Friday, July 24, 2015

Step one: stop pounding shots and start
tasting. "Tequila," says bartender Ted Gibson, "is
all things Mexico—the life, love, and passion. It comes from the agave
plant, which literally stores up the sun's energy. When you drink it, you
feel good inside. "  If you're like me, however, every shot of
Patrón calls to mind a dozen shudder-inducing flashbacks of tequila-drinking
nights gone awry. Remember those novelty t-shirts: "One tequila, two
tequila, three tequila…floor"? Not so far off the mark. But Gibson,
head bartender at Rancho Valencia, a lush resort outside San Diego's city
center, is part of a growing movement of bartenders who are recasting tequila
in a more propitious light. "Before, it was small-batch bourbon. Now,
it's single-barrel tequila," he says. "People are substituting it for
more traditional base spirits and making some very interesting cocktails.
It's an exciting time. " To demonstrate his point, Gibson offered to
give me a tequila crash course at the hotel's agave-centric bar, the Pony
Room, which has one of the largest tequila selections of any bar in America.
Here's what I learned: Origin Most tequila comes from Jalisco on
Mexico's western coast. "Highlands" tequila is grown in elevations above
6,000 feet, and yields a higher sugar content, with a fruitier, more rounded
flavor. "Lowlands" tequila, grown on the valley floor, produces an
earthier, spicier, more vegetal spirit. Process Only the heart of the
agave plant (the piña) is used—to harvest it, the leaves must be cut away
so the piña (which can weigh up to 300 pounds) can be uprooted. After being
baked in an oven and then smashed, the juices are then extracted for
distillation. Where to start? For tequila novices (like me), Gibson
recommends starting with a Blanco Old Fashioned (above), which he calls
"the most honest expression of agave flavors. " Also known as "silver"
tequila, blanco is minimally aged (as little as ten days, or up to two
months)—by contrast, reposado and añejo tequilas sit in the barrel for up
to one year and three years, respectively.   Fool's Gold Stay away
from "gold" tequila. Despite the top-shelf implications, these are
cheaply made tequilas, and their amber hue is actually the result of unnatural
sweeteners and colorants. (It's these added sugars that lead to the nasty
hangovers most people associate with tequila!) Sangrita No, not the
wine-based fruit punch. The Pony Room prides itself on its housemade
sangrita, a tangy crimson elixir that tastes a little like a fiery Sour Patch
Kid mixed with chile powder and fresh pomegranate juice. Served in a shot
glass on the side, it cleanses the palate after a peppery sip of tequila
blanco. Worm Salt
Another tequila condiment? Worm salt. It's tequila salt fortified with
dried, ground-up worms called gusanos. It's not all about tequila
Unlike tequila, mezcal is made from burying the agave underground and roasting
it for up to five days (hence the Scotch-like smokiness). To start me off,
Gibbons pours a snifter of Del Maguey Crema de Mezcal, a delicious, nectar-y
blend. Despite my drunken scribbles ("tastes like a melted slush puppy with
smoke"), I enjoy it tremendously and ask for a second. Garden fresh
Thanks to San Diego's year-round growing climate, fresh-picked ingredients
like edible flowers, rosemary, lavender, lemons, and Valencia oranges are
sourced right on the property and incorporated into cocktails.
Join the club Members of the
hotel's All Agave Club can track their progress through the bar's entire
collection. Each new tequila earns a stamped entry in a custom leather-bound
ledger. The first one to complete all 100 spirits in a year wins a free trip
to Mexico to continue the imbibing on native soil.  The bar also offers
bimonthly agave spirit tastings (served with light bites).
High Roller The bar's most exclusive
tequila is Clase Azul Extra Añejo; only 100 bottles of the three-year-aged
spirit are released each year. And at $276 per each two-ounce pour, it's
also the most expensive on the menu.   Taste the rainbow Upping the
ante, Gibbons serves me a tequila-ified take on a Moscow Mule: serrano
pepper–infused tequila, a splash of ginger beer, some lime to temper the
spice, and a few drops of Angostura bitters. I sip out of a copper cup,
savoring the bright flavors. A couple next to me, having witnessed the whole
experiment, leans over and order two of the same. The husband teases me,
"We want your job!"
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Trip Filled with Firsts Top tequila tips: find out everything you need
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