THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE MAGUEY

Many are the stories of drunken nights and blurry mornings after a tequila rendez-vous. But, according to our drinks expert, with a vintage brand and a little holding back, it doesn't have to be that way
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The Independent Culture
I have a problem with tequila: it calls to mind the sight and smell, experienced at close range, of the inside of a toilet bowl. I've learned the hard way about the mind-bending properties of Mexico's most famous drink.

To forestall protests from the League of Tequila Distillers (an organisation I have just invented), let me explain immediately that there's good tequila and bad tequila. My Close Encounters of the Emetic Kind were arranged by the bad stuff. Or, worse still, by mezcal.

Mezcal is commonly confused with tequila, but they are not the same thing. While both are distilled from the juice of the blue agave plant (also called maguey), a member of the lily family, tequila is made only in a legally defined zone around the town of that name in the state of Jalisco, West Mexico. Mezcal can come from just about anywhere. When it's bad, it's even worse than bad tequila.

Possibly because the low-grade versions are so cheap, mezcal and tequila have a reputation as drinks for die-hard dipsos. And the traditional drinking ritual is a blueprint for inebriation. Lick coarse salt from the back of your hand, gulp down a glassful, then suck on a slice of lime or lemon to kill the taste. Do that a few times and you're guaranteed an appointment with the porcelain.

Closer to home, tequila has won fans among a certain class of urban lout. These people sink tequila "slammers": mix a shot with fizzy wine or lemonade, agitate, down in one. The aim is to get drunk ASAP. You'd call it voluntary brain-death if the practitioners had brains to begin with.

Needless to say, there's more to the drink than this. Good tequila is sublime, and some bottles cost a fortune. One, Chinaco, sells in the USA for $150 (around pounds 100). The USA is the biggest export market, but tequila is also doing well over here, with sales increasing by 8 per cent a year while other spirits lie flat or decline. Biggest sales growth is at the top of the range.

To some extent, detailed comparisons are irrelevant in the UK, since the range of tequilas sold retail is so small. But you may find yourself faced with a choice, so it's worth knowing what's what.

First, the facts. Tequila is made from agave plants that are eight- to 12-years-old. After the leaves are cut off, the fleshy cores, pinas, are steamed to facilitate extraction of their juice. This juice is then fermented and double distilled. Note that tequila can legally contain up to 49 per cent cane spirit. If you don't see the words "100 per cent agave" on the label, you're drinking the mixed variety.

The distillate can now be bottled to produce Blanco, or silver, the base- level tequila. If colourings and/or flavourings are added, it's called Joven Abocado, gold tequila, of which the famous brand is Cuervo Gold. To make "premium" tequila, the liquid is treated in one of two ways. If aged in wood tanks or barrels for between three and 12 months it's called Reposado. At the top of the line is Anejo, which is aged in barrels for a year or more.

For mezcal, the pinas are cooked in a wood oven to give a characteristically smoky flavour. Some bottles contain a worm, a practice that may have originated as proof that mezcal was strong enough. Nowadays it's just a gimmick. Any gringo who insists on eating the worm is either drunk or a dickhead.

So much for facts. To learn about tequila the fun way, I trundled along to the Cafe Pacifico, London WC2, which stocks a dozen or more. There, I spent a Friday cocktail hour spitting and sniffing with general manager Alastair Feltell, who knows the drink intimately. Some were from the big three - Cuervo, Sauza and Herradura, in that order - while others came from lesser-known producers, including smaller "boutique" or "artisan" distilleries.

One thing I learned was that mega-prices don't automatically equal mega- quality. Some of the "boutique" tequilas - imported by the Cafe Pacifico from suppliers in California, and available only in the restaurant - did not seem hugely better than bottles selling for a fifth the price. That pounds 100 Chinaco, for example, had proper smoothness and a nice peppery finish, but so does Sauza Conmemorativo. You'll find the Conmemorativo for pounds 17.75 at Gerry's in Old Compton Street, London W1 (0171 734 4215).

Sauza Silver is the Cafe Pacifico's "house" tequila, used in its margaritas. Alastair Feltell prefers silvers, finding that premium tequilas "taste as if they're trying to be something else, like Bourbon." I can see what he means, though for drinking neat I would go with a Reposado or Anejo. Even the best silver has a resinous, spirituous edge which needs softening. Of the big three, I found the best quality across the board came from Herradura. Its Anejo can be had from Fortnum & Mason in London for pounds 40, while its silver (best I've tasted) is pounds 25 and the gold pounds 30.

In my tasting, the lower levels of Cuervo had little to commend them. The silver is rough and raw, the gold has colour but little more than some caramel-like overtones. Only when we got to its 1800, a blend of products from several distilleries, did the quality start to go up markedly.

Tequila is perhaps not the best drink in the world, but neither is it the worst. The rules are as follows: avoid the cheap stuff at all costs, and sip the good ones slowly as you would a whiskey or cognac. Don't shoot, don't slam; a beer chaser is optional.

Then there are the tequila cocktails. The Sunrise (tequila, orange juice, a dash of grenadine) is too sweet for my taste, but margaritas can be wonderful things - and the best preamble to a Mexican or Tex-Mex meal. While Alastair Feltell thinks a good silver represents the best value in this fashionable cocktail, I prefer a premium like Conmemorativo, and Cointreau or Grand Marnier instead of the entry-level Triple Sec.

Here's the Cafe Pacifico recipe for their own margarita. Made with care and good ingredients, it will go down a treat. Used in moderation, it will stay down.

"TOP SHELF" MARGARITA

Substituting ordinary tequila and Triple Sec turns the drink into the Cafe Pacifico's house margarita.

5 parts Conmemorativo tequila

3 parts Cointreau

4 parts freshly squeezed lime juice

ice cubes

a wide bowl of coarse salt

Mix the Conmemorativo tequila, Cointreau and lime juice in a cocktail shaker with four or five ice cubes. Shake well.

Dip the rim of a cold glass into water, then into the salt. Add a few fresh ice cubes, then strain the drink into it. !

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