Viva Agave! Tequila Aficionados Unite in Los Cabos.

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Hundreds of years ago, nobody is sure of the exact date, lighting struck an agave plant in Mexico, causing it to split and reveal a crude nectar that the Aztecs used to make a primitive beverage, an ancestral form of what we now call tequila. That’s according to an ancient legend, and it’s an event that is still celebrated in Mexico in story and traditional dance.  Tequila, as refined and rewarding a beverage as you can find, has now become one of the most celebrated alcoholic drinks in the world.

Tequila is North America’s first distilled drink, with a history dating back to pre-Hispanic times. Tequila isn’t just an alcohol beverage, writes Alberto Ruy-Sánchez Lacy, Ph.D., in his book Guía del Tequila (Guide to Tequila). It’s a distillation of a legendary part of Mexican history, with all its hard work and pride, and sipping a fine tequila is more than a direct connection to a specific region or producer, it’s also a connection to the heart and soul of Mexico.

After that proverbial lightning strike, the Aztecs were able to make a fermented beverage from the agave plant which they called octli – later called pulque – long before the Spanish arrived in 1521.   During the pre-Hispanic era, the Tiquila tribe from Amatitlan, learned the essential process of boiling and fermenting the agave plant to obtain a ritualistic beverage which was then only consumed by religious authorities.

When the Spanish conquistadors ran out of their own brandy, they began to distill agave to produce North America’s first indigenous alcoholic spirit.  Mezcal wine – tequila’s direct ancestor – was first produced only a few decades after the Spaniards arrived in the New World in 1521. In 1538 the governor of Nueva Galcia, an area that includes present-day Jalisco, created a law to control production of what was called vino mescal. Tequila, like Mexico herself, was born of a Mestizo heritage; the drink was first produced from a Mexican product by the Spanish in European stills of Arabic origin.

Tequila as an industry had its beginnings when Jose Antonio de Cuervo obtained land from the King King Carlos IV of Spain in 1758, before Mexico became an independent republic. In 1795, Jose María Guadalupe de Cuervo made the very first Vino Mezcal de Tequila de Jose Cuervo after receiving the first official permit from the King of Spain to produce Tequila commercially.  His distillery, La Cofradia de la Animas, is the predecessor of the well-known firm of Casa Cuervo.  Other early tequila pioneers include Tequila Herradura which was founded in 1870 and Tequila Sauza which was founded in 1873.

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Tequila is distilled from the juices of the blue agave plant (agave tequiliana Weber), commonly called blue agave (agave azul). This large plant is commonly confused with the cactus plant as the source of tequila, but it is actually a relative of the lily (amaryllis) family.  Grown in the state of Jalisco and in specified areas of the surrounding states of Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit and Tamaulipas, the large spikey plant was classified by German botanist Franz Weber in 1905.  Weber arrived in Mexico in 1896 and spent years studying the best agaves for the production of tequila.  His studies determined that the blue agave variety was the best source for tequila, and the plant now bears his name.

Tequila was first exported to the United States in 1870, but really didn’t really didn’t create much excitement in Northern America until Bing Crosby and Phil Harris began importing Herradura into the United States in the 1950s.  Little was known about tequila up until the early 1960s except by those who lived in the southwestern US where it had a market with the Hispanic population there, and with rabble-rousing college kids who went to Tijuana in search of wide open good times and cheap thrills.

Tequila’s early reputation with gringos established it as the wild child of alcoholic beverages. Mysterious and with a troubled history, tequila immediately earned itself a bad rap as drink with the sophistication of kerosene and a kick-in-the head hangover. This reputation, along with the mention of tequila in songs (everybody knows the party classic with the one word refrain from The Champs) served as marketing bait to lure the adventure seekers from the Hollywood crowd and college campuses across the border to Tijuana and other border towns.   The tequila consumed there was often an inferior grade, taken in multiple shots with salt and lime, sometimes with a Alka-Seltzer chaser, and consumption of that low grade rocket fuel was a guaranteed recipe for a bad tomorrow.

In the years after its introduction Americans learned to love their tequila, especially after the time-honored lick-some-salt, knock-back-a-shot, suck-the-lime consumption technique and the popularization of the margarita in all of its many machine-churned fruity varieties.

Luckily, tequila has changed a lot since then, and has evolved to a point where it can claim its rightful place among the world’s great distilled spirits. Now tightly regulated by the Mexican government, top notch tequilas are made exclusively with the fermented and distilled juice of the blue agave, and can now range from $40 to several hundreds of dollars a bottle.  That one source, the juice of the Agave Tequiliana Weber plant, has now been conjugated to produce an industry that includes over 2,600 labels in a dazzling array of beautiful handmade bottles, and the number continues to climb.

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Choosing from among the vast number of high end tequilas can be daunting. It’s not enough anymore to know your silvers or blancos (not aged) from your reposados (aged from two months to a year) from your añejos (aged for a year or more).  There’s also extra añejo (aged for three years or more), gran reposado, blanco suave, platinum and even flavored tequilas. The classification extra añejo, or extra aged, was the newest classification approved by Mexico’s National Committee on Standardization, and there are more and more world class ultra-premium añejos  arriving on the market every year.

But all of this background information can make a person thirsty, and it’s time to apply this working knowledge to a tour of some of the most prominent tequila sampling spots around town.  In a place that’s used to enjoying the finest of everything, there’s no shortage of great places in Los Cabos and its environs to educate your taste buds and enjoy a personal relationship with some of Mexico’s finest spirits.

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Let’s start with Pancho’s. The original ground zero for tequila lovers in Cabo, tequilero John Bragg’s restaurant now sports one of the largest collections in the world.  That’s no accident, since Bragg has been studying and sampling tequila for years, and has been working on the definitive book on the subject.  At Pancho’s you’ll meet Jose de Jesus Anguiano, who conducts the tequila tastings in a separate room at the back of the restaurant, with its credentials on the wall – a collection of certificates awarded them by the Consejo Regulador del Tequila, A.C., Mexico’s federal tequila regulatory council. Jose spent a full year earning his stripes in Mexico’s tequila-producing region, and has been Pancho’s Tequila Master for the last 10 years. Simple flights of good tequilas are served up on handcrafted wooden platters, and then Jose guides you through the basic types of tequila with the enthusiasm and knowledge of a true master.  After the tasting, participants are awarded a certificate anointing them as Tequila Connoisseurs, authorized by the local Experto en Tequila John Bragg.

Tastings at Grand Solmar have the visual advantage of being held in one of the great new properties with a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean. Sommelier and Tequila Master Juan Carlos is your guide here, offering tastings that lasts about an hour to hotel guests and non-guests alike, in groups from two people to a group of 6 to 8. Juan offers a thorough introduction to the history and description of tequila in its many styles, and uses slices of citrus and green apples to demonstrate the complexities and levels of flavor in high end tequilas, and also suggests pairing with a variety of foods, including sushi, guacamoles and salsas.  A variety of mezcals can also be added to the agenda, where Juan Carlos describes the differences between fine tequila and its other agave-derived relative. This is a great introduction to the world of tequila, and the view and atmosphere at Grand Solmar only intensifies the experience.

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“We pride ourselves on offering our guests new experiences in food and beverages,” says Isaac Novoa, banquet and bar manager at Capella Pedregal. “We find there is a lot of misinformation about tequila – that it comes from cactus, that there’s a worm in the bottle, all of those myths. A lot of people only think of tequila as something they do as a shot, not something to enjoy in small sips. Good tequila, especially añejo should always be sipped like a fine cognac.” Capella Pedregal offers three different classes on tequila: a Beginner’s Course where Novoa explains the history and tradition of tequila and describes the basic styles: blanco, reposado and añejo tequila, along with mezcal. The Advanced Course teaches the unique properties of the various tequilas produced from agave. The Once in a Lifetime course presents some of the best extra aged tequilas Mexico has to offer. “Almost every one of our guests chooses level three — the Once in a Lifetime course,” says Novoa. “After our class, they have a much greater understanding and appreciation of tequila.  This is something that will stay with them the rest of their lives.”

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At the Museo del Tequila in the Marina’s Golden Zone you have the added dimension of being in an environment that is completely tequila-themed.  The room sports a tequila bar, and some of the actual implements used in harvesting and processing the agave piñas into tequila, including a coa de jima (harvesting hoe), machetes, an old stone mill to crush the piñas and an antique still originally used in processing the agave nectar.  There’s a lot of graphic narrative about the history and process of tequila making on the walls, and we also picked up a card detailing all the benefits tequila had to offer, including “eliminates shyness, improves digestion, increases joy, makes forget, gets friends closer and extinguishes guilt,”  among other things.  So take a seat at their beautiful handcrafted wood bar and see how many good side effects you can manifest during a tasting here.

Esperanza’s Tequila Master Christian Moya comes from the tequila-growing of Guadalajara, and grew up appreciating its history and traditions.  A tasting here can take palce on the terrace overlooking the Sea of Cortez at their Restaurant on the beach or any other of many vantage points.  Fresh green and red sangritas are made just before service and Moya offers a passionate discourse on the history and process of making fine tequila.  They have a dedicated clientele who revisit Esperanza’s tequila tasting every year.  “We offer different tastings every year, as we discover new, very special tequilas,” Moya says.  “We try to evolve the process so that people are always discovering something new about tequila. We also tell them about recommended cocktail recipes and matching tequila with foods.”   They also do things like pair an extra añejo with dark chocolate and spicy truffles.

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Guests at Las Ventanas al Paraiso receive a personal invitation to the world of tequila when they arrive, a sample of Tequila Clase Azul and an introductory note from Maestro Tequilero Oscar Mondragon, which includes instruction on tasting and an invitation to “awaken your taste buds by enjoying several dried pumpkin seeds with chili powder…sipping the tequila, taking a pinch of salt from several samples, a little lime juice, a few spicy almonds, and finally a piece of dark chocolate to taste with the tequila.”  That’s a personal introduction for their guests, but their full blown tasting takes places at their Tequila and Ceviche Bar.  There Mondragon offers a passionate introduction to the world of tequila, complete with their handmade sangritas which are made an hour before service.  After sipping their exotic elixirs, they hand you a diploma certifying you as a Tequila Aficionado. Sitting there overlooking the Sea of Cortez, your graduation certificate in hand, it seems life couldn’t get much better.

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The One & Only Palmilla is not known for compromise, and that also goes for their tequila tastings.  Available to both hotel guests and non-guests alike, our tasting took place in the Herb Garden on the hotel grounds, an open air space with a very calming feel to it.  Under the tutelage of Tequila Master Manuel Arteaga, tequila tasting are orchestrated using flights of eight premium tequilas set up a sheet that clearly identifies them: a Don Julio 1942, Casa Noble Añejo, 7 Leguas D’Antano Extra Añejo, Chicaco Negro Extra Añejo, Agave Dos Mil Blanco, Toro de Lidia Blanco, Oro Azul Reposado and Partida Reposado.  “We like to offer the tequilas to taste side by side, of the same type, so that they can taste the very distinct differences between two blancos or two añejos,” Arteaga says. As he goes through the various labels and styles, Arteaga describes tequila tasting in its entirety: the aromatics of the “nose,” the mouth feel and the aftertaste. He’s very familiar with these sometimes artisanal products and visits the tequila producing region at least once a year to buy from very select producers.

At Don Sanchez and Habanero’s in San Jose, owner, chef and tequila meister Tadd Chapman has created a comprehensive program that covers many of the subtle details and nuances found in the world of tequila. A video presentation covers the history, process and tasting of tequila, and then he offers a sampling of three 100% agaves in blanco, reposado and añejo styles.  The system here involves the use of a tasting wheel, a graphic reference with descriptions of the aromas and flavors found in tequila, from floral and spicy, to woody, caramel, nutty and fruity.  Graduation from the class is complete with the presentation of an official-looking Certification of Completion.  And, since you’ve probably worked up a good appetite by now, the food is great at both of these restaurants, and Tadd will be glad to provide some advice on food/tequila parings.

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At Costa Baja near La Paz they take their tequila very seriously. Home to an extensive collection of premium tequilas from select blancos to high end extra añejos and tequila based liqueurs, they currently offer two tasting menus and are planning to add more events in 2013.  Tastings will usually take place at Steinbeck’s Restaurant outdoors overlooking the picturesque marina.

Costa Baja’s collection includes many limited production tequilas, some which have attained a legendary reputation, like the Don Julio Reposado launched in 1987 and the Don Porfidio Reposado, to share with guests and visitors.  The collection is one of the most extensive in southern Baja, consisting of a private collection of 400 brands of blancos and reposados, and a special selection of unique bottles in the ultra-premium tequila category in handmade bottles.  Tequila tasting categories at Costa Baja include a standard level with samples of the Agavero Liqueur, Maestro Tequilero blanco, 7 Leguas reposado, Patron Añejo and 1921 tequila Cream.  A luxury tasting includes samples of the Agavero liqueur, Patron Silver, Don Julio Añejo Real, Reserva reposado and 1921 Tequila Cream.  This is an opportunity to become knowledgeable about top tier tequilas if you’re in the La Paz area, and you’ll want to keep in touch as they expand their repertoire here.

If you have the opportunity to visit one of Los Cabos’ tequila masters at any one of these tequila tasting temples, which we highly recommend, then consider the following basic tasting techniques when they bring out those decorative bottles  of Mexico’s finest:

  1. After the pour, hold the glass up to the light, notice the color by tilting the glass away from you against a light background. Blancos should be clear without occlusions or sediment; reposados and añejos will have more amber-like color picked up from the wood during their barrel aging. Check the consistency of the tequila as it drips down the inside of the glass (an effect called “legs”) Does it run down slowly or quickly? Is the viscosity thick or thin?
  2. Swirl the tequila and then give it a deep sniff. Much of what you will taste is a result of the aromas released as you swirl. Repeat as necessary, enjoying the medley of scents, which can include notes of caramel, vanilla and herbaceous overtones.
  3. Take a sip, swirl it around in your mouth, swallow and exhale. What flavors do you detect?  Common tastes include citrus, spice, wood, floral, vanilla, caramel and chocolate.  Hold the sample in your mouth; swish it around allowing it to coat your palate. Notice the feel in the mouth. Is it thin and mineral-tasting or rich and velvety? By “mouthing” the sample you will release its aromatics. That’s a good thing in tasting tequila.
  4. For many tequila tastings a special tomato fruit juice blend called sangrita is offered to guests. Sipping a sangrita with alternating sips of tequila can accentuate the complex layers in both of those beverages.

What it really comes down to is that good tequila makes the world a better place to live. So the next time you sip some premium blue agave nectar, it should go down not as just another flavorful, fine distilled alcoholic beverage, but as the potent essence of a very special place and culture, a direct connection to unique Mexican art form with all of its spirit and complexity.

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While we learned that the best tequilas should really be sipped in a proper Reidel tequila tasting glass, some aficionados will naturally want to mix good tequila into a variety of mixed drinks.  These can vary from the well-known tequila sunrise, the paloma, and, of course, the margarita.  This recipe shared by Las Ventanas is a flavorful and spicy classic.

Jalapeño Margarita

Ingredients:

2 oz.                      Centenario Reposado tequila

1 oz.                      fresh lemon juice

1 oz.                      agave syrup

1 oz.                      Cointreau liqueur

1                            jalapeño chile

Preparation:

Cut the jalapeño in small pieces and blend it with the lemon juice. Fill a shaker with ice, the lemon-jalapeño mix and add the tequila, Cointreau and the syrup. Shake it until you feel your hand start to chill.

Rub the rim of your margarita glass with the lemon and place the rim of the glass on a plate holding salt. Pour the margarita into the glass with some ice and enjoy.

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Tequila Tastings in Los Cabos

While most of the places mentioned are open for regular tastings, it’s recommended that you contact them to make a reservation in advance and get information on costs.

Pancho’s: www.panchos.com

Grand Solmar: http://grandsolmarresort.com

Capella Pedregal: www.capellahotels.com/cabosanlucas

Museo del Tequila: www.goldenzonecabo.com

Esperanza: www.esperanzaresort.com

Las Ventanas al Paraiso: http://www.rosewoodhotels.com/en/lasventanas

The One and Only Palmilla:  http://palmilla.oneandonlyresorts.com

Don Sanchez/Habanero’s: www.donsanchezrestaurant.com                                                                                                    http://www.habanerosgastrogrill.com

Costa Baja: http://costabajaresort.com

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