, it is a very popular and tasty apertif when combined with cream and various flavors. The flavored creamed mezcals are almost limitless in variety. Orange, cherry, nut (probably walnut or pecan), almond, pineapple, peach, every oddball tropical fruit that you can think of and coconut are just a few of the flavors available. Every time I think I have seen and tasted every flavor extant, I find yet another mescalero with yet another unique flavor that I hadn't seen, er, tasted before.

I won't suggest a mezcal. I just don't have enough experience with this booze like I do with, say, Miller Lite or Jack Daniels Black Label or, for that matter, Herradura Reposado. The best thing to do is to visit Oaxaca and take a walk, or several walks around town. There are at least a dozen very high quality mescaleros with "showrooms" and they will happily let you taste just about every flavor they have available. Once you have selected one or two different mezcals, they'll pack the bottles in a nice cardboard box for your trip back. And I kid you not. You can get about half gassed just sampling the stuff.

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