The worm returns

DRINK: There's more to tequila than slammers and sunrise

Even the instinctively eclectic drinker likes an excuse to dabble beyond the mainstream. Chancing to hear that Mexico's Independence Day starts tomorrow, and continues on Monday, I decided to celebrate with something exotic. My partner panicked. "Not peyote!" she exclaimed. Certainly not. She was confused, as I probably will be before the weekend is out.

What I have in mind is the agave or maguey plant, a cactus-like, spiny member of the lily family, as distilled into a spirit called Mezcal.

Mezcal lubricated perhaps the most alcoholic of all novels, Under the Volcano, by Malcolm Lowry. It is the most basic of Mexican spirits - woody, fiery and heady - although it has never given me the "phantasmagoria" apparently enjoyed by Lowry. In Mexico, it is often served from a vessel resembling a petrol can; elsewhere it usually comes in a bottle.

I recently spotted one I had not tasted before, Ecantado Mezcal de Oaxaca, at Cafe Pacifico, in Covent Garden, London. This turned out to be smooth, fragrant and smoky, although lacking in the dead "worm" that some bottles of Mezcal contain.

This creature is a grub that burrows into the agave plant, and the survival of its corpse is meant to indicate that the Mezcal is well made. Drink the worm and you are a real man. I found it tasted of cardboard. Whether, as reputed, it improved my potency, I doubt.

The finest agave is the "blue" variety that grows around the small town of Tequila, at the foot of the volcanic mountain of the same name, near the city of Guadalajara, in Jalisco province. Here, and in three bordering provinces, are the demarcated areas that produce the blue agave distillate identified as tequila.

The huge, bulb-like root of the plant is unearthed from the volcanic soil, softened by steaming and chopped into a pulp from which the natural sugars are washed, fermented and distilled. The finest tequilas are made entirely from agave; the less expensive brands may contain up to 40 per cent cheaper spirit, usually made from sugar cane.

The cheapest tequilas, usually colourless, are matured for only a few weeks. Some of the golden examples are softened in the palate by caramel or almond essence, but others are aged in oak tanks for up to six months. These are labelled Reposado ("rested"). Those with the appellation Anejo ("old") have been matured for at least a year, occasionally eight or 10, in oak barrels. These are often barrels that have already accommodated Kentucky Bourbon whiskey, which may leave behind a touch of vanilla.

The basic flavours of tequila are rooty, artichoke-like, barkish, leafy, sometimes with hints of garden mint, tobacco or hemp. It is a far more complex drink than it is given credit for, and I enjoy the odd one (though rarely more than two) taken neat.

Recently, I tasted my way through several new labels on the British market, all said to be 100 per cent agave. These are hard to find, but specialist wine merchants occasionally come up with the odd example.

The one I liked best was Patron Silver. This had a eucalyptus aroma, a big attack that was firm, dry and artichoke-like, and a long dry, tobacco finish. Chinaco Anejo had a Bourbon aroma with rooty, eucalyptus flavours and a quinine dryness in the finish. I preferred the Reposado, which was more flowery in aroma and palate. El Tesoro Anejo was sweeter and sherryish, with notes of mint. There was also a mint character to a two-year-old from Porfidio. The same label's "single barrel" bottling tasted of syrup and ice-cream.

The best-known all-agave tequila is Herradura. I lingered over the Anejo and found it toasty, with hints of rum butter. The leader among all tequilas, Jose Cuervo, has a "super-premium" version, Reserva De la Familia. It smelled of polished wood, and I found it oaky and peppery. The golden Cuervo Especial (from Tesco) has a toffee-like smoothness and peppery finish. Montezuma Aztec Gold (Oddbins) is lighter, drier and more mustardy. The regular "white" Cuervo is fruity, and its Montezuma counterpart again more mustardy.

These flavours can radiate through the salt and lime, the triple sec in a margarita, or the orange juice and grenadine in a Sunrise. In her book Tequila!, Lucinda Hutson gives her own recipe for a festive punch. To one bottle of tequila, two cups of Cointreau and three bottles of Jamaican ginger ale, add fruit garnishes and a gallon of cranberry juice. What would Delia say?

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