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SPIRITS: Treated with respect, Mr. Tequila is noble

By Philip Martin

This article was published June 1, 2007 at 2:47 a.m.

Patron and Jose Cuervo shots at Cozymel's

— Tequila is a mean hombre; I don't want to get him mad.

That's why we don't mess around with him too often; it has been almost four years since this column did more than namecheck the, uh, hibrido. Mainly that's because he beat me bad one time - a couple of times, but the last time was really ugly - and I'd rather not get in his line of sight again.

I know a lot of people think he's a fun dude. I like that Joe Nichols song as much as anyone - She might come home in a tablecloth/Tequila makes her clothes fall off, heh heh, very cute - and I'll drink a margarita rather than give offense, but trust me, we're better off on opposite sides of the barroom. I just don't think the guy likes me.

Others seem to get along fine with him, and why not? Tequila, they say, can be as hospitable as any other adult beverage, and probably more civilized than most. All that worm business is beneath discussion here - that's Mezcal you're thinking of, and the worm (actually a caterpillar) is more a marketing gimmick than a genuine Mexican custom. Nor is tequila made from cactus - it's made from the sap of the Weber blue agave, a succulent plant related to the lily and indigenous to the arid highlands of central Mexico.

Most importantly, it isn't filthier and thus more likely to deliver punishing morning-afters than any other liquors - in fact 100 percent agave tequila is polluted by fewer congeners than beer, wine or most other spirits. Taken in the same dosages, it's less likely to cause a hangover.

At least that's what scientists say.

But Tequila insists that you treat him with respect. Which I failed to do on a couple of occasions. Which meant I woke up with rattlesnakes writhing on my smashed bones bleaching in the Sonoran as the sunlight shaved my eyes with a rusty switchblade. Or as Bart Simpson might say, "Ay caramba. "

It was totally my bad. But just the same, you understand my tender feelings.

So I am approaching the bottle of Patron gingerly. I will have a shot, and maybe we can put all this unpleasantness behind us. Tequila may never be my amigo, but perhaps we can get to a point where I don't flinch every time I glimpse him out of the corner of my eye.

It's a small start, a 0.375 milliliter bottle of Anejo (about $25).When I was young and reckless, we might grab a couple of bottles of Two Fingers, a grocery store lime, swipe a shaker of salt from a diner and call it a party. Now I intend to measure every drop, to defer to tequila the way I defer to Macallan Cask Strength Scotch or Booker's Bourbon. You should treat a bottle of tequila as you would a loaded gun: It could save your life, but it's also freighted with horrible potential.

Most of what I know from personal experience with tequila isn't worth repeating. There are people with more sense and better manners than I who have taken him into their home and hearth. (For a really good - and exhaustive - discussion of tequila, go to writer Ian Chadwick's Web site (www.ianchadwick.com/tequila/index.html).

One thing I did right: Purists say the best tequilas should be drunk neat, like single malt Scotch.

Tequila is the national drink of Mexico - an official honor, and one of which he is duly proud. He is not one to be abused by young gringo punks. Agave is believed to have been cultivated for at least 9,000 years to make a mildly alcoholic drink called pulque. Spanish conquistadors quickly learned to distill pulque into the more potent "tequila wine," and the city of Tequila - in the heart of the agave-growing belt in the state of Jalisco - was established in 1656.

There are two basic types of tequila, 100 percent blue agave and mixto. The 100 percent blue agave must be distilled and bottled in Mexico - a mixto may contain as little as 60 percent agave juice blended with other sugars.

Then there are the grades - blanco, reposado and anejo. Blanco is unaged and untreated with additives, reposado is "rested" in oak for between two months and a year before bottling, and anejo has spent at least one year in oak barrels. (Few tequilas are aged longer than three or four years.) These grades apply to 100 percent blue agavetequila and mixto.

It is possible to draw some general conclusions - 100 percent blue agave stuff is usually superior to (and more expensive than) mixto, and anejo is generally considered superior to (and more expensive than) reposado, but serious tequila drinkers - some do survive to full maturity - are fond of saying that, as with wine, one should not be intimidated by price lists or the opinions of others. Some tequila drinkers find they like the cleaner, silver blancos best of all. And Chadwick says there's no real correlation between theprice of a tequila and its quality. One should try lots of different tequilas, though not all at once.

Emeril Lagasse's Tequila Oyster Shots

(A tequila shot is pretty selfexplanatory; but I saw these on Lagasse's Web site - www.emerils.com - and they sound good.) Moisten the rims of 12 shot glasses with water, then dip each glass in kosher salt to coat the rims. Put an oyster into each shot glass. In a medium bowl, combine 1 cup chilled lime juice, 2 tablespoons minced red bell pepper, 1 tablespoon minced shallots, 1 tablespoon chopped cilantro leaves, 1 tablespoon chopped parsley leaves and 1 tablespoon chopped chives. Pour 1 tablespoon of the lime juice mixture into each of the 12 shot glasses over the oysters.

Pour 12 ounces tequila into a cocktail shaker with ice cubes. Shake to chill and pour 2 tablespoons of tequila into each shot glass. Serve immediately.

Spirits is a monthly imbibing guide. E-mail:

pmartin@arkansasonline.com

Dining Out, Pages 76 on 06/01/2007

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