Wednesday, January 15, 2014

In which I sample an authentic --

Hard to believe we have been seeing each other two years. This was early on. 

-- tequila, of all things. I'm told it was realer than real: moonshine distilled by anonymous mountain craftsmen, stored in borrowed bottles, and imported shall we say on the quiet.

It poured clear into a tiny curved snifter. Beside it on the countertop sat a shot glass of amber-colored commercial tequila, some brand we have all heard of.

Before we go a step further we'll just jot down the barest facts about this spirit to which, so far, we have paid not the least attention. We may as well start small, and consult Wikipedia about it -- that is, in just a moment. First, to our master, Charles Schumann and his American Bar. Even he devotes a scant page to it, summarizing it so: tequila is distilled from fermented juices of the agave plant, and is made only in a designated area of the Mexican state of Jalisco. Properly it is made not just "with" blue agave but entirely of "100%" blue agave -- that is, the product should not be diluted with plain neutral grain alcohol for convenience' sake. Colorless silver or blanco tequila is bottled without aging. Reposado and anejo tequilas are aged in oak barrels, taking on amber color and complex flavors. When you browse the shelves of your liquor or grocery store you will notice the difference among clear/dark/darker, and notice also the difference in prices among blanco/reposado/anejo. They go up.

So we understand, at least, that our clear moonshine tequila was blanco, not aged in anything.

"Take a sniff of that."   

I did. It smelled smoky, not like the barbecue smokiness of heavy red wines, but a little like cigarette smoke. A second whiff brought out other faint plant-like scents, especially eucalyptus.

"Now this."

 I took up the shot glass full of that amber colored, commercial brand. It smelled like rubbing alcohol overlaid with caramel.

Next, a taste. I didn't bother to try the caramel-infused rubbing alcohol,confining myself instead to the anonymous, gently smoky craftsman's hooch in the little curved snifter. A tiny sip, for of course I expected ferocious heat and no flavor.

Have you ever heard people rave on about "smooth" liquors, liquors that "go right down"? Until you have tried real, clandestine tequila in a friend's silent kitchen on a chilly spring night, you won't know the meaning of the words. This was as smooth as water. One could easily imagine taking another sip and another, and then when the little curved snifter was empty, tottering off to an easy chair to contemplate the experience. When your friend puts the bottle away in the cabinet, he is likely to note that young people tend to get in trouble enjoying this, because it goes down so easy they think they can handle as much as they like. 

We said we must consult Wikipedia. This is because being the newbies that we are, as soon as we recover our poise and start thinking, we might drum our fingers on the table and ask -- now how bright is it to rely on just one source to show us what authentic means? Perhaps the absence of alcohol heat is a flaw, and the presence of eucalyptus a flaw too. Perhaps the stuff was adulterated with who knows what. We click on over. "It should be noted," the pertinent article says, "that many of the higher-quality, 100% agave tequilas do not impart significant alcohol burn .... These tequilas are usually sipped from a snifter glass rather than a shot glass, and savored instead of quickly gulped. Doing so allows the taster to detect subtler fragrances and flavors that would otherwise be missed."

Ah so. A new experience begins to add up, to authenticity. We feel reassured. We also feel instantly spoiled by this sample of (probably) a very good tequila. What poor, well-meaning commercial producer will ever be able to match it? Perhaps it is to disguise the coarseness in, and yet make use of, their product that someone invented the tequila-based cocktail, the margarita. Charles Schumann, again:

Combine with ice in a cocktail shaker:
3/4 ounce (half a jigger) lemon juice
3/4 ounce (half a jigger) Cointreau or triple sec
1 and 1/2 ounces (jigger) tequila 
Strain into a chilled cocktail glass with a salted rim.

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